Loughgall - still searching for the truth

Saturday, 13 February, 1999

by Laura Friel

The recent 'revelation' that Margaret Thatcher "personally authorised" the use of lethal force at Loughgall on 8 May 1987 is of no surprise to republicans.

Two weeks ago, during a meeting with relatives of the eight IRA Volunteers and one civilian killed in the ambush, a representative of the state which had sanctioned the deaths was given the opportunity to explain the circumstances of the SAS operation. In the spirit of peace and reconciliation, the grief and loss of the Loughgall families could have been acknowledged. As British Security Minister with special responsibility for the victims of the conflict, Adam Ingram was well placed to do both. He refused to do either, lacking even the compassion to treat the mothers, wives and sisters of the dead men with sympathy and respect.

The British minister may have huffed and puffed his way through a difficult encounter but sooner or later the truth will have to be faced. Evidence which contests the British version of events continues to be gathered and collated. Loughgall will not go away.

The inquest into the men's deaths in 1987 was held in Craigavon Courthouse on 30 May 1995. In the interim eight years the families of the victims had campaigned for the full disclosure of facts surrounding the deaths of their relatives.

At a conference organised by 'Relatives for Justice' in Dungannon in April 1991, families criticised the delay in holding inquests and highlighted the restrictions imposed on coroners' courts (legislation was introduced in 1980 to curtail the remit of coroners' courts in the Six counties).

Addressing the conference, Bridget Hughes, widow of the civilian killed in Loughgall, spoke movingly about her ordeal. "My husband was on his way home from work. He was murdered. Hours later I was told by [RUC] detectives that there had been a bomb and my husband was a casualty. They never told me that he had in fact been shot dead. They interrogated me there and then. His remains were brought home the next day and they tried to interrogate me again." Four years after Anthony Hughes's death his widow and children had received no proper explanation, no apology and no compensation.

State indifference to the relatives of the victims of Crown force killings is often accompanied by harassment. In February 1994, the Six County based Committee for the Administration of Justice published "Adding Insult to Injury" documenting "a persistent and widespread pattern of harassment directed against the families of persons killed by the security forces."

But despite intimidation pressure on the British administration continued.

Within a month Amnesty International had released a special report on "Political killings in Northern Ireland". On the allegation of shoot-to-kill, Amnesty remained "unconvinced by government statements that such a policy does or did not exist because such statements are not substantiated by evidence of an official will to investigate fully and impartially each incident, to make the facts publicly known, to bring the perpetrators to justice or to bring relevant legislation into line with international standards." A year later and the inquest into the Loughgall killings was no exception.

Within two days of the inquest's opening at Craigavon courthouse the families had withdrawn their lawyers in protest after the coroner refused to allow equal access to all documentation. An application for a judicial review was lodged on behalf of the families at Belfast High Court but the inquest continued, concluding in early June, three months before the High Court hearing.

Paul Mageean, a CAJ observer, commented on the procedure after the families had left the coroners' court: "What followed was the inquest stripped bare, unadorned with any of its legitimating aspects. It was revealed as the anodyne farce Parliament intended it to be and as Counsel for the Coroner, MOD and Chief Constable got to their feet to ask their increasingly banal questions the stamp of rubber resounded through the almost empty courtroom".

On 2 June 1995 the inquest jury presented its 'findings' with more banality. The jury found that the men "had died from multiple gunshot wounds".

Yet despite the restrictions, documents presented at the inquest could not completely disguise the truth. According to the British, the sole purpose of the SAS operation was to "prevent" the IRA attack on the barracks and yet at every stage no attempt was made to intervene. Rather, the attack was allowed to proceed to a point where the execution of the IRA Volunteers involved could be presented as justifiable.

At the inquest it emerged that British forces on the ground had at least 24 hours prior knowledge of the intended IRA attack. Intelligence reports show that the British army and the RUC knew of the IRA's plan and the IRA personnel involved, several weeks in advance. The Prevention of Terrorism Act and the Emergency Provisions Act give the RUC and British army enormous powers yet none were utilised. No attempt was made to prevent the attack by arresting and detaining anyone.

In the early hours of 8 May 1987, the SAS and RUC personnel positioned themselves at strategic points around Loughgall barracks. A blue Toyota van hijacked by the IRA a couple of hours prior to the attack and the JCB digger carrying the bomb were observed by both the SAS and RUC on several occasions. The JCB, it was noted, was travelling very slowly yet there was no attempt to intervene and stop the vehicles or apprehend their IRA occupants. On a normal Friday evening at 7.25pm, Loughgall barracks would have been unmanned. However, on this particular evening several members of the SAS and RUC were secretly positioned within the barracks. Under their watchful eyes, the IRA unit was allowed to position the JCB at the side of the barracks and detonate the bomb.

Having allowed the IRA Volunteers, unwittingly, to set the scene, the SAS opened fire. No warnings were given. Over 600 shots were fired by the SAS within the first five minutes at the encircled IRA members and their vehicles.

All eight IRA men who attacked Loughgall were killed. All had multiple bullet wounds, the vast majority above waist level. Six of the dead had serious gunshot wounds to the head. All died at the scene. Clearly the objective was not to disable and capture but eliminate by summary execution.

Oliver Hughes, a civilian travelling home from work through Loughgall village, was riddled with bullets, unconscious and taken as dead. His brother Anthony at the wheel of the vehicle was already dead. The fact that Oliver Hughes appeared to be dead may have saved his life. Autopsy reports show that many of the dead were shot at close range, including some already lying stricken on the ground - the classic execution style of the British SAS.

With no hope of securing justice within British jurisdiction, by the mid 1990s the Loughgall families focused their campaign on the international arena. Within months of the inquest, the CAJ, at the request of the families, had lodged an application with the European Commission on Human Rights.

"The security forces have a duty in all circumstances to preserve life rather than to take it," said CAJ spokesperson Paul Mageean. Describing the Loughgall ambush as "one of the most serious incidents involving the security forces over the last twenty five years," he said: "Obviously it is a matter of the utmost concern which requires independent and impartial investigation. The experience of the families of the deceased has been that such investigation is not available in Northern Ireland and they have therefore decided to take their case to the highest human rights forum in Europe."

In 1997 an independent inquiry into the Loughgall killings was commissioned. A group of American lawyers were tasked with the investigation and a number of expert witnesses were asked to scrutinise documented evidence which emerged during the inquest. A Virginian company with extensive international experience in security matters, AMTI, undertook to review all the evidence. Their reports, released late last year, provide the most damning assessment to date.

Kenneth Cummings, a forensic investigations expert and former American soldier trained in 'Special' or covert operations, was asked to evaluate the actions of the British military in the Loughgall killing. As a US soldier Cummings had trained with British Special Operations groups and received specific training within the US Military in the practices of the British SAS. "It is clear to any reasonable prudent professional involved in such military matters that a classic elimination plan of these eight IRA individuals and two innocent civilians was executed by the SAS," concludes Cummings. "The SAS planning for this operation was not to capture the IRA personnel, nor was it to prevent any attack on the RUC Barracks. This SAS operation was a premeditated 'shoot-to-kill' plan."

Noting the fact that Patrick Kelly, "the reported leader of the IRA personnel involved", received mortal wounds while lying on the ground, Cummings described this as "standard SAS practice... part of their operating procedure to kill by shooting in the head individuals who apparently survive an SAS operation or the reported leader of the force opposing the SAS." Cummings continued, "The reported missing tooth of Patrick Kelly is also consistent with an SAS practice of taking a "souvenir" from a dead person as a "trophy" of a successful operation."

Equally damning are the conclusions of Dr Hiroshi Nakazawa, a New York practitioner and former pathologist for the County of Rockland. Dr Nakazawa examined the autopsy reports. "It is my opinion that weapon discharges of close range caused the death of certain of the decedents including some decedents that were lying on the ground. Furthermore, the nature and extent of the injuries... evidences that excessive force was utilised on those individuals killed at Loughgall on 8 May 1987."

This week relatives of those who died at Loughgall travelled to Dublin to meet with former TD John Wilson who was recently appointed as Victims' Commissioner. The families had requested the meeting to voice concerns about their recent meeting with British minister Adam Ingram. "We intend to ask the Irish minister to lobby the British government on our behalf for recognition of all those killed by the state and for an admission that, yes, they were guilty of abuses," said Mairead Kelly of the Loughgall Truth and Justice Campaign. After the meeting, which took place at St Stephen's Green House on Monday, Roisin Kelly, a sister of one of the Volunteers killed, described the meeting as "good". "The Commissioner was prepared to listen and even question us on the details of the case," said Roisin. "He listened with sympathy and acknowledged our grief." Wilson agreed to make representations on behalf of the Loughgall families to the Irish government. "The Commissioner accepted the need for truth as part of the process towards peace and reconciliation," said Roisin, "the tears of nationalists are the same as the tears of unionists and should be publicly recognised as such."

click here to switch over to the lyrics of the song The Loughgall Ambush.