Banbridge (Sightlink 62)
Tranche 1 – Civilian Witnesses
Tranche 1 general summary:
The inquest into Seamus Dillon’s murder began on the 17th of March 2023 before His Honour Judge Greene, KC, acting as Coroner. On 27th December 1997, the LVF opened fire at the entrance to the Glengannon Hotel’s Exit 15 disco. The shooting, which killed Seamus and injured three others, was a violent reprisal for the death of LVF leader Billy Wright. It was later discovered that the gun used in the shooting had been used in several loyalist paramilitary attacks, including the UVF’s murder of Sam Marshall in 1990. Several other details in Seamus’s case have raised serious concerns about collusion.
Opening testimony from Seamus’ widow and two brothers painted a picture of a kind, generous, and hard-working man whose life centred around his family. The inquest then called on civilian witnesses to determine how, when, and where Seamus was killed.
A review of the original post-mortem report specified that Seamus’s death was caused by a high-velocity gunshot wound to the head. Additional witnesses confirmed they saw a small car, likely a red Vauxhall Nova, enter the hotel’s main carpark and open fire before speeding back out the exit. Another statement came from the former Ulster TV news desk employee who received the LVF call claiming responsibility for the attack. A former receptionist at the Glengannon Hotel remembered receiving a sinister call shortly after the shooting occurred. On the call, a man identified himself as an LVF member before he began to laugh. There were also statements from two of the three other men who were injured in the attack that killed Seamus.
Before concluding the first module, the Coroner pressed the importance of keeping the inquest moving at an appropriate pace. His statement, directed largely toward counsel for the PSNI and Ministry of Defence, suggests that Judge Greene is aware of judicial commentary concerning significant and possibly unreasonable delays in other inquests that may involve collusion.
The inquest into Seamus Dillon’s death is set to resume later this year.
DAY 1 (17th April 2023)
Seamus Dillon, father of three, was shot by the Loyalist Volunteer Forces (LVF) on 27th December 1997 and passed away the following day. The shooting was one of multiple so-called revenge attacks following the death of LVF leader Billy Wright. The murder weapon was later discovered to be the same gun used in several other loyalist shootings where collusions is suspected, including the UVF’s murder of Sam Marshall in 1990 in Lurgan.
On the night of his death, 45-year-old Seamus was working as a bouncer at Dungannon Hotel’s Exit 15 disco in Co. Tyrone. A red Vauxhall Nova entered the carpark and opened fire, killing Seamus and injuring three others. The car used in the shooting was found burned out on the motorway a few hours after the incident.
Witness statements lovingly depicted Seamus as a friendly, giving, and good-natured man who did everything he could for the people around him. Contemporaneous newspapers reported that, in the ultimate act of generosity, Seamus used his own body to block the entrance to the disco and save the lives of everyone inside. More than 25 years after his death, Seamus’s widow still mourns the love of her life.
Judge Richard Greene serves as presiding Coroner, with Frank O’Donoghue as Coroner’s Counsel. Joanne Hannigan represents the PSNI and Ministry of Defence. Led by Des Fahy, Phoenix Law’s Peter Corrigan represents Seamus’s next-of-kin and widow, Martina ‘Tina’ Dillon.
In his introduction, Mr O’Donoghue outlined the main questions the inquest hopes to answer. Though he did not explicitly mention allegations of collusion, the lines of enquiry clearly demonstrate that the issue will be central to the inquest. The main points of examination will be:
- The provenance of the murder weapon, its use in past attacks, and any missed opportunities to either seize the weapon or detain its users before it was used to kill Seamus Dillon.
- Any missed opportunities to warn the owners of the Glengannon Hotel of possible revenge attacks, especially considering that the RUC provided such warnings to similar establishments.
- Possible security forces observation of the hotel, including on the night of the attack. An observation point was discovered after the shooting, but it remains unknown by whom and for what purpose the observation point was used.
- Missed opportunities by police to intercept the stolen vehicle used in the attack. This includes the hours after the car was reported stolen, and the hours between its use in the shooting and its discovery burned out on a motorway.
- Concerns around the original investigation into the murder, including the identification of suspects and failure to hold anyone responsible. This line of examination also includes the contents, sources, and reliability of intelligence available to investigators.
- Any other relevant issues that may arise in future modules.
The first module, which heard civilian testimony, began on 17th April with the moving testimony from Seamus Dillon’s bereaved family.
Tina Dillon held a photo of her late husband while Mr O’Donoghue, at her request, read her pen portrait. She painted a picture of a hard-working, loving husband and father who wanted nothing more than to provide for his family. When Seamus secured his job with the Glengannon Hotel, he was so happy ‘you would have thought he won the pools.’ Although Tina frequently worried that Seamus could be injured in a barfight, it seemed like the family’s dreams were finally coming true. But the dream turned into a ‘nightmare’ when Seamus was murdered on the 27th of December 1997. Tina says it’s ‘a night that still haunts [her], 25 years on. That was the night [her] life ended.’
A few hours after Seamus left for work, Tina received a call informing her that Seamus was in hospital. Assuming he was caught in a barfight, Tina rushed to see him. When she arrived at the A&E, a priest and a doctor took her aside to tell her that Seamus had been shot. She remembers the night vividly: ‘What I witnessed that night will stay with me for the rest of my life. I watched my husband die in front of my eyes. I prayed to God that it wasn’t real.’ Despite the immense trauma of the night, Tina was still ‘glad to be able to be there at the last’ for her husband. Describing the grief she still carries, Tina said that when she lost Seamus, ‘I lost my husband, my best friend, and I also lost me.’
The family testimony continued with statements from both of Seamus’s older brothers.
Roger Dillon, the middle Dillon brother, recalled the close relationship and fond childhood memories he shared with Seamus. He also recalled the Dillon family’s pain leading up to Seamus’s murder as their father battled terminal cancer. Only three months after Seamus’s ‘shocking and brutal murder,’ their father succumbed to his illness. Roger watched his mother bury her husband and her youngest son in a span of mere months. On top of losing his father and youngest brother, Roger also lost two cousins around the same. With all the loss they suffered in such a short period, Roger said that Christmastime has never been the same for his family.
Seamus’s oldest brother, Joe, described the ‘unbreakable bond’ between himself and Seamus. In detailing their ‘closest friendship,’ he depicted his brother as a kind, caring, and loving family man who never put himself first. More than anything, Seamus loved his wife and children; and if he were here today, he would be humbled and extremely honoured by the family he left behind. Joe called himself a ‘proud brother to Seamus.’ He expressed his admiration for his brother, who always wanted the best for everyone around him and for whom ‘no problem was ever too big.’ In closing, Joe declared that Seamus ‘left us far too young, but he still leaves behind an impressive legacy.’
The next two witnesses were retired civilian photographers attached to the RUC and PSNI. Both men confirmed the validity of the inquest’s photo exhibits. In a statement read into the record, a former civilian mapping officer attached to the RUC affirmed the validity of the maps he created, which have also been entered as evidence.
Several statements from medical personnel were read into the record to confirm the records of Seamus’s transport to South Tyrone Hospital, identification of his body, and the date, time, and cause of his death.
Dr Jack Crane, former State Pathologist for Northern Ireland, was asked to review the original post-mortem report, which was produced by Dr John Press. Dr Press determined Seamus’s cause of death was a bullet wound to the head. Though Dr Crane agreed with Dr Press’s findings, he suggested that amending the cause to be a ‘high-velocity bullet wound’ would more accurately reflect the severity of Seamus’s injuries, which likely came from an army or assault rifle.
Before adjourning for the day, Judge Greene expressed his condolences to Seamus’s family and gave Tina the option to display Seamus’s photo for the rest of the inquest proceedings.
DAY 2 (18th April 2023)
The day began with Mr Grogan, a witness who worked as a self-employed taxi driver in 1997. On the night Seamus Dillon was shot, Mr Grogan received a call on his mobile to pick up a fare at the Glengannon Hotel. Around 10:50 PM Mr Grogan was approximately 3 miles from the hotel when he met a red Vauxhall Nova on the road, travelling away from the direction of the Glengannon Hotel. After pulling into a layby to let the Nova pass, Mr Grogan continued to the Glengannon Hotel carpark. Upon entering the premises, he saw two men lying on the ground near the building entrance and heard someone shout that two men had been shot. He immediately called the Carrickmore RUC station from his mobile phone and requested emergency services. Later that night he realised the red Nova may have been involved in the shooting and informed the RUC of his suspicion.
The next witnesses attended the Exit 15 disco on the night of the murder.
Simon Kerr was 20 years old at the time of the shooting. While driving to the Glengannon Hotel with his girlfriend and a few friends, he noticed a red Vauxhall parked on the side of the road between the hotel’s two carparks. Simon then parked in the main carpark, where he and his friends waited for more of their friends to join them. While they were waiting, Simon noticed a red Nova driving along the road. Their friends arrived around 10:20 PM and the group all entered the disco together. After about 30 minutes, Simon heard shots. He then saw a bloodied man holding his arm to his stomach and yelling that he had been shot. Simon and his friends stayed inside until the police arrived. He also noted that in the half-hour he was in the disco before the shooting began, a man and a woman dressed in combat trousers and bomber jackets were walking through the hotel. He could not remember any other details but said that they stood out in his mind. The next witness was a friend who arrived in the same car as Simon and described seeing a small red Vauxhall drive into and out of the carpark between about 10 PM and 10:20 PM.
The day’s fourth witness, Gerard Hamilton, frequently attended Exit 15 with his girlfriend Kelly. On the night of 27th December, they attended the disco with Gerard’s sister Carina and her friend Emma. Upon arriving, Gerard got out of the car to ask the doormen about the crowd inside. He was outside the entrance talking to some of the other bouncers outside as Seamus Dillon and Christopher (known as Christy) Cummings walked around a corner. Their backs were toward the carpark. Gerard saw a red Vauxhall Nova speeding toward the hotel premises before it slowed slightly and entered the carpark. Gerard believes the driver wore a dark balaclava and the passenger had a dark top and dark hood. As the car swung around, an arm and gun protruded from a passenger window and started shooting. Gerard ducked behind his car and shouted to everyone to get down. He then watched as Seamus Dillon fell to the ground mere feet away. The Nova ‘flew out’ of the exit and sped away. Afraid for his life and the lives of his passengers, Gerard got into his car and drove straight to his mum’s house. Shortly after, Gerard’s sister drove him to the A&E to treat his shock. He described the A&E as packed with people from the disco.
A statement from Gerard’s girlfriend Kelly was read into the record. While she waited in the car for Gerard to speak to the doormen, Kelly saw someone lean through the passenger window of a small car as it approached the disco’s entrance. Seconds after she saw flashes coming from the car’s passenger side, two bouncers fell to the ground. Kelly then watched as the car turned around and left the carpark at great speed.
Also read into the record was a statement from Carina Hamilton, Gerard’s sister. She remembered seeing a small car coming into the disco carpark and swooping in a curve. Carina saw flashes from the passenger side and heard banging noises before her brother shouted for her to get down. Because she kept her head down, Carina did not see much of the event. Her friend Emma Mulgrew’s statement similarly recalled large orange flashes and bangs coming from a small car.
The final statement read into the record was from Alistair Simpson, a mapping officer attached to the RUC mapping sector. He confirmed the validity of maps he produced which have been entered as evidence.
DAY 3 (19th April 2023)
The third day of the inquest saw a total of 11 witnesses, with two testifying in person.
The first witness, Sylvester (known as Sylvie) Doyle, was working as a doorman at the Glengannon Hotel with Seamus on the night of the attack. Sylvie watched as a red car entered the carpark and gunfire began. He dove to the ground when he heard the shots, and then watched the car as it exited the property. Sylvie ran inside to get someone to call an ambulance. When he stepped back outside, he saw Seamus and Christy Cummings lying outside the doors. Sylvie knew immediately that Seamus was ‘in a bad way’ and put him into a recovery position on his side. He stayed with Seamus and tried to keep him comfortable until the ambulance arrived. In a poignant moment, the Dillon family’s lawyer thanked Sylvie on behalf of the Dillons and expressed the family’s gratitude for everything he did to help Seamus that night.
Martin Carolan, the second witness, worked at the Glengannon Hotel collecting glasses. He was just 14 years old on the day of the shooting. Shortly before 11 PM, Martin heard loud bangs and felt his left arm and shoulder go numb. Realising he had been shot, Martin ran to the barman, who helped tend to his injuries. Before passing out Martin noticed that he had also been shot in the hip. He faded in and out of consciousness as he was transported to the South Tyrone Hospital. The attack caused nerve damage in Martin’s left arm and shoulder, which left him with limited strength in his hand and fingers.
Nine witness statements were read into the record, including two from doormen who were working with Seamus on the night of his death.
The first, Kevin McGartland, was monitoring the reception area when he heard gunfire. He immediately recognised the sound, so he closed and locked the front door. Kevin and his colleague took the hotel patrons from reception to the lounge area, where 40-50 other people were already present. After warning them all to get down, Kevin returned to the reception area. He found a panicked Sylvie Doyle knocking on the door and shouting that another doorman, Joe Herron, had been shot. Kevin called 999 and went outside. He saw Seamus Dillon lying face-down, with his hands still in his pockets. Kevin and Sylvie tried to keep Seamus comfortable while they waited for the ambulance. After Seamus was taken by paramedics, Kevin helped his colleague transport Joe Herron and Martin Carolan to the hospital.
Joe Herron also provided a statement about the attack. He was working outside the disco’s doors when Seamus and Christy went outside to patrol the carpark. The two were walking past Joe when a small red car drove into the carpark. He couldn’t see how many people were in the vehicle. As the car turned, Joe saw flashes and watched Christy fall. Joe then felt his left arm drop and fell to the ground. Another employee pulled Joe into the building, where a small group of patrons kept him conscious until the police arrived and he was transported to the hospital by his colleagues.
Maggie Hall was working at the Ulster TV news desk on 28th December 1997, the day after the attack. She answered the phone to hear a male voice state that he was from the LVF and that he had a statement to share. Using a recognised codeword, he announced that the LVF claimed responsibility for the attack on Glengannon Hotel. He said that the blame lay ‘squarely at the feet of republicans’ before declaring that the LVF stood behind Billy Wright, who had been killed hours before the attack.
Michelle McGee, a receptionist at the Glengannon Hotel, was off duty on the day of the attack. Around 11 PM, she and a friend arrived at the hotel planning to socialise. When they entered the carpark, they were confronted by a red car driving at speed out of the carpark. Out of control, the car snaked out while its wheels spun, before turning on its full lights and speeding away. When Michelle parked, she noticed people running and heard that someone had been shot. She went into the hotel to help customers and staff. Later that night she answered a phone call from a male caller. The first part of the call was inaudible, but she distinctly heard the word ‘association.’ He then said that the hotel had just had shootings and began to laugh. She ended the call and reported it to the police, who were still present at the hotel. A few nights later she received another call on the hotel phone. The caller, again male, told Michelle that the shooting on the 27th was not the end, before telling her there would be more shootings in the area. When she asked who he was, the caller said that he was the commander of the LVF and told Michelle to, ‘like a good wee girl, watch [herself].’
Beth O’Neill was the receptionist at the Greenvale Hotel in Cookstown. Her statement recounted a call she received from a man identifying himself as a member of the LVF. He told her that he ‘strongly suggest[ed]’ that the hotel did not open its disco that night. When she passed the phone to her manager, the caller hung up. In eight years of working at the hotel, she had never received a call like that. Michael McElhatton, proprietor of the Greenvale Hotel, provided a statement corroborating Beth’s recollection of the phone call.
The next two statements came from Henry ‘Harry’ McGill and Barry Macken, who arrived at the Glengannon Hotel with earlier witness Connor Murphy. Harry remembers seeing a red Vauxhall Nova enter the carpark. He believes there may have been three passengers. When Harry heard automatic gunfire and saw flashes coming from the passenger side of the Nova, he shouted at his mates to get down. He then watched the Nova leave the carpark and drive in the direction of Dungannon. Harry and his friends first ran to the back entrance, only to find the door locked. They ran to the front, where Harry saw one man lying face-down and another with a gunshot wound in the middle of his back. Harry tried to comfort the man who had been shot in the back until police brought Harry and his friends inside.
Barry’s statement recalled the same evening. He also saw a red Vauxhall enter the carpark before it swung around. Barry heard a burst of gunfire and saw flashes coming from the passenger side of the vehicle. He believes he saw the outline of a driver and someone in the rear passenger seat but could not see any details. Barry followed the same path as Harry and joined him in comforting the man who had been shot in the back. Harry, Barry, and their friends stayed with the man they were brought inside to wait for police.
Terence McQuaid, son of the Glengannon Hotel’s proprietor, was working a partial shift on the night of the shooting. Terence remembers a conversation around 9:15 PM in which Seamus Dillon told him that they should be very careful that evening, as Seamus had seen a red car with suspicious occupants driving back and forth on the road. When Terence mentioned his plans to go into town, Seamus cautioned him against it; there had been a riot earlier in the day. Terence left the hotel a bit later and went into town with a colleague. They returned a few hours later to find people lying on the ground outside the hotel. Terence was told that two bouncers had been shot and someone incorrectly told him that the gunmen were still there. He doesn’t remember much after this, but he does remember remaining outside while the ambulance took Seamus and Christy.
Judge Greene set a review hearing for 28th April 2023 and stated that he plans to resume the inquest later this year. He said that although the State parties may find the timeline unrealistic, it may be unreasonably long for Seamus’s family. He reiterated the importance of keeping the inquest moving at an appropriate pace and asked that State parties keep in mind the timeline as they prepare for the upcoming modules.
This request from Judge Greene comes while the State has used national security and Public Interest Immunity (PII) concerns to delay or stall other legacy inquests that similarly raise concerns about collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and state forces. With the shameful Legacy Bill looming in the distance, legacy inquests must proceed at a reasonable pace. The Dillon family has waited decades to find out what happened to their lost loved one. They, like so many families in the North of Ireland, deserve to see the truth. This request from Judge Greene comes while the State has used national security and Public Interest Immunity (PII) concerns to delay or stall other legacy inquests that similarly raise concerns about collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and state forces. With the shameful Legacy Bill looming in the distance, it is vital that legacy inquests proceed at a reasonable pace. The Dillon family has waited decades to find out what happened to their lost loved one. They, like so many families in the North of Ireland, deserve to see the truth.