Sculptor Mel French regards the bronze statue in Belturbet as her most personal project. Two handsome figures – a long-haired schoolgirl with dancing shoes and an athletic young man with a football at his feet – face out onto Main Street. These sculptures represent two teenagers, local girl Geraldine O'Reilly, 15, and Paddy Stanley, 16, from Clara, Co Offaly, both of whom perished on 28 December 1972 when a powerful car bomb ripped through the Co Cavan border town.

Nobody has ever been convicted for their murder.

In the 48 years since the car bomb attack, An Garda Síochána have compiled six separate reports on Belturbet. They will not disclose their contents to the Stanley or O'Reilly families because the investigation is still "active". The Gardaí contend that divulging information to relatives could "interfere with the investigation ... [and] 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 not an explanation that offers consolation to either family. "I think we have a right to know anyway," said Paddy's sister Greta Stanley. "I think we have a right to know that somebody tried to bring them to justice."

Following the explosion, initial enquiries made locally by gardaí suggested that loyalist extremists were behind it. Many years later, the Belturbet bombing was added to the Interim Report on Dublin/Monaghan Bombings published at the end of 2004. The Interim Report, better known as the Barron Report, named one suspect for Belturbet: Robert Bridge, an Enniskillen loyalist. It also referred to several other suspects without identifying them. 

Image - The bronze sculptures of Geraldine O'Reilly and Paddy Stanley on Main Street in Belturbet

The bronze sculptures of Geraldine O'Reilly and Paddy Stanley on Main Street in Belturbet

In 1975, Robert Bridge was arrested and convicted for 15 years for an unrelated murder in Co Fermanagh. At that point, the gardaí made a request to the Royal Ulster Constabulary Assistant Chief Constable that Bridge be interviewed by the RUC in relation to Belturbet. RTÉ Investigates has not been able to establish if this request was fulfilled by the RUC, or that gardaí followed up their request.

When RTÉ Investigates put detailed questions to An Garda Síochána in relation to the 1972 bombing, the Garda Press Office said that it does not comment on ongoing investigations. In the many years since the Belturbet atrocity, the Stanley and O'Reilly families report seeing no real movement. "It just felt that there was nothing being done. Like it would have been the same if nobody had died," said Anthony O'Reilly, who was with Geraldine, his youngest sister, on the night the car bomb exploded. "But my sister died."

The Stanley sisters are equally unhappy at what feels like a lack of progress. "I know there was a lot going on," said Greta Stanley. "But he was still our brother. He deserved – and Geraldine O'Reilly – they both deserved justice. They both deserved something to be done about it and there wasn't anything done about it. And unfortunately it looks like there never will."

When asked whether he felt no stone had been left unturned to find those responsible, Anthony O'Reilly and his wife Marie paused before responding. "I don't think there were too many stones turned at all," he shrugged. "They are waiting for someone to come [forward] that feels guilty about it – which I don't think will ever happen."

Over the past year, RTÉ Investigates set about turning a few stones. Almost five decades after these deaths, our investigation took us in various directions. It became quite clear that what happened on 28 December, 1972, was part of a grim sequence of events during that period. While it's a sequence with no determinate starting point, there are several key incidents along the way – such as the September murder just across the border of Tom and Emily Bullock by the IRA in Aghalane, Co Fermanagh. 

Image - No paramilitary loyalist group has ever claimed responsibility for the bombing in Belturbet

No paramilitary loyalist group has ever claimed responsibility for the bombing in Belturbet

Tom Bullock was a member of the British Army's Ulster Defence Regiment, but the grisly nature of his death – he and his wife, Emily, were shot at their farmhouse – ratcheted up unionist fears about weak security along the southern side of the border.

UDR men were regularly targeted in south Fermanagh through 1972 and, for many unionists, it seemed way too easy for active IRA units to carry out raids and then escape back into the south.

The notorious murder of two Catholic farm workers – known as "The Pitchfork Murders" – soon followed, as did the murders of UDR man Robin Bell and Derrylin butcher Louis Leonard, who was posthumously honoured by the IRA.

Years later, British soldiers were convicted for the Pitchfork Murders. But for the vast majority of killings in Co Fermanagh – like Robin Bell and Louis Leonard – perpetrators were neither found nor prosecuted.

Growing anger over the use of Aghalane Bridge for IRA raids led to consensus among the British Army, the RUC and the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) that its closure might alleviate security concerns. Such a drastic measure would have serious social and economic consequences, since Aghalane was the border crossing on the main Dublin–Enniskillen–Donegal road.

In a 2005 oral history interview with the Imperial War Museum, sourced by University of Nottingham academic Dr Edward Burke, Retired Major Vernon Rees spoke of his time as Captain in command of British forces in west Fermanagh.

He recalled being approached in late 1972 by Jack Leahy, a unionist councillor from Lisnaskea, who intimated that in the wake of the Bullock murders loyalist paramilitaries wanted to blow up Aghalane Bridge.

Image - Belturbet is located just south of the border with Northern Ireland

Belturbet is located just south of the border with Northern Ireland

"Would you feel better if that bridge wasn't there?" Mr Leahy asked, according to Major Rees' account.

"And I said 'yeah, of course I would, but there is no way we can do anything about that'," replied Major Rees.

Mr Leahy suggested Major Rees keep his soldiers away from the bridge for four hours.

Major Rees found himself contemplating whether he should "cooperate ... in the destruction of a main road in the United Kingdom."

"And I thought it would be wonderful if that bridge was down," he said in the interview. "So I leaked it through the Special Branch again that there would be no soldiers on that bridge between eight o'clock this coming Thursday and midnight."

At the agreed time, loyalist paramilitaries placed an explosive charge on the old stone bridge. Before igniting it, they warned a local family living in a nearby cottage. The family evacuated their home and the device was set off.

Following the blast, Major Rees examined the bridge and found the gang had failed to disable it. Rather than round up gang members or arrange for repairs to the bridge, Major Rees ordered a bomb disposal expert from his own unit to finish off the job.

That there should be such a permissive attitude between the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries would be a cause of major concern. As far as Major Rees was concerned, however, destroying the bridge "saved dozens of lives."

For the Stanley and O'Reilly families, however, the destruction of the bridge reveals clear collaboration between the British Army and militant loyalists. The families are left wondering if rounding up south Fermanagh paramilitaries in November would have discouraged hardline loyalists from taking things further in December, in turn, saving the lives of two innocent teenagers. 

Image - Loyalist paramilitaries failed to fully disable the Aghalane Bridge  Photo: Paddy Ronaghan

Loyalist paramilitaries failed to fully disable the Aghalane Bridge Photo: Paddy Ronaghan

The unionist-dominated Fermanagh Council, British Army and RUC wanted bridge to stay ruptured, for security reasons. However, many on the southern side saw things very differently. Losing the main road to the northwest further isolated Fermanagh nationalists, and cut off links to Donegal.

"It was another mark of how isolated and exposed we were," Frank McManus, then-MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, felt. "That really you had to look after yourself and you were far from the sources of power of influence."

In response, Cavan County Council requested Irish Army engineers to put in place a bailey bridge so that the main road could be reopened. This incensed Fermanagh unionists as well as NIO officials and British security forces. Major Rees was instructed by superiors to dismantle the bridge, but since it was an approved border crossing, Cavan County Council was legally entitled to restore it.

On 24 December 1972, cross-border traffic returned to Aghalane, using the bailey bridge in both directions. Four days later, loyalists drove a car bomb across the temporary bridge to Belturbet, detonating it on Main Street without any warning.

It was this blast that claimed the lives of innocent teenagers Geraldine O'Reilly and Paddy Stanley.

For Frank MacManus, the intention of bombing Belturbet was to give a taste of what many Fermanagh towns had already endured. But he said the main message was to "teach Cavan County Council and the south that we don't want the bridge – and don't you dare put it there again." 

It's something I'll never forget. I could paint a picture of it as it was, exactly today. The very exact same.

Nobody has ever been convicted for the 28 December bombing. Robert Bridge, named as a suspect in the Barron Report, denies all involvement.

However, confidential records obtained by RTÉ Investigates reveal that security forces had their own suspicions of who might have been involved.

Ministry of Defence files released to the UK National Archives show that, just four months after the Belturbet bombing, security forces were aware of "a UDA Commando type gang from BELFAST who were believed responsible for various explosions in EIRE."

None of this information was shared with the gardaí.

Security files identify the leader of this "UDA Commando type gang" as Billy McMurray from the loyalist enclave of Rathcoole outside Belfast. Mr McMurray was arrested in 1973 on firearms charges, for which he served six months in jail. He and a UDA associate also faced charges of armed robbery, but state prosecutors dropped the case after three juries were unable to reach a verdict.

British Army intelligence noted his arrest and detention as the main reason for "no militant Protestant activity" in Co Fermanagh "for the period under review."

The discovery of bullets in a rental car he hired would also link McMurray to the notorious Derrylin murder of Louis Leonard in December 1972. RTÉ Investigates obtained a copy of the summary review compiled by the PSNI's Historical Enquiries Team. The review confirmed that McMurray, described as "Suspect A", was "acting lieutenant colonel for Fermanagh and Tyrone", the organiser behind "a UDA team . . . formed to carry out terrorist attacks in the south and north."

The PSNI declined to explain to RTÉ Investigates why none of this information was shared with gardaí. In a statement, the PSNI said it would "provide cooperation and assistance as required by any current or future investigation by An Garda Síochána."

The Ministry of Defence in London did not wish to comment on the matter. 

Image - The intention of the Belturbet bombing was to give a taste of what many Fermanagh towns had already endured

The intention of the Belturbet bombing was to give a taste of what many Fermanagh towns had already endured

RTÉ Investigates also wanted to know what, if anything, the gardaí knew about Billy McMurray. In response to a series of questions, the Garda Press Office reiterated that it does not comment on ongoing investigations.

McMurray left Northern Ireland for the UK in the mid-1970s and remained there until he passed away last year, aged 83.

Other records held by the British Ministry of Defence could throw some light on these dark days. However, the minutes of a key border security meeting held two days after the bombing of Belturbet – which involved the British Army, the RUC and the UDR – will remain closed to the public until 2057. Dating from 1972, those records will end up being sealed for 84 years in total.

"There may be many sensitive things within that month for the records of the particular British army brigade that operated in Co Fermanagh," said Dr Burke, who has closely examined border relations during the 1970s.

As such, Belturbet leaves more questions than answers. As the years roll on, the Stanley and O'Reilly families feel that time is running out for them finding justice.

No paramilitary loyalist group ever claimed responsibility for these bombings. In Belturbet, like Clones and Mullinagoad, it all happened without warning. The deaths of two teenagers came about following a completely random sequence of events. Paddy Stanley had a part-time job as a lorry helper. There was a delay making a delivery of gas cylinders to Belturbet, so Paddy and the driver had to stay overnight. They booked into McCaul's B&B in the town.

They got something to eat before Paddy wanted to call home to say he wouldn't be home until the next day. In an era before mobile phones, Paddy made his way to a public phone outside the post office on Main Street.  

Two young people killed – for what? It could have been me. Or it could have been my cousin. Unfortunately, it was Geraldine

Around the same time, Geraldine O'Reilly and her older brother Anthony were driving through town. Geraldine wanted to get a bag of chips, so Anthony double-parked outside Slowey's chip shop on Main Street. Beneath the Christmas lights of a border town – Paddy in the phone box and Geraldine in Slowey's – both were killed instantly when the car bomb detonated.

Anthony O'Reilly will openly admit that the experience scarred him physically and emotionally for years. He wonders how he survived the blast, considering how closely he was parked to the bomb. With his car fragmented by shrapnel, Anthony's miraculous escape was one of the chilling images captured by freelance photographer Paddy Ronaghan shortly after the blast.

"I thought I was after falling asleep," Anthony told RTÉ Investigates. "That I was dreaming or something. When I came to, I was half-ways out of the car, the door was open and the car in front of me was on fire."

It was not until he made his way down the street and stopped someone to ask what had happened that he discovered there had been a bomb.

"I just thought of Geraldine – where was she? I knew she went into the chipper. I started to call her but I couldn't get any answer. The whole inside was all in darkness."

Anthony's ordeal was only beginning. A Garda sergeant asked him to follow him by torchlight into the devastated chip shop.

"And I identified her laying on the floor," he recalled, the picture still clear in his mind. "I knew it was Geraldine. It was all dark, but I knew by the clothes she was wearing that it was her."

A couple of miles away, Anthony's wife, Marie, heard that a car bomb had exploded in town. At first, she thought it might have been another attack on Aghalane Bridge. But even from that distance, she could see a bright orange glow illuminating Main Street.

Image - Anthony O'Reilly was double-parked outside Slowey's chip shop on Main Street when the explosion occurred  Photo: Paddy Ronaghan

Anthony O'Reilly was double-parked outside Slowey's chip shop on Main Street when the explosion occurred Photo: Paddy Ronaghan

Growing anxious that Anthony and Geraldine had not returned, she walked into Belturbet. She could not get past the crowd barriers that gardaí had erected. News was already circulating around town that there were two unidentified fatalities. Unbeknownst to Marie, her husband had already been taken to hospital for treatment.

"I think I cried the whole night," she remembered. "Because we didn't know."

By morning, she finally got word that Anthony was not one of the two victims. "He was all cuts and grazes and a tube hanging down," she remembered, visiting him in hospital. "He was really devastated looking and in shock, but I was so glad to see him."

But it was a bittersweet moment. Geraldine was confirmed dead along with one other unnamed fatality.

The Stanley family in Clara, Co Offaly were watching TV when a news bulletin broke the Christmas cheer. They heard that three bombs had exploded near the border and two people were killed in Belturbet, Co Cavan. Prompted by parents Joe and Teresa, the family knelt to say a prayer for the victims and their families. Little did they know they had just lost their oldest son.

The parish priest arrived in the early hours and broke the news to parents Joe and Teresa. Both were utterly devastated and, in the eyes of their children, never quite recovered from the heartbreak.

Greta Stanley, aged 13 at the time, could not fathom how her oldest brother was not coming home.

"It's very hard to understand, to believe what they tell you is true," she recalled of the moment during her childhood when she met evil face-to-face.

"Because we never saw Paddy again. We were talking to him the night before he died. And the next morning you're told Paddy was in an accident. That he was dead. How could he be dead?"

Image - Initial enquiries made locally by gardaí in Belturbet suggested that loyalist extremists were behind the bombing

Initial enquiries made locally by gardaí in Belturbet suggested that loyalist extremists were behind the bombing

Paddy O'Reilly, a garage owner in Belturbet, was first to find Paddy Stanley. As he hurried down the town to see if he could help anybody, he saw a car lying on its side in flames, twisted metal and glass everywhere. And then, by the phone box outside the post office, he made his own grim discovery.

"The door was blown off the phone box," Paddy, now aged 86, told RTÉ Investigates. "And the young Stanley lad was lying on top of the door. I had to stoop down on me hands and knees and catch a hold of him by the leg of his trousers, catch him as best I could so as I could lift him. And I carried him up to the showroom of my garage. I didn't know who the lad was. I hadn't a clue and couldn't recognise him. I had him in my arms and I remember saying, 'Will someone, for God's sake, say the Act of Contrition?' That was the very words I said."

For the Stanley family, the next days, weeks and months are an unhappy blur. Teresa Stanley was too grief-stricken to even go to Paddy's funeral. It was only then that her other children learned she was, in fact, pregnant.

"It was years later before she told us she could feel her grief affecting the child inside her," Greta said.

"That's how she described it. That Susan curled up and said I'm staying here, I'm not moving. You could nearly say that Mammy wanted to protect her from the world. She felt very much that this was her reaction to the news. That this child curled up inside her and was staying there."

Teresa was struggling to cope with losing her son when she gave birth to a baby girl. And when Susan Stanley was born, doctors discovered that both her arms were broken. The family remember Teresa wrapped rigidly in despair, doubled up in deep, emotional pain.

"What it was," Susan explained, "was grief."

Image - Patrick Stanley lies dead on Main Street as a bystander looks on Photo: Paddy Ronaghan

Patrick Stanley lies dead on Main Street as a bystander looks on Photo: Paddy Ronaghan

Considering himself extremely lucky to escape injury, Paddy O'Reilly was interviewed on Main Street by RTÉ News the morning after the blast.

His story has not changed in 48 years and he says the experience will stay with him to his last breath. "Oh, it's something I'll never forget," he said. "I could paint a picture of it as it was, exactly today. The very exact same."

The same images stay with everyone who was in Belturbet that night. Local man Ian Elliott was with his cousin in Slowey's chip shop when Geraldine walked in. He remembers saying hello and then he heard a big bang. Then all he remembers is running to safety up the street with his cousin.

"Two young people killed – for what?" he asked. "It could have been me. Or it could have been my cousin. Unfortunately, it was Geraldine. She'd have been my age at that time. I'm a grandfather now. Sometimes I think Geraldine could have got married, could be a grandmother at this point. Unfortunately that didn't happen."

Joe Stanley fought for justice for his son until his death in 2015. He took his case to the Taoiseach, the Department of Justice, An Garda Síochána, the Garda Commissioner and any State body, private organisation or individual that might throw some light on what happened. "Poor Daddy, right up to the morning he died, all he wanted was answers," said Susan. "And they were never given."

Many who pass by the bronze statues of Geraldine and Paddy on Main Street often presume that they were boyfriend and girlfriend – that their romantic past met with tragic fate. In some ways, it recalls the Romeo and Juliet bridge in Sarajevo, where two young lovers were caught in deadly crossfire.

But this was not the case. Even though they will forever be portrayed as a young couple, the two teenagers had never actually met. They were only brought together in 1972, four days after Christmas, when their lives came to a premature end. 


Watch the RTÉ Investigates documentary Belturbet: A Bomb That Time Forgot tonight on RTÉ Player.