No Stone Unturned review – murky aftermath of Northern Ireland massacre

Alex Gibney’s dogged documentary on the murder of six Catholics during the Troubles will help the victims’ families but fails to expose the cover-up

Documentary-maker Alex Gibney has put some heat under a cold case from the Troubles in Northern Ireland, reopening the file on a brutal and still mysteriously unsolved sectarian-gangland slaying from 1994.

Three UVF gunmen massacred six innocent drinkers in a pub in Loughinisland, County Down – about 50 minutes’ drive from what may in a few years be the hard border with the Republic – as they watched Ireland play Italy in the World Cup. The victims had no connection with terrorism or activism, nor was any claimed; they were just Catholics, targeted in revenge for an earlier killing of UVF members by Republicans.

It was a time when grotesque murders such as these had become almost normalised, and to which the Westminster political establishment had become grimly resigned as part of a contained situation. They could live with it as long as the killings did not happen in Britain itself. (Phrases such as the “mainland” and the “province” made it sound like something in ancient Rome.) Yet the pure ugliness of this attack shocked everyone. The then Northern Ireland secretary Sir Patrick Mayhew came to the area and announced to TV reporters in his distinctive patrician tones that the perpetrators would soon be in jail. But years and decades went by, evidence became bafflingly lost, inquiries were inexplicably mired in delay and the killers were never caught. Why not?

Gibney is dogged and patient, exemplary in his thoroughness and his respect for survivors and relatives, and indeed for the journalists from the Republic and Northern Ireland who had come before him to this story. He eventually names the names that have never appeared in the various opaque and long-delayed official reports – and even gets video footage of a key culprit. He drills down into the telling details, of which there are many, particularly the circumstance of the World Cup itself.

Gibney hints that paranoid loyalists saw the Republic’s success in qualifying, and doing so well, as part of a new mood of appeasement that was in the air, a cessation of hostilities that looked set to be concluded on Republican terms. The language of violence, and fear of violence, was pervasive. One interviewee says that the tension was “always there – in the back of the head”. An interesting choice of words.

And yet for all his commitment and drive, Gibney shows us the trees but not the wood, and never quite nails the cover-up itself. It boiled down to the murky world of collusion – a secret connection between the authorities and the UVF. But what exactly did collusion mean in this context? The most cynical interpretation was simply that the security services would quietly supply intelligence and weaponry to the loyalist gunmen and get them to take out IRA men who couldn’t be prosecuted through normal means. The second interpretation (though this blurs with the first) is that the security services were running informants, or “touts”, within the UVF. This was indeed the case here. So the Loughinisland killers couldn’t be prosecuted without exposing the whole rotten, illegal setup. And yet there were many touts in other cases where prosecutions had been brought.

But there is a third, even more complicated explanation: that Loughinisland was allowed to slide in order to facilitate the peace process itself, then getting precariously underway. Could it be true that to keep the loyalists on side, everyone would just have to swallow hard and accept that these loathsome killers would remain unpunished, in the larger cause of peace? The question that Gibney doesn’t really address is: was the cover-up justified?

It’s a startling possibility. But where are the interviews with the political high-rollers? There is a brief word from Tom King, Northern Ireland secretary from a little before this period. Mayhew died in 2016, but John Major, then prime minister and overall head of the security services at the time is still alive. So is Sir Colin McColl, head of SIS from 1989 to 1994, and Sir David Spedding, head of SIS from 1994 to 1999. All these people would surely have known the truth about Loughinisland. Did Gibney approach them?

Well, they would almost certainly have exactly the same attitude as almost everyone on camera here: a wary inclination to let sleeping dogs lie. But the victims’ families don’t feel this. They need closure. And that is what Gibney has gone a long way to bringing them.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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