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
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
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
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
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
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."