Relatives of Mid Ulster victims of UVF welcome Ombudsman's collective inquiry
UP to 60 murders carried out by a UVF gang operating in mid Ulster are to be investigated collectively by the Police Ombudsman.
Relatives of people murdered by the gang, operating under the leadership of Billy Wright, have welcomed confirmation that Dr Michael Maguire has linked their cases together and will now be investigating allegations of police wrongdoing over a period spanning the 1980s and '90s.
Most of the killings were carried out in Counties Armagh and Tyrone in the early 1990s, with the victims ranging in age from 16 to 76.
Lawyers working for several families have already linked up to 25 murders to just five weapons and one gunman, alleged to have been a long-standing police informer and Wright's main hitman in a sectarian killing spree spanning a decade.
Among the deaths under investigation are that of Moy couple Charlie (63) and Tess Fox (53) in September 1992.
Their daughter Bernie McKearney, who also lost her husband Kevin at the hands of the same UVF gang in Moy nine months earlier, welcomed the decision to examine the cases together.
"The fact the ombudsman is taking our cases as one collective unit just shows what we've known all along, that the same gang and same gunmen were involved in what was really an ethnic cleansing of Catholics in the area," she said.
"We've always believed it was the same gang, headed by informers, who were involved and that they were acting without fear of capture or conviction.
"This investigation gives us hope that we can finally get formal confirmation of what happened, not just to to our family but countless other families in the mid Ulster area."
The Fox family have been granted a fresh inquest into their parents' murder, but that remains in limbo as funding for legacy inquests is withheld.
Mrs McKearney said it is important the money was released without further delay to allow historical inquests to be completed.
"Withholding funding is just adding to our trauma, there is no reason to delay the inquests any longer, we've already waited long enough," she said.
The Police Ombudsman said there are "two linked complex investigations concerning alleged police criminality in relation to the activities of the UVF in mid-Ulster from the 1970s through to the late 1990s".
"Operation Newham is looking at incidents in the 1970s, while Operation Ashton will focus on the period from the early 1980s to the late 1990s.
"Incidents under investigation include a series of murders which have been associated with Glenanne. These fall primarily within the scope of Operation Newham which, since it began at the start of this year, has been working through incidents in chronological order."
Kevin Winters of KRW Law welcomed the decision to investigate the murders "thematically", saying that "investigating these murders in isolation has never worked for families".
However, the lawyer criticised a lack of funding for Dr Maguire's office to deal with legacy cases.
"Here we have a fit-for-purpose organisation, taking the correct approach and providing families with truth recovery and yet it is depressing to note that it is not being sufficiently funded to carry out that work," he said.