Northern Ireland news

RTÉ investigation unearths new evidence about UDA's 1972 Belturbet car bomb

The aftermath of the Belturbet bomb. Picture by Paddy Ronaghan

A documentary to be broadcast tonight claims to reveal new evidence that British security forces failed to act on credible information, allowing loyalist paramilitaries to operate freely along the border in Co Fermanagh.

The RTÉ Investigates programme looks at the 1972 UDA bomb attack in Belturbet, Co Cavan which claimed the lives of two teenagers.

The no-warning car bomb exploded on the night of December 28, killing Patrick Stanley (16) from Clara, Co Offaly and local girl Geraldine O'Reilly (15).

The documentary uncovers evidence of a crippling lack of trust between police services north and south, while raising questions over the political will to bring those behind the attack to justice.

Belturbet was one of three towns and villages in the Republic's border counties targeted that night 48 years ago.

Less than 30 minutes before the bomb in Co Cavan, there was a no-warning explosion in Clones, Co Monaghan, while a little over 20 minutes after the Belturbet attack, a device went off just 100 metres from the Fermanagh border in Mullinagoad, Co Donegal.

Geraldine O'Reilly

According to the RTÉ Investigates team, the bombing of Belturbet is inextricably linked to the old border crossing at Aghalane Bridge, which had respective halves in each jurisdiction.

Loyalists blew up the bridge just weeks before the Belturbet bomb, with British soldiers turning a blind eye, according to one historian.

Dr Edward Burke has unearthed an audio tape containing a remarkable interview with Captain – later Major – Vernon Rees at the Imperial War Museum in London.

Rees, who commanded British troops in west Fermanagh, recalls being approached by Jack Leahy, a unionist councillor in Lisnaskea, who asked the commanding officer to keep his soldiers away from the bridge on a particular night.

Patrick Stanley

The blast damaged but did not destroy the bridge, so the next day Captain Rees ordered his own men to finish off the job.

Fearing the economic impact of closing a main road, Cavan County Council ignored unionist objections and erected a temporary bridge, over which the three no-warning car bombs were later driven.

The documentary reveals that four months after the attack, British intelligence identified suspects – widely unknown until now – who are described in the programme as a "UDA commando-type gang from Belfast who were believed responsible for various explosions in Eire".

"They were sending somebody who was a serious player from Belfast to try and sort of extend the UDA’s reach to the border areas and to carry out attacks south of the border," says Dr Burke.

"I simply have no idea why that information wasn't passed on to the guards – it’s a very significant lead."

The documentary says gardaí have compiled six reports on Belturbet but each time when the families have asked the Department of Justice for access, they have been told that because the case remains active, sharing information could "interfere with the investigation".

Furthermore it "could reasonably be expected to affect adversely the security of the State, matters relating to Northern Ireland and the international relations of the State".

"It’s never too late for answers," says Greta Stanley, sister of 16-year-old victim Patrick.

"Never too late for the truth."

RTÉ Investigates - Belturbet: A Bomb That Time Forgot will be broadcast tonight at 9.35pm on RTÉ One

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