Relatives welcome judge's move over loyalist massacre challenge

Relatives of those killed in a notorious loyalist massacre have welcomed a judge's decision to voluntarily step aside from a case challenging a watchdog finding that police colluded with the killers.

Mr Justice McCloskey told Belfast High Court he was passing a judicial review on the Loughinisland shootings to another judge to ensure the families of six Catholic men shot dead by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) retained confidence in the legal system.

The judge had faced a legal application to recuse himself from the challenge against the Police Ombudsman's collusion finding, amid claims he potentially held a subconscious bias due to his involvement, as a barrister, in a similar case involving the Ombudsman's office 16 years ago.

Loughinisland victims' family members and supporters address the media outside Belfast's High Court (Brian Lawless/PA)
Loughinisland victims' family members and supporters address the media outside Belfast's High Court (Brian Lawless/PA)

He rejected that bid on Friday, insisting it fell short of the legal bar for recusal by a "considerable distance". The judge was scathing of the application, branding elements of it "flimsy, artificial and entirely unpersuasive".

However, to the surprise of onlookers in the court, the judge then announced he would step away from the case nevertheless, to alleviate any concerns the families had about the legal process.

Mr Justice McCloskey delivered a damning judgment against Police Ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire last month, ruling that he had exceeded his statutory powers by declaring officers guilty of colluding in the UVF attack in the Co Down village of Loughinisland in 1994.

He had not yet ruled on whether Dr Maguire's findings should be formally quashed when the recusal application was made by lawyers for the Ombudsman, supported by the Loughinsland families.

As a consequence, the Ombudsman's conclusions still stand, pending the outcome of a new hearing before another judge.

(Michael McHugh/PA)
(Michael McHugh/PA)

Emma Rogan, whose father Adrian was killed at Loughinisland, said she respected judge McCloskey's decision.

She said the families were delighted that the Ombudsman's findings of collusion still stood in their entirety.

"The report that we got in 2016 is still the report that's on record and we welcome a fresh look at the judgment," she said.

"All we ever wanted was the truth, that's it, the bottom line - everybody deserves it. It's human decency for people to know and for people to acknowledge what happened to their loved ones. That's all we want.

"We welcome a new judge taking fresh eyes and looking at our case again."

She added: "I will be here fighting for truth and justice until I have no fight left in me."

Solicitor for the Loughinisland families, Niall Murphy, said: "This was the most unprecedented resolution to a judicial review application that I have ever experienced in my years in practice.

"What we have now is an opportunity for the Police Ombudsman and the families to re-engage in a brand new reflection of the legal issues raised and we look forward to doing that as quickly as possible."

Mr Murphy added: "Let there be absolutely no doubt - there was collusion in Loughinisland."

In the landmark 2016 report, Dr Maguire found that Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers colluded in the UVF gun attack.

Two loyalist gunmen burst into the Heights Bar and opened fire on locals watching the Republic of Ireland play Italy in the World Cup in the United States.

Six Catholic men were killed, five others were injured.

Two retired officers took judicial review proceedings against the Ombudsman's findings and judge McCloskey found in their favour in December, ruling that Dr Maguire had overstepped his legal authority by stating that collusion had definitely happened.

On Friday, the judge said his decision to pass the case to another judge represented an "unprecedented ruling".

"Following anxious reflection, my evaluative conclusion is that our legal system will not have served the families well if they are not given the opportunity of having this case heard by a differently constituted court," he said.

The judge said his judgment on the Ombudsman's report was not binding on another court and instead should be viewed as "advisory".

He gave the Ombudsman's lawyers until February 23 to make clear what issues they wanted a fresh hearing to examine.