I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland’s report on the murders at Heights Bar, Loughinisland.
I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and I am pleased that the Minister and the shadow spokesperson on Northern Ireland are also here.
On 18 June 1994, an Ulster Volunteer Force murder gang burst into the Heights Bar in Loughinisland in South Down and, in a nakedly sectarian act, shot dead six Catholic men and seriously wounded five others as they watched a World cup football match. Those six men were Adrian Rogan, Malcolm Jenkinson, Barney Green, Daniel McCreanor, Patrick O’Hare and Eamon Byrne. Nobody has ever been held to account, charged or convicted for those murders and that single incident revolted the entire community I represent and in which I reside, some three miles from that pub in Loughinisland. The community was outraged at such a heinous crime.
Two of those killed were well-known family friends to me. Barney Green was aged 87, and one of his late brothers was married to my paternal aunt. His nephew, Dan McCreanor, was a cousin of my cousins. I pay tribute to the families, victims, survivors and their legal team.
In view of the fact that nobody has been held accountable, the families of the deceased and injured went to the Police Ombudsman with significant concerns. In summary, those were: that the police failed to conduct an effective investigation of the murders, including failing to keep bereaved families updated on the progress of the inquiry; that the police failed to discharge the state’s duties as required by article 2 of the European convention on human rights; and that there was collusion between the then Royal Ulster Constabulary and those responsible for the murders.
On 9 June this year, the Police Ombudsman published the report. At that time, I said that, more than 20 years on and five years since the release of the totally discredited original Police Ombudsman’s report, the damning disclosure in this report that security force collusion played a major role in the murder of those six innocent men has finally been made. Disgracefully, the protection of informants took precedence over the preservation of innocent lives and the devastation visited upon their families and the wider community.
On closer examination of the report, Dr Maguire clearly demonstrates that collusion was a significant feature in the deaths of the six men. I will illustrate that by directly quoting Dr Maguire’s report, in which he writes:
“It is my view that the nature of the relationship between the police and informants undermined the investigative process in a number of ways…This was a ‘hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil’ approach to the use of informants, which potentially frustrated the police investigation into the attack and restricted investigation opportunities and lines of inquiry.”
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for allowing me to intervene. This is an important debate about a controversial issue. I should put on the record that my late husband, who died eight years ago with Alzheimer’s, was, at one time, the Chief Constable of the RUC and was enormously proud of his role in an organisation that had been attacked and lost 302 members during the troubles.
The report is very controversial. Will the hon. Lady confirm for the record that the Police Ombudsman concluded that the UVF unit was responsible for the murder of the six innocent Catholic men? I extend my deepest sympathy to the families of those six innocent Catholics who were watching a football match. However, the ombudsman concluded that it was the UVF and that the RUC had no prior knowledge or warning that could have prevented that attack on the Heights Bar in Loughinisland. Will she kindly confirm that for the record?
Indeed, the report says:
“Let there be no doubt, the persons responsible for the atrocity at Loughinisland were those who entered the bar on that Saturday evening and indiscriminately opened fire.”
However, the Police Ombudsman goes on to mention the lack of rigour in the investigation and the fact that vital evidence was destroyed: namely, the car that had been accommodated at Saintfield police station, which is no longer there. I accept what the hon. Lady said and will ensure that the families—people I know very well indeed—are well aware of her deepest sympathies to them.
We are discussing the most heinous crime possible. There were many in Northern Ireland. We send our sympathies to the families. I note the ombudsman’s quotation, which the hon. Lady read out, but will she confirm that there was no collusion over the act of violence that happened in the Heights Bar? The accusation of collusion is awaiting evidence. We believe that, if there is evidence, it should go to court and, quite rightly, be looked after, but we do not want to blacken the whole RUC and Police Service of Northern Ireland.
It is worth noting what Dr Maguire says in his report. He uses the Smithwick report’s definition of collusion, which includes “commission” and “omission”. I firmly believe that if there had been an accelerated inquiry process following the deaths of the six men, we would have been in a better position than we were at that stage.
For some unknown reason, the police did not put in significant rigour, given the fact that there was a UVF unit operating in South Down and given that there were preceding events, including the murder of Jack Kielty in January 1988, the murder of Peter McCormack in the Thierafurth Inn on 19 November 1992, the attempted murder of his cousin, Peter McCarthy, some weeks before that in that bar, and the attempted murder of John Henry Smyth, who was originally from Downpatrick but was resident in Castlewellan and who, sadly, has since died from natural causes. The report is particularly instructive and provides the wider context about the importation of arms way back in 1987. According to forensic evidence, one of those arms was used in the murder of my six friends in Loughinisland.
Dr Maguire’s report also states that
“Special Branch continued to engage in a relationship with sources they identified in intelligence reporting as likely to have been involved at some level in the Loughinisland atrocity.”
The report is particularly instructive, and it develops that concern at paragraph 5.67, wherein the Police Ombudsman describes that special branch
“established an intelligence asset that revealed that Persons A, M & K were leading UVF members in the area, with connections to the security forces. In addition, the intelligence identified a relationship between Persons A, M, K and Person I, who was a senior member of the UVF with links to East Belfast, but who reported directly to the UVF leadership on the Shankill Road, West Belfast.”
Paragraph 5.80 further states:
“My investigation has established that at least three individuals and their families, directly associated with the UVF unit active in South Down, were members of the UDR.”
That does not make very pleasant reading for me or my constituents but facts are facts, and these facts were established by an investigation that produced a report after much interrogation. The report goes on to inform us that in the year before the Loughinisland atrocity, persons A, M, K and I “were responsible for” the deaths I have already mentioned, including the murder of Martin Lavery in Belfast on 20 December 1992.
The indiscriminate brutal savagery of these murders stood out because of the nature of our community in Loughinisland. I live some three miles away, and I am talking about myself, my family, my neighbours and my constituents when I say that we are harmonious, integrated and peace loving—we always have been and still are. After the inquest on 28 January 1995, my party colleague and former councillor, Patsy Toman, who resided in Loughinisland and who arrived within 10 minutes of the shooting, received an anonymous letter on 14 February 1995. He gave the letter to the police after talking to me, and some of its details were quite explicit in relation to the names of those who may have been involved. Dr Maguire’s report tells us at paragraph 7.203 that the letter has been lost by the police and, notwithstanding its contents, no persons, certainly none of those named in it, have been charged before the criminal courts.
The Police Ombudsman further states:
“I am satisfied that on the basis of a sound intelligence case, Special Branch identified Persons A, M, K, I & B to the Loughinisland Murder Investigation Team as suspects on Sunday 19 June 1994.”
That was the day after the murders, yet Dr Maguire’s report tells us:
“On 24 August 1994 police received information that members of the gang, which police suspected had been responsible for the murders at Loughinisland, were informed on 21 August 1994 that they were liable to be arrested the next morning. Intelligence the following month stated that the source of this warning was a policeman. I have found no evidence that efforts were made by police to investigate this information.”
In view of the very serious issues raised by the report, I wrote to the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron), on 10 June, and in a subsequent written response he stated:
“The Government accepts the Police Ombudsman’s report and the Chief Constable’s response and we take any allegations of police misconduct very seriously. Where there is evidence of wrongdoing it must be pursued—everyone is subject to the rule of law.”
On that basis, the then Prime Minister, the British Government and the current Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland accept the report’s finding that collusion was a significant factor. It follows that those who were to be arrested in August 1994—probably the same individuals mentioned in the anonymous letter to my colleague, the then Councillor Toman, and specifically referred to by the designated letters in the Police Ombudsman’s investigation—should be brought in by the PSNI for questioning and reinvestigation. I am aware of those names, the authorities have the names and now, with the Police Ombudsman’s report, the PSNI has grounds under reasonable cause to bring these individuals in for questioning.
Last week I had a meeting with the Chief Constable, and I raised this directly with him. I will continue to pursue the matter on behalf of the families, the victims and the survivors because I believe that there must be truth and justice. If the past and the investigation mean anything, we need truth. In the same vein, the Police Ombudsman has a responsibility to follow through on his work that identified problems within the then police force and those officers responsible. If we are to have justice, truth and any form of accountability, resources must be made available to the PSNI and the Ombudsman’s office to act now on what is a relatively recent crime. Hopefully we will then have a better chance of prosecutions.
I express my deep appreciation to the hon. Lady for her tireless efforts on behalf of her constituents and their families. The manner and tone in which she speaks display the real commitment and compassion that she always shows to her constituents. Will she confirm that, despite the very controversial findings of the Police Ombudsman’s investigation into Loughinisland, the Police Ombudsman did not send any prosecution reports, or suggestions for prosecution, to the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland? Was that a surprise in the light of the fact that he concluded that there was collusion?
A section in the report states that the current Chief Constable has sent the specific names of junior and senior members of the then RUC about whom there are certain doubts—I put it like that—to the Police Ombudsman for investigation. As I understand it, they are currently being investigated. I want to put that on the record.
My hon. Friend has compellingly set out how the report shows that there was serial dereliction on the part of a police service that was meant to be the guardian of people and the peace and the upholder of law and justice, but there was not only serial dereliction. In the many years since Loughinisland, when all these concerns have been voiced and raised, there has also been serial denial by too many politicians, including Ministers. Does she hope that the Minister today will strike a different tone from the previous Secretary of State in relation to these important matters?
I thank my hon. Friend for his helpful intervention. I agree that we want to move forward with this investigation, but we cannot begin to move forward to build a shared and inclusive society if issues from the past are not comprehensively addressed. How the Government respond to the report on the Loughinisland massacre is critical for legacy issues. The past has wider implications for public confidence and justice in Northern Ireland. The comments by the previous Secretary of State, to which he referred, insulted the people of Loughinisland, the families and the victims. I regret having to say that, but that is the position.
I look forward to a more helpful response today, but there must now be accelerated work on prosecutions, a British Government apology to the victims and survivors and their families, and provision of compensation for the victims, for those lost lives. That must be part of the urgent answer and solution to this tragedy in Loughinisland on Saturday 18 June 1994.
Thank you for your chairmanship and guidance, Sir Roger. I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) for bringing this important debate to the House.
What happened in Loughinisland in June 1994 was an act of unspeakable evil for which there is no possible justification. I am sure the whole House would want to pass our heartfelt condolences and sympathies to those affected by this appalling atrocity. I express my personal sympathies to the hon. Lady because of her personal link to this.
I agree wholeheartedly with the Minister’s comments, especially about the way in which the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) introduced the debate. However, does he accept that it would be reasonable for the House to see the definition of the word “collusion” being used by the Police Ombudsman in the report? That would give clarity on what it means, because the word “collusion” can be heavily baggaged.
It is not for me to define “collusion” for the Ombudsman. There are many definitions, and we may choose a different one, but we accept fully the findings of the report—I shall comment further on that in a moment.
The Government accept the Police Ombudsman’s report and the Chief Constable’s response. We take any allegations of police misconduct very seriously; where there is evidence of wrongdoing, it must be pursued. Everyone is subject to the rule of law.
This is now a matter for the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The Chief Constable apologised to the families after the Ombudsman’s first report on this atrocity in 2011 and he apologised again on 9 June this year when the second report was released. He has given his reassurance both to the families and to the public that he fully co-operated with the Police Ombudsman’s investigation and that he will co-operate fully with any disciplinary or criminal proceedings against former police officers. It is very clear from the Chief Constable’s response that the Police Service of Northern Ireland remains firmly committed to apprehending those responsible for these murders and has appealed to the community for information. On behalf of the Government, I reiterate that commitment and that appeal.
We have judged our security forces against the highest standards of integrity and professionalism in the past, and we always will. As a Government, we have been more forthcoming than any of our predecessors in accepting where the state has failed to live up to the highest standards and in apologising when it is the right thing to do. Where it is warranted, we will continue to do so.
There have been calls for the UK Government to apologise for what happened on the fateful day of 18 June 1994. Of course the Government deeply regret that the terrorists who committed these vicious attacks have never been brought to justice, and we are sorry for any failings by the police in relation to this case. However, the Ombudsman’s report makes it very clear that those responsible for this despicable attack were the Ulster Volunteer Force terrorist gang who planned it and carried it out, leaving utter devastation in the aftermath and for many years thereafter. The report also categorically states that the police had no prior knowledge of the attack that would have enabled them to prevent it.
The Government will never seek to defend the security forces by defending the indefensible.
Will the Minister comment on the fact that the Police Ombudsman’s report refers to a lack of resources invested in investigating the UVF unit operating in that area of South Down, which had resulted in prior murders of people who lived in the locality? There is a feeling that if more rigour had been applied to that investigation before Loughinisland, maybe Loughinisland would not have happened.
As I have already said, the Government accept the findings of the report and so does the Chief Constable. What is important now is that we show compassion to the families and those who have lost, and that we pursue the individuals who carried out this atrocity. I am confident that the Chief Constable will continue to do that.
The majority of those who served in the security forces during the troubles did so with great bravery and exemplary professionalism. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude for what they did to uphold the rule of law and ensure that the future of Northern Ireland could only ever be determined by democracy and consent.
The report highlights the need to establish the legacy bodies set out in the Stormont House agreement. We all know that legacy issues in Northern Ireland have a continuing capacity to disrupt the political process and the economic stability of the people of Northern Ireland, and the current structures for dealing with these cases are not working as they should. We know for a fact, through many discussions with victims’ groups, that the current structures do not work for victims and survivors of horrendous atrocities such as that in Loughinisland 22 years ago.
The Government remain committed to establishing the legacy bodies set out in the Stormont House agreement: the historical investigations unit, the independent commission on information retrieval, the implementation and reconciliation group and the oral history archive. It is our view that they offer the best way forward for us to achieve better outcomes for victims, survivors and the people who suffered as a result of the troubles. We share the widespread disappointment that the “Fresh Start” talks last year were unable to deliver the new structures, but today I reaffirm the Government’s determination and commitment to do all we can to remedy that.
The Minister knows that one of the crux difficulties in dealing with legacy issues in the context of Stormont House was the insistence of the then Secretary of State on national security matters, which of course involve putting a primary emphasis on the protection of informants and others. Surely the Ombudsman’s report shows that it was a fatal flaw in the culture of policing and security control for so many years that primacy was given to protecting those people rather than protecting the innocent and prosecuting the guilty.
I reiterate what I said before: we accept the full findings of the report.
We will continue to work with victims’ groups, with the Northern Ireland parties and with the Irish Government to seek a way forward. The hon. Member for Foyle (Marl Durkan ) talked about tone; I reassure him that wherever I can work with Members of Parliament for Northern Ireland to try to bridge some of the issues that they face as constituency MPs—and that many other MPs throughout the UK do not—my door is always open. I hope we can have a really positive relationship in the months and years to come.
Before I put the Question, I place on record, as a courtesy, the fact that the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), is present. The arcane rules relating to half-hour debates have precluded him from speaking, but it is important that it is recognised that he has been here and heard the remarks.
Question put and agreed to.