When the Republic of Ireland take to the pitch against Italy tonight, both the match and the date will carry painful memories for many on the island of Ireland.
When the Republic of Ireland’s football team takes to the field against Italy tonight in their final group game of the European Championships, the black armbands sported by the players are not a visual aid to symbolise the Republic of Ireland’s disappointing showing in the contest.
Rather, the gesture commemorates another Ireland vs Italy game from the World Cup exactly 18 years ago, watched by the regulars of The Heights bar in Loughinisland, County Down.
They had sat down to watch the game when gunmen burst in and shot six of them dead, injuring another five.
The victims – Adrian Rogan, 34, Malcolm Jenkinson, 52, Daniel McCreanor, 59, Patrick O’Hare, 35, Eamon Byrne, 39, and 87-year-old Barney Greene, one of the oldest people killed in the Northern Ireland Troubles – were all Catholics, gunned down by a loyalist hit squad. The killer was said to be laughing as he fled the scene.
The men were killed by a local unit of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) during a tense stage of the political process, following the Downing Street Declaration in December 1993 and ahead of the first IRA ceasefire in August 1994.
Allegations of collusion between the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and the killers have long persisted. However, Northern Ireland’s Police Ombudsman found “insufficient” evidence of collusion, although he did find multiple failings with the police investigation, including the destruction of evidence.
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Eighteen years to the day later, much has changed for the better in Northern Ireland. However the anniversary, combined with the scheduling of this evening’s game against Italy, means this particular atrocity should not go unmarked.
Quoted in the Belfast Telegraph, Ireland football captain, Robbie Keane, explained why the players were making the gesture:
“It’s only right that we do wear the armbands in respect of everyone’s families to let them know as a team and as a nation, that we are thinking of their families.”