No Stone Unturned – a film that finally lifts the Loughinisland stones the RUC wouldn’t touch

Alex Gibney has made a very compelling documentary film No Stone Unturned that explores the circumstances around the Loughinisland massacre. Loyalist gunmen burst into a pub not far from the main Newcastle to Belfast road during the Republic of Ireland vs Italy World Cup match on 18 June 1994 and indiscriminately shot six men dead and wounded another five. The UVF claimed responsibility for the attack. No one has ever been charged with the six murders.

Through reconstruction, family testimony, interviews with detectives, the current Police Ombudsman, and the input of journalist Barry McCaffrey who has investigated the case over many years, the jigsaw pieces are examined and laid out on the table.

Yet the surprise is that when the pieces are fitted together, they create a much larger, more complex and more detailed picture than the front of the box expected, going well beyond even the Police Ombudsman’s second report into the original police investigation.

Family members recall the immediate aftermath, one quoting a police officer who attended her husband’s wake and said that “we will leave no stone unturned until we get the perpetrators”. They remember the manner in which the police investigation seemed to run out of steam and their own reluctance to make a fuss in the midst of a burgeoning peace process: the IRA ceasefire was called six weeks after the shooting, shortly followed by the loyalist ceasefire.

While the original (and subsequently quashed) ‘Al Hutchinson’ Police Ombudsman’s report recognised failings in the police investigation, it found no evidence of collusion between the RUC and the UVF. In reaching that conclusion it helpfully ignored investigating the lead up to the attack and the role of informers.

The current Police Ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire cooperated with the documentary, giving an interview and allowing his pre-publication briefing to the families to be filmed. An investigator from the Ombudsman also speaks to camera, along with an RUC detective who helps shine a light on some of the unusual quirks he encountered in the original investigation.

Do not mistake No Stone Unturned for a simple police procedural documentary. Instead it is a para-police or extra-police procedural that gathers together a wide range of sources, linking and corroborating the evidence to present a more fulsome picture than the state authorities and the independent ombudsman has been able to publish.

Made for an international audience, this is a cinematic version of one of those popular podcast series that gets under the skin of a murder. A comprehensive soundtrack by Ivor Guest and Robert Logan accompanies the imagery and sets the tone of each scene. It’s an unrushed production that gently examines each piece of the jigsaw before fitting it to the growing picture.

Lengthy sections of the film give audiences abroad – as well as younger ones locally and anyone in Great Britain or Ireland who ignored the conflict in Northern Ireland – a potted history of The Troubles, a quick lesson in the complexity of police/army informers (using IRA double agent Freddie Scappaticci as an example) and the background to loyalist gunrunning that brought the VZ58 assault rifles that were used in the Loughinisland attack into Northern Ireland. It’s during some of these scenes that the handbrake is pulled on a little and the film begins to slow down and drag. However, it passes. This isn’t a flash bang wallop slight of hand Lieutenant Columbo story. There are a lot of dots. But by jove, Alex Gibney knows how to connect them.

Normally in a film review I’d stop short of giving spoilers … but this one is about a real life situation.

The police’s haphazard (or deliberately negligent?) handling and destruction of evidence is appalling. So too is withholding of intelligence about the suspects, and the two month delay in interviewing one of them (who lived close to where the getaway car broke down and was abandoned without being destroyed).

Then there’s the Senior Investigating Officer who took charge of the Loughinisland crime scene and swiftly went off on a month’s holiday after the attack, and upon retirement did not cooperate with the Police Ombudsman’s investigation. While the team’s confrontation with him is not caught on camera, the explanation of how seriously put out by the amassed evidence deserves the one laugh of the film.

Piecing together a note anonymously sent to a local councillor with the Ombudsman’s report and checking against a leaked copy of an unredacted internal report from some years before allowed Barry McCaffrey (The Detail) and the filmmakers to identify the gunman, his accomplice who held the pub door open, and the getaway driver.

The suspects are named. [Given how this would prejudice any trial – not that you’d be holding your breath waiting for one after realising the level of obfuscation – it does leave me with a lot of unanswered questions about how it has been legally possible to do this and what other factors had already ruled out a successful trial. Update – The film’s producer chastises reassures me that there are many examples of suspects being named and going on to be charged and convicted.]

But those aren’t the only breath-taking moments in the film. This documentary has more false endings than a Bond film.

The suspected gunman and his wife (she penned an unsigned letter to a local politician naming the killers and also phoned the anonymous hotline, her voice recognised because she worked in the local police station canteen) still live and work close to Loughinisland. The film shows contemporary video footage of the reported gunman working in his cleaning and pest control business. He was arrested but not charged, and his house has never been searched. The relatives’ solicitor Niall Murphy asks why his wife has not been charged with conspiracy to murder given her admission of involvement in the letter.

The final reveal is shocking but not surprising: one of the gang of three who attacked the rural pub was an informer.

It’s also no surprise that the most senior London politician or official who would talk to Alex Gibney was Lord (Tom) King, former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. (The longest serving SoS, Sir Patrick Mayhew, who was in post and attended some of the Loughinisland funerals died in June last year.)

Troubles documentaries and films tend to be as worthy as they are interesting. This one is an exception, an exemplar on how to tell an investigative story in a manner which gives dignity to the victims and their families, avoids politicisation and politicians*, and exposes the messy ‘dirty war’ that was thoroughly intertwined with the paramilitary action.

From a purely cinematic point of view, it’s a beautifully filmed and well edited film. Money has been spent and attention paid to details such as how flat typed information and reports are displayed on screen and enhanced with subtle sound effects.

If you go and see one documentary this year, I’d suggest No Stone Unturned is a very fine one to choose. The sense that this is merely 110 minutes of homicide-porn that only benefits the producers is vastly reduced by the revelations that go further than the Ombudsman’s report.

A screening later this week in Loughinisland will precede the film’s general release from Friday 10 November in the Queen’s Film Theatre as well as selected cinemas in the Movie House and Omniplex chains.

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* Emma Rogan, daughter of Adrian Rogan who was murdered in the attack, is one of those interviewed in the film and was recently co-opted into the NI Assembly to replace Sinn Féin’s Chris Hazzard in the South Down constituency upon his election as an MP in the June 2017 general election.

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.

  • Food First

    Full disclosure of all cases regarding the victims of the troubles on both sides is nessessary to enshrine peace & heal wounds alround

  • Gerard Green

    I remember the rumours all through my childhood of collusion, guns obtained from Ballykinlar army base and RUC facilitating this massacre. Along with the brutal torture and murder of James Morgan a few years later nearby, this local area took a lot in the 90s from loyalist terrorists. It sickens me driving through Clough (a nearby village) to see UVF flags flying for many months of the year with the knowledge that these murderers were, and still are, known to the police and nothing has been done. Nothing probably will be done. My great uncle was an 87 year old farmer having a wee pint when these animals burst in. My 5 year old self took in this knowledge and it has always coloured my opinion of our ‘conflict’. This was a very needless, barbaric and dirty business which has many fresh scars with very little justice being served for victims. My heart still goes out to those close family members who lost their loved ones in this and other senseless acts.

  • Ciarán

    Local people and the RUC/PSNI have known exactly who carried out the massacre for nearly 25 years. Vividly remember being personally disgusted when the Chief Constable appeared on the evening news only a few years back to ‘appeal’ for anyone with information to bring it forward, so I can only imagine how the families felt.

    Also sickening to note that one of the three was feted by the BBC in November 2008 for a Remembrance Week broadcast: ‘Gorman takes us to July 2003 and a journey through Belgium and France. Travelling through the countryside and towns, the very purpose of his visit became all too real for Gorman’.

    The truth will out.

  • Imagine that there is a 50% probablity of losing an item of evidence – a ridiculously high number. Calculate the probability that the peelers would lose the number of items they did for this case.

  • Selling the getaway car for scrap for an open case seems unusual

  • Ciarán

    A few years back I spoke with a former RUC constable (deceased) then based out of Downpatrick barracks who attended the scene in the immediate aftermath (and was friendly with at least one victim): he told me that Special Branch obstructed the subsequent investigation.

  • Riocard Ó Tiarnaigh

    Whatever about the incident itself, which was dreadful, I was and continue to this day to be appalled at the reaction of the Republic of Ireland soccer team. The FAI totally ignored the murder of the Irish team’s own fans and instead made a big hooha about collecting money for the family of the Columbian player, who, after putting in a poor performance in one of that country’s group matches, was, on returning home, apparently murdered by the drug cartels/betting mafia. It was only recently, on the occasion of the 20 anniversary, that the FAI thought to honour the dead of Loughlinisland. Too little, too late, IMO.

  • the rich get richer

    Very Dirty War . Lots of questions to be asked .

    Who knows what ? Can we get them to tell us ?

  • Jimmyz

    I know, the RUC should have built 20 X 400,000 sq ft warehouses to hold all the evidence of killings during the troubles.

  • Jimmyz

    “Local people and the RUC/PSNI”

    Who was it ?

  • 05OCT68

    How many sq ft the should have the RUC allocated for themselves?

  • Jimmyz

    About the same as The GAA I would say.

    More members of the GAA were members of terrorist organisations I would say, in pure factual terms.

    They are even openly celebrated.

    How far down the rabbit hole do you want to go ?

  • 05OCT68

    When did the GAA get parliamentary authority to uphold HM law & to protect life & property?

  • Jimmyz

    What has that got too do with storing evidence of murders carried out by GAA members for example ?, for that is what we are talking about here.

    It would have been a physical impossibility to store all evidence of over 30 years of bombings and shootings.

    But nice attempt at deflection.

  • 05OCT68

    Naw Jimmy you’er deflecting. Organisation of a state must be held to a higher standard of accountability than individual members of the public.

  • Jimmyz

    The Garda lost/destroyed evidence and documents relating to the Dublin/Monaghan operations.

    Does that mean collusion ?

    Where would you store all physical evidence of 30+ years of terrorism ?

  • 05OCT68

    GAA or Garda you’er all over the place with your false equivalence.

  • Aodh Morrison

    “Can we get them to tell us?”

    No. Too many vested interests, and a “Peace Process” to protect.

    Even if information is released it will be so heavily redacted because of Human Rights protections that the ‘truth’ will not become much clearer. We will still be ‘connecting the dots’ to produce the various pictures we have each already formed in our own mind.

    Personally I’d prefer the situation that followed the fall of East Germany, a Stasi style open doors approach when the doors were unlocked and the archives available for anyone to read. Wishful thinking I know, yet hope springs eternal.

  • The Saint

    While i appreciate the sentiment. Im not sure that’s fair on the FAI either. Remember where things were at the time in relation to NI the average Joe’s in the State were very weary of the constant stream of horrific news from NI.
    The perception in the State was still very much that NI was an Orange state and nationalists needed to kep their head down or worse needed to stay quiet and accept the hand they were dealt. “Conor Cruise O Brien” type thinking was prevalent.

    Yes the FAI should have certainly recognised the massacre at the time however Irishness as a whole was only beginning its journey to the confidence in our nation we see today. Being an FAI fan in none iron myself, I see the error but also see a definite drive to repair this particular one.

    For unionists that jump on that statement of national confidence I’m clearly referencing our confidence as a proud, peaceful, industrious, innovative nation that is a world leader in many fields. Unionists love to attempt to equate that pride with sinister right wing movements.

  • The Saint

    “I would say, in pure factual terms”

    Would you say or is it factual?

    A sporting organisation is not a police force.

    I don’t see the point in that parallel you draw.

    I’d say I might win the lotto, in factual terms.

  • Steven Denny

    Jimmyz, what has the GAA got to do with the Loughinisland murders?

    You will need to help me out here… in very explicit terms please.