British Army’s secret ‘terror unit’ shot dead innocent civilians in Northern Ireland: claim

Adrian Rutherford
November 21, 2013

A secret Army “terror” unit set up to target the IRA in the early 1970s was responsible for shootings in which unarmed civilians were killed, it has been claimed.

The Military Reaction Force was given licence to operate a shoot-to-kill policy against IRA suspects, former members tell the BBC’s Panoroma tonight.

In the programme, former members describe how the unit operated outside the law at times.

Soldiers from the undercover unit carried out a series of drive-by shootings where people were killed and injured — even though there was no evidence that they were armed or IRA members.

Tonight’s programme links MRF soldiers to five incidents in Belfast in 1972 where two civilians died and 12 others were injured.

“We were not there to act like an Army unit, we were there to act like a terror group… we were there in a position to go after IRA and kill them when we found them,” a former MRF soldier says.

Comprising 40 men, the secret unit carried out patrols of the IRA’s heartland in west Belfast between 1971 and 1973.

Panorama interviewed seven former members of the MRF, three of whom appear on camera.

All seven admit they acted in contravention of the Yellow Card — the strict rules spelling out the circumstances under which they could open fire.

All the soldiers interviewed by Panorama say they believe the Yellow Card did not apply to them.

Some say they would shoot their targets even if unarmed, although none would detail specific incidents. All the soldiers deny that they were part of a “death” or “assassination” squad.

Some soldiers say they would also drive by barricades manned by nationalists in west Belfast and open fire. One says this would happen even if they did not see anyone brandishing a firearm.

The programme links two civilian deaths to MRF operations.

On May 12, 1972 Patrick McVeigh (44) was fatally wounded and four others injured as they stood at a west Belfast barricade.

There is no evidence that any of them were members of the IRA.

Mr McVeigh’s daughter Patricia said: “I’m astonished, astounded, angry, that the forces that were supposed to be protecting us had actually killed my father and injured four other men.”

Six weeks later another drive-by shooting at the Glen Road bus terminus left four men injured.

One victim, Hugh Kenny, said he still suffers lasting pain. In a second shooting investigated by Panorama, Daniel Rooney (18) was killed and his friend Brendan Brennan wounded.

The MRF soldiers say they agreed to be interviewed because they believe their role in the fight against the IRA is unrecognised.

An MoD spokesman said: “The armed forces served with full accountability to the law and the MoD continues to support and co-operate fully with all ongoing investigations dealing with Operation Banner legacy issues.

“The UK has strict rules of engagement which are in accordance with UK law and international humanitarian law. These applied to operations in Northern Ireland.

“Soldiers were at all times subject to general criminal law on the use of force which was made clear to them in training and before operations; specifically on the use of the Yellow Card which clearly explained the circumstances in which it was permitted to open fire. Where allegations of criminality are involved it is up to the PSNI to consider whether any investigation is necessary and, if appropriate, to take it forward.

“The Ministry of Defence has co-operated fully with their inquiries.”

MoD timeline

April 1972: Brothers John and Gerry Conway are wounded at Whiterock Road

May 1972: Patrick McVeigh is shot dead and four hurt in a shooting at the junction of Riverdale Park South and Finaghy Road North

May 1972: On the same night, Eugene Devlin is shot and his friend Aidan McAloon escapes uninjured at nearby Slieve Gallion

June 1972: Four are shot at Glen Road

September 1972: Daniel Rooney is shot dead and Brendan Brennan wounded at St James’s Crescent

Patrick McVeigh: Admission took seven months

Patrick McVeigh was shot at the junction of Riverdale Park South and Finaghy Road North by soldiers from the Military Reaction Force on May 12, 1972.

Mr McVeigh, a 44-year-old father-of-six, was talking to a group of people at a nationalist barricade at the time.

A vehicle approached but apparently stopped and reversed some distance from the men. Soldiers in the car later told an inquest they had been fired upon by six men armed with rifles and revolvers.

Mr McVeigh was hit by sub-machine-gun fire while four others were wounded. The Army Press office originally described the shooting in which Mr McVeigh was killed as “an apparently motiveless crime”.

An Army officer who arrived following the shooting said he had believed it was a sectarian attack. It was only seven months later, in December 1972, that the officer learned soldiers were behind the shooting. The McVeigh case was reopened in 1993 and the following year detectives flew to Australia and England to reinterview former soldiers.

However, the review did not lead to prosecutions.

Daniel Rooney: Teen killed close to home

Daniel Rooney was shot by soldiers from the Military Reaction Force on September 27, 1972. He was shot at St James’s Crescent close to his home in Rodney Parade in west Belfast and died shortly afterwards in hospital. He was just 18.

A statement from the Army said five shots were fired at a security force surveillance patrol in the St James’s Park area and that fire was returned.

The commanding officer claimed Mr Rooney was a known gunman, but the IRA never claimed him as a member and he is listed on a memorial as a civilian.

At the time a protest involving 100 local women was staged.

The six soldiers involved did not appear at the inquest.

Their statements were read by an RUC officer and they were referred to by letters.

They claimed Mr Rooney and his companion had a rifle and a handgun.