This article first appeared as a feature in the Telegraph in January 2018.
About eight weeks ago, BBC Northern Ireland broadcast a panel discussion about No Stone Unturned: Alex Gibney’s new documentary about the 1994 massacre of six innocent Catholic men in a pub in Loughinisland, and the alleged cover-ups by the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) that followed it. Near the end of the programme, a listener from East Belfast called the radio station in some distress. “We all know that the biggest killing machine in Northern Ireland was the IRA,” he said. “But [coverage] is always about what the army and the RUC did. It’s never, ever about what the IRA did.”
This seems like a strange claim to make: the IRA remains a byword for violence and terror in the popular consciousness, and Jeremy Corbyn’s apparent sympathy with the organisation continues to tarnish his reputation decades later. But the caller’s complaint points to a key legacy of the Troubles: despite the exhaustive number of angles from which the struggle has been covered, there will always be those who feel justice has not been done to their side.
If the RUC has been under more public scrutiny of late, however, there are reasons for it. At a time when the British government has become compromised by the DUP’s unprecedented influence, Gibney’s documentary – out on Amazon Video and other streaming platforms this week – raises timely questions about the nature of the historical relationship between the British government, the army, the RUC and paramilitary cells such as the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force), which claimed credit for the Loughinisland murders.
Having grown close to some of the inhabitants of the quiet County Down village in 2014 while filming Ceasefire Massacre, a short ESPN programme about the killing, Gibney returned to the scene of the crime to film a feature-length documentary. “As journalists and filmmakers,” he tells me, “I feel we did a pretty good job – certainly better than the police did – in terms of [uncovering] who likely committed the crime and why.” He could well be referring to two crimes here: the killing and the cover-up.
What made the massacre particularly unsettling was the killers’ timing. During those fateful seconds on June 18, 1994, much of Northern Ireland’s male population was clustered in pubs watching the Republic of Ireland play Italy in the World Cup, rooting for a team on which players from Northern Ireland and the Republic stood side-by-side. The match was not only a distraction from the sectarian violence so prominent in people’s minds – in the last previous days, at least three people had been killed by each side in the conflict – but also an increasingly jubilant 90 minutes. Ray Houghton’s superb goal from well outside the box, less than 11 minutes in, was decisive. The Irish team’s victory was a joyous surprise not only for their thousands of fans at New Jersey’s Giants Stadium, but for the masses of viewers at home.
Things turned out differently for the spectators at The Heights Bar. Two boiler-suit-and-balaclava-clad men entered shortly after 10pm, and began to empty their vz.58s – Czech assault rifles that look a lot like AK-47s – into the pub. Five people were injured; six were killed. Three of the dead were in their 30s; one, Barney Green, was 87. All eleven were civilians.
It was yet another episode in a decades-long back-and-forth of bullets, but it attracted far more press coverage than many other Troubles murders; condolences were sent by the Pope, the Queen and President Bill Clinton. The heated public reaction to the massacre was in stark contrast with the police’s handling of it, which was by turns glacial and erratic. Suspects were brought in and quickly released. Key evidence, including the getaway car, was disposed of within months. And one chief investigator left for an extended holiday in the immediate aftermath of the killings. In short, the investigation had all the ingredients for a gripping true-crime documentary.
No Stone Unturned is an example of the rigorous investigative journalism Gibney has become known for, through films such as Mea Maxima Culpa, an examination of sex abuse in the Catholic Church, and Going Clear, a controversial history of Scientology. Here he digs under stones left untouched even by Michael Maguire, the police ombudsman who in June 2016 published a 157-page report that admitted collusion between the RUC and the UVF was “a significant feature of the Loughinisland murders”.
One RUC officer in particular, named in the film but not in the ombudsman’s report, is implicated. Tracked down by journalist Barry McCaffrey, who co-produced the film, he appears to be currently living in Beaumont-de-Lomagne in southern France.
Though collusion and British complicity in unionist acts of terror are hardly news, the film appears to have been a hot potato for some – most notably the BBC. In what Gibney calls a “really objectionable” move, the BBC not only cancelled its plan to broadcast the documentary, but withdrew its funding before the film’s premiere at the New York Film Festival in September. “Frankly I was rather shocked,” says Gibney. “I regard this film as really hard-hitting, and I’m deeply disappointed that the BBC is refusing to show it.”
He went on to email me certain specific parts of the film to which the BBC had objected. Some were factual errors and potentially defamatory statements, which Gibney had duly amended; but other objections were more substantive. “The BBC wanted me to edit the remarks of interview subjects in ways I felt undermined the meaning and power of what they said,” Gibney remarks. “It had to do with me wanting to tell the full, unvarnished truth about what happened. The BBC did not share my view that that was appropriate.”
When approached by the Telegraph for comment, the organisation responded only: “Despite best efforts, the BBC is no longer involved in this project.”
Impressive though it is, Gibney’s documentary isn’t quite as explosive or controversial as it might seem. It identifies three likely culprits, even tracing the key suspect and covertly filming him as he performs his bitterly congruous current job as a pest exterminator, but it can’t quite muster the evidence to seal the deal.
The film also makes some provocative if unsurprising claims about specific instances of collusion following the massacre, leaving them hanging tantalisingly in the air. Former RUC officer Jimmy Binns recounts that the key Loughinisland suspect was interviewed by an RUC officer who agreed to let him go in exchange for killing an IRA assassin. I ask Gibney if he knows who this officer was.
“I do know,” he replies. “I’m not willing to say, because we weren’t able to [prove it] conclusively… there’s a reason he wasn’t named.” The interview with Binns was included “to convey a sense of the atmosphere at the time”. Some viewers might like more evidence than the testimony of one former officer to back up such a jolting claim – though such evidence is not easy to come by.
“Many people – far too many, in my view – declined to speak with us,” says Gibney. “It was dismaying that so many RUC personnel refused to cooperate with the Maguire report. All the retired people [for example]. There’s a lot of belly-aching and official legal posturing over how the Maguire report is critical of the RUC, but they don’t come forward to testify, so it’s very hard to feel sympathetic.”
In a culture increasingly preoccupied with the court of public opinion, the film will raise questions about the meting out of justice. “The film is intended as a kind of agent provocateur,” Gibney tells me. “In a court of law or with a proper police investigation, you could get to a place where you could bring a prosecution.”
And yet, though Gibney and McCaffrey’s evidence is pretty convincing, the appropriateness of not only naming the suspect but filming him and the outside of his house for a widely available documentary might rankle in the absence of standard judicial procedure. This kind of trial-by-documentary is a growing trend, with films and series such as Who Took Johnny? and Netflix’s The Keepers delving into historic crimes and implicating people who had never been convicted in court.
But it is this very absence of standard judicial and police procedure that has kept closure from the Loughinisland victims’ families for decades. The authorities “never even lifted a stone, never mind turned one”, asserts the daughter of one of the victims, referring to the police’s promise that there would be “no stone unturned” in the hunt for the killers. In November, the idea of a statute of limitations on crimes committed by British security forces was floated by the government in a public consultation document. While DUP leader Arlene Foster has said that the amnesty is supported most vocally by Conservative backbenchers, it was the DUP that argued for clemency for both British forces and RUC officers in its 2017 manifesto.
Such a law is unlikely to be passed – not least because it would infract the 2014 Stormont House Agreement, a ratified series of mechanisms for addressing the lingering legacy of the Troubles. Nonetheless, the fact that it is being discussed suggests that not only is the past still with us, it is quietly prodding us in the back. And it isn’t only a British issue.
“How do we reckon with the past?” asks Gibney rhetorically, when asked about the film’s core themes. “How might secrets pervert the course of justice and prevent us from holding people to account? These are issues that we reckon with in the US all the time.” Indeed, as news has emerged in recent years of the millions of US taxpayer dollars spent paying informants, the question of government accountability and ethical compromises remains no less relevant today than it was in pre-1998 Northern Ireland.
Gibney goes on: “I was tackling a particular murder case as a murder case, rather than re-litigating the Troubles. But in so doing, I felt I was looking at larger themes of how to hold our governments and intelligence agencies to account… Sometimes they must operate in secret, but the extent to which that allows them to remain unaccountable just seems dead wrong.”
There may be no right answers here – but it feels like Alex Gibney is asking the right questions.