SAS soldiers at the centre of controversial “shoot-to-kill” allegations over the deaths of two IRA members in Northern Ireland have been found to have acted in a controlled and professional way, the Ministry of Defence said today.
An IRA mural in Newry, Co Down, in December 2004
Dessie Grew, 37, and Martin McCaughey, 23, were killed in a hail of bullets when troops opened fire on them near farm buildings in Co Armagh in October 1990.
The high-profile case became one of a number where security forces faced allegations they had secretly planned to kill IRA members without any attempt to arrest them.
The Ministry of Defence has welcomed the findings of an inquest jury in Belfast that the soldiers used reasonable force in the incident, including when shots were fired at one of the IRA members as he lay wounded.
“We welcome the decision of the jury who clearly found that the soldiers involved acted in a controlled and professional way when faced with a grave threat to their lives,” said spokesman for the MoD in Northern Ireland.
The troops had a mushroom shed near Loughgall under surveillance amid suspicions a stolen vehicle inside was to be used for terrorism.
Shortly after midnight on October 9, 1990, Grew and McCaughey arrived at the scene. The men were armed with AK47 rifles, and wore gloves and balaclavas.
A soldier opened fire claiming he feared his life and the lives of his colleagues were in danger.
Other troops said they returned fire at sparks they believed were muzzle flashes coming from armed IRA members.
It emerged the republicans did not shoot and the soldiers later said they were firing at flashes they subsequently realised were caused by their own bullets.
Questions were also raised over why Grew was shot at close quarters as he lay injured on the ground.
Soldiers who gave evidence at the inquest were not identified during the hearings in Belfast’s Laganside courts complex and testified from behind a curtain.
They faced lengthy cross-examination from the legal team representing the bereaved families, who challenged their account of events.
The case was one of several so-called security force “shoot-to-kill” incidents which caused international controversy at the height of the Troubles and sparked a series of official investigations.
But the jury in the inquest found that the troops were operating at a time when IRA attacks on security forces were at a high level, and that McCaughey and Grew had put their own lives in danger by being in the area of the stolen car, wearing masks and carrying guns.
Jurors backed the soldiers’ belief that they felt their lives were in danger and found that they had used reasonable force under the circumstances.
The jury also considered the account of a soldier who told the inquest that as troops moved towards the mushroom sheds and opened a door, the wounded Grew made a noise and moved towards his gun, leading the soldier to shoot.
The jury found the soldier, who fired two shots into Grew, had felt he was under threat and ruled his reaction was reasonable.
Jurors could not come to a unanimous decision on the balance of probabilities whether or not there was an opportunity to attempt to arrest the IRA members.
But the jury agreed that once the soldiers felt compromised, they had no other reasonable course of action than to open fire.