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10 May 2001 Edition

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Just the beginning

Shoot-to-kill relatives win in European Court of Human Rights


The British government came under increased pressure this week as calls for independent public inquiries into controversial killings involving British state forces in the North of Ireland intensified following a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights. The court found the British government guilty of violating the human rights of 12 Irish people shot dead by British Crown and Pro British forces in the 1980s and 1990s.

  It is not just about these four incidents. Over 360 people have been killed by British Crown forces, 74 of them children, and this opens the way for their families to take a similar course of action  
Mairead Kelly, sister of an IRA Volunteer shot dead at Loughgall, 1987.

The ruling came as relatives of those killed vowed that this was only the beginning of their campaign to establish the truth surrounding of deaths of their loved ones and others killed by British state forces in disputed circumstances. ``It has been a long wait,'' said Mairead, sister of Patrick Kelly, one of nine people killed by the British SAS in Loughgall, ``but it has been worth the wait and we will fight on for those responsible to be brought to justice.''

``We know our loved ones were murdered in a shoot to kill policy and they weren't the first or last,'' said Jonathan, son of Gervaise McKerr, one of three unarmed IRA Volunteers shot dead by the RUC. ``We intend to pursue our fight for the truth even further. We have a right to challenge the RUC and the British state.''

  The British government tried to drag out the process, thinking time would make our voices less poignant. But the time for lies is over. We demand truth and justice for our loved ones. We intend to pursue our fight for the truth even further. We have a right to challenge the RUC and the British state.  
Jonathan McKerr, son of an IRA Volunteer shot dead in Lurgan, 1982.

The Strasbourg judges had been asked to consider four incidents involving the deaths of twelve republicans as test cases taken from over 360 controversial killings directly carried out by British Crown forces and others carried out by loyalists colluding with British forces. There have been over 1,050 killings by loyalists, the most controversial of which have involved evidence of Crown force collusion.

Restricting their considerations to the aftermath of the killings, the seven judges ruled that by failing to conduct proper investigations into the deaths, the British government was guilty of violating the human rights of those killed. The court condemned the lack of independence of the investigating officers from the state forces implicated in the killings and recommended that complaints against the RUC should be conducted by a fully independent agency.

  The next time I see a British minister on TV accusing other countries of being terrorist states, I would like to ask the question Ôare they a terrorist state'? We know never to expect anything from the British judicial system. As far as we are concerned, this is only the beginning of our fight.  
Hugh Jordan, father of an IRA Volunteer shot dead in Belfast, 1992.

The judges highlighted the lack of public scrutiny and criticised the denial of information to the relatives of those killed. The court pointed out that relatives and their legal advisers were put at a deliberate disadvantage by denying them prior access to witness evidence at inquest. In the case of the eight IRA Volunteers and a civilian killed in Loughgall, the court criticised the fact that British soldiers involved in the ambush could not be compelled to testify at the inquests.

In the case of Gervaise McKerr, shot dead by the RUC in 1982, the court criticised the restriction of the inquest to findings that do not allow for any verdict that might secure a criminal offence. The judges also noted with dissatisfaction that the RUC officer involved in the shooting could not be required to testify at the inquest. In the case of Patrick Shanaghan, the court criticised the inquest's exclusion of evidence of Crown force collusion with loyalist gunmen.

``In all four cases the court observed that the shortcomings in transparency and effectiveness identified ran counter to the purpose identified by the domestic courts of allaying suspicions and rumours. Proper procedures for insuring the accountability of agents of the state were indispensable, maintaining public confidence and meeting the legitimate concerns that might arise from the use of lethal force,'' said the judges.

  This is a huge indictment of the British government who often see fit to lecture other countries on human rights issues. This is a victory for justice; it is a victory for all the individual families involved, and it is a victory for all those other families who have suffered at the hands of the security forces and have been unable to get their cases heard.  
Mary Shanaghan, mother of a Sinn Féin election worker shot dead in Castlederg, 1991.

The British government's claim that restrictions on inquests were acceptable because they were not the proper forum for dealing with the wider issues was dismissed by the court. ``No other public accessible procedure was forthcoming to remedy the shortcomings'' of the inquest system, said the ruling.

So there we have it, the European Court upheld what we have all suspected and long maintained. The British government has been systematically engaged in obscuring the truth and denying justice to Irish citizens killed by British forces of occupation. There has been a cover up, that much has been established, but as the relatives of the victims made clear, that is only the beginning.

  For 30 years, Britain has perpetuated the myth that their role in our country was as peacemaker not protagonist. Today that image and propaganda is in tatters.  
Mark Thompson of Relatives for Justice.

Mark Thompson of Relatives for Justice said the families were now seeking an urgent meeting with the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. ``We are calling on the Irish government to push for a full inquiry,'' said Thompson, ``we also feel that it is now time for the United Nations to come in and set up an investigation.''

The RFJ has also sent a dossier to the Special Rapporteurs on Summary and Arbitrary Execution to push for an independent inquiry into the actions of British Crown forces in the North of Ireland. Paul Mageean of the Committee for the Administration of Justice reiterated the call for an independent inquiry. ``The judgment obliges the authorities to establish independent mechanisms to investigate alleged killings by the police or army,'' he said.

Jane Winter, director of the British Irish Rights Watch, said the British government would have to address calls by relatives for public inquiries not only in these four cases but in many others, including those of Patrick Finucane, Rosemary Nelson and Robert Hamill.


The worst human rights record in western Europe


Britain has the worst record on human rights in western Europe. To date, it has lost more than 50 of the cases brought against it at the European Court of Human Rights. Twelve of those cases, almost 25% of the total, have been directly connected to the conflict in the Six Counties, where Britain has been found to have breached articles of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) on the right to life, on the prohibition on torture, on the use of inhuman or degrading treatment, on unjustified detention and on the right to a fair trial. Twice, Britain has been forced to derogate from the ECHR under Article 15 because of its use of illegal seven-day detention orders.

The ECHR was finally incorporated into British law in October last year, some 50 years after it came into being. The refusal to incorporate the Convention was based on Britain's continued use of the Ôtemporary' Prevention of Terrorism Act, most specifically the use of seven-day detention orders which were in flagrant breach of all human rights conventions and legislation. Under the Labour government, the British state has managed to circumvent the threat to the PTA posed by incorporation of the ECHR simply by making the legislation permanent (the new Terrorism Act) and by making seven-day detention dependent upon a magistrate rather than a police officer.

In summary, the rights provided by the ECHR are:

the right to life

prohibition on torture or inhuman and degrading treatment

no slavery or forced labour

no unjustified detention

the right to a fair trial

right to respect for privacy, family life and the home

freedom of thought, conscience and religion

freedom of expression

freedom of assembly and association

right to marry and found a family

no discrimination in rights

right to property

right to education

right to free elections

no capital punishment

Some of the most notorious breaches of the ECHR by the British government include:

On 18 January 1978, Britain was found, by 16 votes to 1, to be in breach of Article 3 of the ECHR, which states that ÔNo one shall be subjected or torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment' in respect of the case of the Ôhooded men' who, in August 1971, had been held for interrogation at Girdwood Barracks in Belfast.

The one vote against the ruling came from British judge Sir Gerald Fitzmaurice, who argued: ``According to my idea of the correct handling of languages and concepts, to call the treatment involved... inhuman is excessive and distorting unless the term is being employed loosely and merely figuratively''. The men had been hooded, made to continuously stand spread-eagled against a wall for up to six hours at a time (or until they collapsed, when they were simply revived and made to continue); they were submitted to continuous and monotonous Ôwhite' noise; they were deprived of sleep and denied proper food and water. One of the men, Sean McKenna, father of hunger striker Sean McKenna, did not recover properly and died in 1975 aged 45.

In 1984, the British government was found to have breached Article 2 of the Convention - the right to life - when British soldiers shot and killed Thomas McLaughlin, together with Sean Ruddy and Robert Anderson, during the course of a robbery in October 1971. The British government paid £37,000 to McLaughlin's widow.

In September 1995, Britain was again found to have breached article two in respect of the execution of unarmed IRA Volunteers Mairéad Farrell, Sean Savage and Dan McCann in Gibraltar by the SAS on 6 March 1988. The then Conservative British Home Secretary, Michael Howard, declared in the British parliament that the government would Ôignore' the ruling. It was, however, ultimately compelled to pay compensation to the families. One of the RUC officers most closely involved with the Gibraltar killings, Assistant Chief Constable Brian Fitzsimmons, was killed in the Mull of Kintyre Chinook helicopter crash.

In June 2000, the Court ruled against the British government in the case of Gerard Magee, finding that he had been denied the right to a fair trial because of his treatment in Castlereagh interrogation centre after his arrest in December 1988. He was awarded £10,000 in legal costs. At the time of his arrest, Magee was denied access to a solicitor for two and a half days and was eventually convicted solely on the basis of a statement beaten out of him. Magee's victory has huge implications for all those who were convicted of so-called scheduled offences solely on the basis of confessions obtained whilst under interrogation at Castlereagh.

In addition, in a report published in April 1997, Amnesty International accused the British government of indulging in Ôinhuman or degrading treatment' in its use of Special Secure Units (SSUs) to hold republican prisoners in British jails. Predictably, the Home Office denied this, but by September of the same year it had been shamed into removing all of the prisoners (some of whom had been incarcerated for eight years in these concrete bunkers with resulting severe physical and psychological effects) effectively closing down the SSUs.


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