Making a massacre: Director stunned by findings in Loughinisland killings documentary

American director Alex Gibney was stunned by what he found for his documentary on the Loughinisland killings. It will be shown at Cork Film Festival, writes Richard Fitzpatrick.

Making a massacre: Director stunned by findings in Loughinisland killings documentary

ON THE night of June 18, 1994, the vast majority of people on this island were glued to their TVs, watching the Republic of Ireland playing Italy in the World Cup game at USA 94.

A few minutes into the second half of the match, with Ray Houghton already having scored Ireland’s winning goal, gunmen walked into a pub in Loughinisland, a rural village in Co Down, 24 miles south of Belfast.

Ray Houghton celebrates his goal.
Ray Houghton celebrates his goal.

There were only 15 people drinking in the Heights Bar that night. They had their backs turned to the UVF terrorists who opened fire on them, killing six men, all Catholics.

“You couldn’t have handpicked any more innocent,” according to Aidan O’Toole, the barman on duty that evening who survived a gunshot wound to his kidneys. As the gunmen jumped into their getaway car, they could be heard laughing by the survivors.

“It was what a number of the witnesses remarked upon,” says Alex Gibney, director of No Stone Unturned, a documentary about the massacre that’s showing in Cork Film Festival. “It haunted them for years and years — that the killers laughed as they left the bar, as if it was some kind of cosmic joke. It’s just terrifying.”

Heights Bar
Heights Bar

The UK’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Patrick Mayhew, made a theatrical address to the perpetrators on television, his voice quivering, near the Heights Bar: “You are going to be caught, sooner or later. The RUC never give up. And you will be caught and you will spend long years in prison.”

The investigation into the murders should have been an open-shut case. The murderers left “a forensic goldmine”, according to former RUC police officer Jimmy Binns, which included the getaway car, fingerprints, the VZ58 assault rifle used to commit the murders, a holdall with gloves, handguns as well as a hair follicle found in a balaclava.

The appetite to get convictions, however, was lacking. At the wake of one of the deceased men, 34-year-old father of two Adrian Rogan, a police officer promised his wife, Clare: “We will leave no stone unturned until we get the perpetrators of this.”

The empty promise has never left her. “Those words ring in my ear to this day because I don’t think they lifted a stone,” she says.

The day after the massacre, the senior investigating officer on the case went on holidays for more than a month. Some time later, the getaway car was destroyed. Police transcripts of interviews taken with leading suspects were also shredded, apparently because of an asbestos leak in a police barracks.

During the documentary, Binns makes clear the investigation was “orchestrated” by people above his head. There is an extraordinary scene where he describes the two-hour interrogation of the chief suspect. The questioning about the Loughinisland massacre lasted for about 10 minutes, the rest was filler, part of a charade: “We have to be here for two hours. Let’s have a chat.”

Gibney was taken aback by the extent of the alleged cover-up. “When you understand the enormity of the evidence leading to the key suspects in this case, you had to work very hard to cover it up,” he says. “Then to discover the presence of an informant — at least one informant was part of this small gang of four that committed this crime.

“We’re familiar with this informant problem here in America, particularly through the case of Whitey Bulger, which of course Martin Scorsese made into the film The Departed. In the simplest terms, the job of the state is to protect its citizens, but in the service of trying to find out information about terrorist gangs suddenly the informants begin to assert a kind of control over their handlers.”

Inevitably, the state becomes morally compromised. “That’s where things begin to get corrupt. If something terrible happens and an informant commits an atrocity then the state is in a peculiar bind. How much did they know before the atrocity? Is there an impulse to cover up what happened to mask the role of the state [in the crime]?

“As one former Special Branch officer says in the film: ‘If there was an informant in that car, then the state is riding in that car that pulled up to the door of the pub in Loughinisland.’ That’s the disquieting thing about this. It’s not a simple murder case. The government is implicated in the crime.”

The testimony of the barman Aidan O’Toole in No Stone Unturned is heartwrenching. He still pulls pints in the bar, but the massacre changed him forever. The joy went out of his life. He gave up simple pleasures like darts and playing football. You can hear the survivor’s guilt in his voice. “I’m one of the lucky ones, if you can call it lucky,” he says mournfully.

Gibney’s film concludes with a gripping revelation in which he names publically for the first time the four alleged attackers, including the man who allegedly murdered the victims. The film shows footage of him with his wife — who is also a key figure in the drama — taken by a private investigator. Their house is four miles from Loughinisland.

“Why we named names is partly a public safety issue,” says Gibney. “There were grave legal concerns hovering over the film as to whether or not people should be named, but I reflected on my own experience and if I had been living in Florida in the 1970s I would want to have known if Ted Bundy had moved into my neighbourhood.

“It’s important in this instance to name names because [the bereaved families] were haunted by the idea they could be walking around in the supermarket and they might pass a key suspect and not know who that person was. That contributed in a sense to a great deal of fear and dread that they were living cheek by jowl to the people who killed their loved ones.”

Alex Gibney: Reel life

Alex Gibney, whose ancestors hail from counties Sligo and Westmeath, has been hailed by Esquire magazine as “the most important documentarian of our time”.

His body of work includes explorations into the lives of Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Lance Armstrong, and Steve Jobs; a landmark film on the Enron debacle; and the most watched documentary on HBO from the last decade — Going Clear: Scientology & The Prison of Belief.

He singles out his Oscar-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, about the Bush administration’s torture and interrogation policy.

“The one that has a particular emotional tie is Taxi to the Dark Side because my father is in it. He died during the making of that film. He was a naval interrogator in World War II. He had a particular burning fire in his gut for me to tell that story. I see these films as stories where you try to get bits and pieces of the truth. You never succeed in finding the whole truth and that’s why you keep making films.”

  • ‘No Stone Unturned’ will be screened as part of the Cork Film Festival, tomorrow at the Everyman at 3.15pm. See: 

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