The penultimate episode of Spotlight on The Troubles: A Secret History asks why some UVF members of a Mid-Ulster gang escaped prosecution, and whether there was a deliberate loyalist strategy to kill family members of committed republicans during the late 1980s and early 1990s, during what is described as “the final burst of violence” before the ceasefires?
The programme being broadcast tonight suggests that this was the case for the Mid-Ulster LVF/UVF under the command of ‘King Rat’ Billy Wright and his predecessor Robin Jackson.
On 23 October 1993, the IRA had tried to kill Johnny Adair with a bomb planted in the Frizzell’s fish shop under the UDA headquarters, killing nine shoppers and the IRA bomber. The wave of revenge attacks carried out by the UDA and UVF included the indiscriminate attack on the Rising Sun bar in Greysteel on 30 October. It was the deadliest month of The Troubles since the 1970s, with 24 people dying in a single week.
Reporter Mandy McAuley speaks to the Cairns family. Brothers Gerard (22) and Rory (18) were shot inside their family home on 28 October 1993. At the time, the murders were reported as a random attack, “just targeting anyone perceived as Catholic and by doing so terrorising a whole community”. No one was ever arrested in connection with the killings.
However, Spotlight’s examination of loyalist murders between 1987 and 1994 points to a cluster of people – more than half – apparently targeted because they were related to republicans. The Cairns brothers’ cousin Sheena Campbell was “a leading light in Sinn Féin”, murdered a year before.
McAuley speaks to Laurence Maguire, who in 1994 was convicted of directing terrorism: 41 offences including 5 murders. When the Mid-Ulster UVF gunman is asked whether he regrets murdering people, he replies ambiguously:
“Regret? It’s a hard word to decipher, regret. I thought at the time I was doing right. Whether I still think that, that’s debatable.”
Maguire says that Billy Wright provided him with the targets. The accusation is made that Wright was being fed information on who to target and how to find them from police officers, aware of changes of vehicles and overnight addresses. Wright himself claimed that he was targeting those whom the state could not.
McAuley explains: “We’ve been told by two senior security sources that Billy Wright was an agent. Both sources say he was working for police and military.” The precise nature of his work for the security services is unknown. But McAuley says “There was a shocking failure by the authorities to stop him and his murderous gang’s campaigns and to bring him to justice.”
There’s a pattern of missing evidence related to Wright’s gangs: police files were destroyed due to apparent asbestos contamination rather than these “vital exhibits” being cleaned. The police stated that there were no admissions in the files.
Three key Mid-Ulster UVF gunmen are named in the Spotlight programme: Mark Fulton (deceased), Laurence Maguire (interviewed) and a third man who has never been charged with any terrorist offence, but Maguire reckons was responsible for 10-15 murders.
Appearing to have turned his life around and now working as an outreach worker with a Portadown Elim church, Alan Oliver admits in church testimony to being previously “heavily involved in organised crime and political violence”. A known association of Billy Wright, linked in court to the 1991 triple murder at the Mobile Shop in Craigavon (owned by a former Sinn Féin member), and chief suspect in the murder of members of the McKearney family, he is confronted by McAuley but walks away, giving no answers: “I have nothing to say”. Her final question is “are you being protected?”
McAuley says: “He may be one of Northern Ireland’s most prolific serial killers still alive today, so why has he never been charged?”
There’s a question of whether – and how many of – the Mid-Ulster UVF were being protected from prosecution as state agents? Jackson was alleged to have been recruited as a state agent. Wright was being fed targeting information. While both men spent time in prison for lesser offences, but they “got away with murder”.
While the then Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan wasn’t able to reopen the investigation into the role of Robin Jackson and Billy Wright into the Cairns murders due to a lack of evidence, Maguire’s recent testimony to Spotlight provides supporting evidence. In tonight’s programme he speaks about an aborted operation a year earlier in which he was instructed to kill any male in the house, whether one of the three targeted brothers or not.
Maguire was in jail when the successful attempt was made the following year and two Cairns brothers were killed at home. The attack took the same form as the one planned the previous year, suggesting conspiracy to murder through targeting over a year and not randomly selected but singled out because of family connections.
Dame Nuala O’Loan tells Spotlight: “if that evidence had been available, it would have changed a lot of things … I’d want to go back and see what else could be found …”
Former republican hunger striker Tommy McKearney – who lost family members in the loyalist attacks – suggests that the loyalist killings “left the republican support base feeling vulnerable” which facilitated an acceptance of the ceasefire.
The final 90 minute extended programme will hear the inside story of the peace process from within the British government and from within IRA and its internal battle for control as Garry Adams persuaded for peace.
BBC Spotlight will be broadcast on BBC One NI and BBC Four at 9pm on Tuesday evening.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.