Search for truth behind a trail of murder

Relatives of the victims of a series of loyalist sectarian attacks in the 1970s have come together in a concerted campaign to prove their claim that the murders of their loved ones are linked by security force collusion.

Families from across Ireland have come together to investigate alleged links between more than 30 loyalist attacks in the mid-1970s - centering on claims of security force involvement. At a meeting of around 40 relatives in Crossmaglen on Saturday, the Pat Finucane Centre presented what it claimed was dramatic new evidence of collusion in at least 80 murders.

It followed research by the Pat Finucane Centre (PFC) into allegations of security force involvement in a gun and bomb attack on a bar in Silverbridge, south Armagh in December 1975. Survivors of the attack had met for the first time to give statements about their experiences in July 1999. A press conference was later arranged to appeal for anyone else with information about the attack to come forward.

The PFC told relatives on Saturday that a senior RUC officer who worked in the area at the time had come forward and had met the Silverbridge families on several occasions. PFC spokesman Paul O'Connor claimed the officer had confirmed the family's suspicions by saying he believed security force members were directly involved in the attack - but could not be charged due to lack of evidence. It was alleged he also suggested that "permutations of the same gang" were suspected of involvement in a series of other killings in the area during the same period. The officer has yet to confirm the allegations in public.

The PFC followed up the claims with a 'mapping exercise' - involving court appearances, news reports, and security sources - to identify possible links with other attacks. The cases were chosen on the basis that they happened in the mid-1970s, and they were suspected to have been carried out by "permutations of the same gang". In all, it claims at least 32 attacks, involving 87 killings (including two pregnant women) may be linked. There have been no convictions in 22 of the cases. On Saturday, relatives of victims of up to 10 of these attacks gathered in Crossmaglen, including those bereaved by bombings at Silverbridge, Dublin and Monaghan, Dundalk, Dungannon and a series of shootings.

In a number of other cases, the PFC was unable to get in contact with families and Mr O'Connor said at least 10 other families had also been supportive but unable to come on the day. He said they now plan to contact officials from the state and human rights sectors. The PFC will also return with evidence taken from relatives on Saturday, to try to build up a bigger picture of links between the cases. Another conference for families unable to attend on Saturday is also planned.

Ulster Unionist security spokesman Ken Maginnis last night urged caution over allegations of widespread 'collusion' between members of security forces and loyalist paramilitaries. Mr Maginnis pointed to the large number of loyalists successfully brought before the courts. He said he recognised that some members of the security forces had acted criminally, but claimed again that many convictions had been secured. But he added:

"Where there were members of the security forces involved, we have seen many of them convicted, but I am sure, just as in UDA, UVF, IRA killings, not everyone who was guilty was brought to justice. "I don't know that it proves anything... I think that to try to argue the general from the specific doesn't work."

He argued that any "widespread, general conspiratorial activity" would have come to light. In connection with the latest claims, Mr Maginnis suggested the officer alleged to have provided new evidence should bring it to the attention of the authorities. He said he believed "raking up the past" may not ease sores, but may actually perpetuate the atmosphere of conflict.

"In fact, we should be beginning to work beyond that," he said. "That has been part of my criticism - you heard me stand up and criticise some of my own colleagues at the party conference and indicate there are still people who want to stir up distrust."

Mr Maginnis, who served with the Ulster Defence Regiment for 12 years and held the rank of major, also defended its record in the face of allegations of UDR involvement in some of the 32 attacks highlighted on Saturday.

"The point I have made is, I don't think we could have 40 or 50 thousand people through the UDR and none who would have abused their responsibility and their office within it," he said. "I don't think we can have tens of thousands of army through here in 30 years, I don't believe we can have had the tens of thousands of police.

"How could we have? All I know is, within the UDR we've had a large number of casualties and I have still seen us going out and burying our dead in the afternoon and carrying out our patrols with dignity and with discretion in the evening - that's literally how it was." He added: "The huge majority of people who I served with were law abiding people. They were angry, they were resentful, they were frustrated - but basically they weren't killers."

Paul O'Connor argued, however, that the allegations did not focus on a theory that collusion was a 'linear' phenomenon, "involving everyone". He insisted that the PFC's latest research had added weight to claims that security force members did take part in a large number of attacks. He also claimed there was evidence of security force suspects successfully "slipping the net" and going on to take part in a series of subsequent killings. This, and allegations from relatives on Saturday of security force harassment following the deaths of their loved ones, raised wider questions, Mr O'Connor added. Referring to the alleged security force links to the Silverbridge killings, he said:

"This has now been confirmed by a senior source within the RUC, who we are taking at face value.

"It raises much greater questions if, in turn, we are looking at a minimum of 32 attacks, 87 dead and hundreds injured - including the worst bomb attacks of the last 30 years in Dublin and Monaghan. We believe this raises vital issues.

"We have never asserted collusion was a single linear issue, that everyone was involved in collusion all the time.

"We know there were officers who totally disagreed with collusion, who would do anything within their power to bring anyone who broke the law to book for it, but, quite evidently, there were those who did not share their view of the law at the time."

Relatives hope new light may soon be shed on the murder of a Catholic police sergeant 23 years after his death following fresh inquiries by his family.

Joe Campbell was shot dead outside Cushendall RUC station in February 1977. Members of his family attended Saturday's victims' meeting and repeated their claims that they now believe Mr Campbell was killed by a notorious loyalist paramilitary on the request of a renegade RUC officer. The dead man's sons have spoken to a series of individuals they believe have knowledge of the case and even confronted Robin Jackson - the loyalist known as the Jackal, who they believe killed their father. Jackson died of cancer in 1998, but not before one of Sergeant Campbell's sons confronted him over the case. Jackson denied involvement, but this has failed to deflect the Campbell family which have researched the case for seven years. The family have also been passed information from a former RUC officer who claims to have been asked to carry out the killing but refused to do so.

Joe Campbell's killing was originally attributed to the IRA, but it later emerged this was not the case. In 1980, interest in the case was revived when an RUC officer was charged with the murder. He was cleared but convicted of other offences. Speaking at Saturday's meeting, a Campbell family member told the Irish News they believe Robin Jackson was "brought in" to shoot Joe Campbell.

"We think that during the investigation the police were aware of that but concealed it," he claimed.

The family was prompted to begin its own investigations after being approached seven years ago by journalists investigating the 1975 Dublin-Monaghan bombings, which claimed 33 lives. The researchers claimed to have found a link between Jackson - believed to have been involved in the bombings - and Mr Campbell's killing. Since then, the family have spoken to a wide range of people associated with the case, including security force members and loyalists. "Basically, we just want to know the truth of what happened," said a family member.

Referring to the Pat Finucane Centre's allegations, he added:

"The list of cases that we have here today all would certainly seem to indicate that Jackson or his associates - both within and without the security forces - operated over a long period of time in the murder of innocent civilians and it was done certainly with the knowledge of the security forces."

Relatives of three men shot dead in Ballydougan, near Gilford, have pledged to uncover the remaining people responsible for their deaths.

The family also revealed that it is considering a civil action against the state for alleged implication in the atrocity.

Brothers Barry (24) and Declan (19) O'Dowd, and their uncle Joe (61), were gunned down by three men at a family party on January 4 1976. Ronan O'Dowd, who was then 16, said he was in an uncle's house nearby at the time and raced across with a brother to see what had happened.

"We saw the carnage. Two of my brothers were lying murdered - one in the hallway, one in the sitting room - and my uncle was also lying murdered in the hallway," he said. "My father was also seriously wounded, but survived the attack."

Mr O'Dowd (41) said no-one was ever charged with the killings, but a senior detective "got within a hair's breadth" and even told them who was involved. "Then suddenly he was taken off the case. I have never met the guy since," he said. "We had a fair idea of who was involved at the beginning, but after six months we had no doubt. We then left the north and moved to Navan, Co Meath, for the sake of family sanity."

Ronan's mother passed away last year and the family took the step of disinterring the two brothers and reburying them in Co Meath alongside her. He said the family had been convinced from the beginning that there had been both RUC and local involvement in the killings. He admitted they had come along "reluctantly" to Crossmaglen on Saturday - sceptical about the chances of any prosecution. However, he said they came away with "renewed vigour" and now planned to take the case "away from the parochialism of the northern legal system" and onto the international stage.

"We know who the gunmen are. We know who the locals are who helped plan and assist the shooters with their scheme.

"What we are now directing our energies to is finding the sinister elements of the establishment who sanctioned this deed."

He also said the family was also considering taking "a personal civil action against the state for unlawful implication in the killings of the O'Dowd family.

Colm McCartney's relatives believe they know who killed their loved one. They know where, when and how he lost his life.

But more than 20 years after he was shot dead, they have yet to be told why he was killed.

The 22-year-old from Bellaghy, Co Derry, and 32-year-old John Farmer from Moy, Co Tyrone, were driving home from the Derry versus Dublin All-Ireland semi-final at Croke Park in Dublin on August 24 1975. It is understood the pair were stopped by a group of men in military-style uniforms who were manning a checkpoint in Co Armagh. An unmarked police car had driven through the bogus roadblock sometime earlier and officers are said to have reported it to the British army, but no action was taken.

At around 11:45pm, Mr McCartney and Mr Farmer were stopped, they were each shot in the back of the head and found dead at Cortamlaght, Newtownhamilton. A close relative of Mr McCartney who attended Saturday's victims' meeting said the family raised its fears of a security force link to the killings, which came amid a series of other sectarian attacks. Like many of those at the meeting, they believe they know who carried out the murders and are convinced security force members were involved.

The relatives did not wish to be named, but in the 25 years that have passed since the deaths they say they have been routinely harassed by security forces. They believe this is a direct response to their efforts to raise concerns over the case. "We have been harassed since then," said a 45-year-old relative. "Anytime anything happened in our area I would get arrested. He insists he and his family had no links to any paramilitary or political grouping and said the family's treatment in the aftermath of the deaths heightened its suffering. The relative, who attended Saturday's meeting, passed details on the case to a journalist last year. A newspaper report was published marking a successful stage in the family's bid to revive interest in the case. The relative claims that, following the article, RUC officers drove to his home. "They drove up and told me to watch myself. They said I could easily get 'run over'." He insists his family will continue to attempt to uncover the details surrounding Mr McCartney's death. "We just want to know what happened and if the two boys were targeted, or if it was random," he said. "We just want to know what happened and why."

Driving the campaign for disclosure are relatives of a gun and bomb attack on Donnelly's Bar in Silverbridge on December 19 1975.

Patsy Donnelly (24), Trevor Brecknell (32) and 14-year-old Michael Donnelly died when loyalists sprayed the pub with bullets before throwing a bomb through the doors.

Alan Brecknell, who was seven years old when his father was killed, has been gathering information about the attack for more than two years. He said he had decided to bring other families together on Saturday to discuss setting up a relatives group to investigate links between dozens of murders in the south Armagh and mid-Ulster areas in the 1970s.

"It's our belief that there is a link between everyone who is here, and the link is based on the people who were involved in carrying out those attacks," he said. "We wanted to find out if this was the case, by talking to the families… We also wanted to give everyone the opportunity to talk openly about what happened to them and the extent of any police investigation or outcome of any inquests."

He said the majority of relatives had welcomed the opportunity to share their experiences, although some could not make it on the day or were too elderly to travel.

"In a lot of cases, things have been lying for 25 years and no-one has ever approached families to see if they wanted to find out what happened," he said. "This is an opportunity for them to take a look at what can be done and decide if they want to be involved in a movement like this."

To those who questioned dragging up cases 25 years after the events, Mr Brecknell said the truth was the only means of healing available to them.

"For people who say it's so long ago - well, it doesn't actually affect them. It's not long ago for me. Every day I wake up and my father is not there, so it's an ongoing thing," he said.

"The law courts have failed us so far, the police have failed us so far, and so we have to try whatever means we can to further this for ourselves.

"It is part of a healing process - to stand up and say this is what happened to us... and to be able to tell my children, when they ask me these questions, at least I will have an answer for them, whereas up to now I have had no answers."