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June 18, 1994, should have been a day of celebration for all of Ireland as Giants Stadium in New Jersey filled with 75,000 fans to watch the Republic of Ireland national team play powerhouse Italy in the U.S.-hosted World Cup.
Thousands of miles away, a small pub called the Heights in Loughinisland, Northern Ireland (20 miles south of Belfast) was full of local fans watching the match when two masked gunmen belonging to the Protestant terror group the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) opened fire, killing six people and wounding five others.
The juxtaposition of the surprising 1-0 victory over Italy for the team, led by English coach Jack Charlton, and the mass murders, when many had thought the decades-long Irish ‘Troubles’ between Catholics and Protestants were close to resolution, is the topic of the latest ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, Ceasefire Massacre.
The depth of the tragedy during the world’s biggest sporting event is what drew American director Alex Gibney to the story. “This was a match that everyone was going to in New Jersey to celebrate their Irish-ness, but there was a much deeper struggle going on that I think Americans were only dimly aware of,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter.
“In a fundamental way, the attack was actually an attack on a soccer game. The match had huge symbolic significance for a united Ireland, so to kill a bunch of people while they were watching it seems to have clear intent,” he says.
There were countless incidences of shocking violence and tragedy during the conflict in Northern Ireland between the IRA, loyalist paramilitaries such as the UVF, and the British security forces that took the lives of over 3,500 people (in a country with only a population of 1.5 million) from the 1960s to the late ’90s. But this attack — coming on a night of joy for soccer fans — was particularly brutal.
“While the players were winning their biggest match ever, their fans were shot in the back,” says Birney, who grew up in the nearby town of Enniskillen, which itself was the target of a deadly bomb blast in 1987 that killed 11 people.
Instead of celebrating, Niall Quinn and the other members of the Ireland team sat in silence as they flew back from their great victory. While many of the players were only “distantly Irish” through their parentage — one sportswriter at the time joked, “If you’ve ever drank a pint of Guinness, Jack’ll pick you,” — they all mourned for the innocent victims.
“Another interesting aspect of the story is that a lot is still unknown. There is a sentiment of ‘lets move on,’ but also a disquiet of not knowing what really happened,” says Gibney.
“As a film, that was one of the appealing things that made it a mystery story — on the one hand there was this moment of hope and possibility that was being simultaneously undercut halfway around the world. So we presented it that way, as a thriller.”
The families of the victims — who ranged from age 34 to 87 — at first stoically believed that the truth would come out. But after 20 years, “that sense has eroded away, and they now think there was a cover-up by the British government, as there is no way to explain the treasure trove of evidence that was found (such as DNA, a stolen car and balaclavas) without being able to charge anyone,” Birney says.
“The families believe that the British knew it was going to happen and didn’t stop it, so the question remains: ‘Was it instigated or did they turn a blind eye?’
“Northern Ireland was a dirty war, and this is one of the dirtiest incidents from then,” notes the Irish producer, who grew up during the conflict and spent his childhood being padded down for weapons when he went to the store, watching armored trucks drive down the street. “When these questions remain about the past, it is hard to move into a peaceful future.”
While the families are hoping for a new investigation — such as the one in Britain chronicled in 30 for 30‘s recent film about the Hillsborough disaster by Dan Gordon — sadly, in the case of Loughinisland, much of the evidence has been destroyed. “It’s very unusual for a crime on this level to be so aggressive and everything to be disposed of,” says Gibney.
When it came to a broadcast platform for the film, which both Gibney and Birney hope to ultimately expand into a feature-length version, ESPN was the natural choice.
“I am big fan of the 30 for 30 series. What is so great is that it is very story-driven and not team-driven, although all the stories have some relationship with sport,” says the director.
“The texture of this story, its implications and the way it played out between the pub and Giants Stadium seemed so appealing, and I thought [ESPN] would get it right away,” he says. He also believed they would allow him to tell it in his own style. “They are very focused on individual filmmakers telling the story their way,” he adds.
Ceasefire Massacre airs on ESPN on April 29 at 7 p.m., following The Myth of Garrincha, which tells the story of the Brazilian soccer player who is remembered as one of the best of all time, despite being overshadowed by his famous teammate, Pele.
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