Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

20 November 1997 Edition

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Shoot to kill - 15 years on

Peadar Whelan looks back at the shoot to kill incidents in County Armagh 15 years ago

IN 1982 DAVID McKERR was just three years old. On 11 November of that year the RUC shot dead his father Volunteer Gervais McKerr along with two other IRA Volunteers, Eugene Toman and Sean Burns. This ambush which claimed the lives of the three Lurgan men was followed within weeks by two similiar other ambushes which saw three other Armagh men killed. This series of killings gave rise to accusations that the British government and the RUC were operating a ``shoot to kill'' policy.

As the Hunger Strike in Long Kesh drew to a close in 1981 a young RUC Detective Inspector with Special Branch, having been promoted to Detective Chief Inspector, moved from his posting in North Belfast to take command of the Headquarters Mobile Support Unit (HMSUs); the units which carried out the shoot to kill operations.

The name of that RUC Detective Chief Inspector was Ronnie Flanagan, the present Chief Constable of the RUC.

According to Amnesty International, ``although the circumstances of many killings were disputed before 1982, three consecutive incidents in November and December 1982 sparked off widespread public concern that the security forces had a policy of deliberately killing alleged members of Republican groups. Six unarmed people were killed in the three incidents. The undercover anti-terrorist units (sic) of the RUC involved were HMSUs. Established as special paramilitary units to provide a rapid, aggressive response to `terrorist' threats, the existence of the units was first publicly revealed in the trial of an RUC constable charged with the murder of Seamus Grew. Deputy Chief Constable Michael McAtamney informed the court that the units' members were trained in `firepower, speed amd aggression' and they were trained to put people `permanently out of action' rather than to injure them. They were issued with rapid-fire weapons which were not standard RUC issue weapons.

``The units operated under the control of the Special Branch of the RUC. The Special Branch is responsible for obtaining, analysing and acting upon information about `terrorist' groups. With the military intelligence services and the British Government's security service MI5, it performs an intelligence gathering role. The recruitment and handling of informers is central to its work. Within the Special Branch there are a number of specialist squads, uniformed and plain clothed, which act on information supplied by informers.

``The HMSUs, each consisting of about 24 members, are reportedly trained by the SAS. The chain of command of the HMSUs consists of a Special Branch inspector, a Special Branch Superintendent and the RUC Chief Constable who is head of Special Branch. Each unit contains smaller groups of three or four members who operate in unmarked cars''.

By the end of 1982 six men had been shot dead in Armagh. They were IRA Volunteers Gervais McKerr, Eugene Toman and Sean Burns all from Lurgan, civilian Michael Tighe shot dead in a hayshed on the Ballinary Road outside Lurgan with his friend Martin McCauley who survived and INLA Volunteers, Seamus Grew and Roddy Carroll from Armagh City. The latter were killed on 12 December at the entrance to the Mullacreevie Park estate where Grew lived.

And while the British governemnt denied the existence of a ``shoot to kill'' policy, unionists welcomed the existence of just such a policy.

That there was a shoot to kill policy is in no doubt, that it was endorsed by the British state at its highest levels is not in question either in nationalist minds.

In the minds of international human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, there were questions to be answered as well.

Under that international pressure to investigate the Armagh killings the British government appointed John Stalker, Deputy Chief Constable of Greater Manchester to head up an inquiry.

However, Stalker was removed from the inquiry after allegations were made against him that he was involved with criminals. But before he went Stalker concluded in his report (which was never published) that ``the killings had a common feature: each left a strong impression that a type of pre-planned police ambush had occured and that someone had led these men to their deaths. The circumstances of those killings pointed to a police inclination, if not a policy, to shoot suspects dead without warning rather than to arrest them''.

The rubber stamp of justification for the shoot to kill policy came in 1984 when in two seperate trials Diplock judges McDermott and Gibson acquitted four RUC members who were charged with murdering Seamus Grew and Eugene Toman in two of the incidents.

Diplock Judge McDermott caused controversy when on Tuesday 3 April 1984 he acquitted RUC man John Robinson of killing Seamus Grew and audaciously commended Robinson's ``marksmanship and training'' in his summing up.

McDermott said he accepted Robinson's claim that he had been fired on. Robinson claimed Grew's car had reversed away from him making a loud bang like gunfire. Forensic evidence, however, disproved the car had made any noise or indeed had even moved back at all.

To cap it all McDermott maintaned that as he was ``not conducting an inquiry into how the officers acted as they did ... I am not concerned with any RUC cover up''; thus he dismissed questions about the official RUC version of events that the two INLA men crashed through a checkpoint, a claim that Robinson himself admitted in court was false.

It was however the acquittal of the three RUC members, Sergeant William Montgomery and constables David Brannigan and Frederick Robinson, who were charged with killing Eugene Toman in the first shoot to kill operation that caused the most nationalist ire.

When freeing the three RUC men Lord Justice Maurice Gibson commended them for their ``courage and determination in bringing the three deceased man to justice - in this case, to the final court of justice''.

Gibson directed that his commendation be recorded on their RUC files.

Incidentally, in the other shoot to kill case, that of Michael Tighe, no RUC personnel were ever charged in relation to the killing. It later emerged that an MI5 bug, which could pick up and record conversations, was hidden in the hayshed and pointed to the fact that the RUC were aware that Tighe and his companion were innocent.

The tape was never disclosed and it was believed at the time that it was Stalker's insistence that the tape be produced that led to his removal from the case.

Colin Sampson of the West Yorkshire police was appointed to continue the investigation begun by Stalker.

In April 1987 Gibson was executed when the IRA exploded a bomb near his car as he drove along the main Dublin to Belfast road.

In January 1988 and despite the conclusions of the Stalker/Sampson report the then British Attorney General Sir Patrick Mayhew announced in the British parliament that any RUC officers involved in a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice and responsible for obstructing the Stalker inquiry would not be prosecuted for reasons of ``national security''.

The truth of these shoot to kill incidents has yet to be told but for David McKerr the fight for that truth goes on. Speaking to An Phoblacht David told us how his mother Eleanor, who died on 31 October last year of cancer, fought to get to the truth of his father's killing.

``There is no doubt in my mind,'' he said, ``that the strain and suffering she went through brought her death about. She was also affected very badly by the killing of Pat Finucane. He was a great friend of the family.

``I always wanted to know more about the case, but my mother always protected me. Now I am trying to find out as much as I can''.

David, not surprisingly, has no respect for the RUC and maintains there is no justice in the Six Counties for nationalists. Nevertheless, he is determined to fight the case to get to the truth, ``I want them to know we will never lie down, we will always fight for justice,'' concluded a determined David.

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