Shoot-to-kill policy in Northern Ireland

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During the period known as "the Troubles" in Northern Ireland, the British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) were accused of operating a "shoot-to-kill" policy, under which suspects were alleged to have been deliberately killed without any attempt to arrest them. Such a policy was alleged to have been directed almost exclusively at suspected or actual members of Irish republican paramilitary groups. The Special Air Service (SAS) is the most high-profile of the agencies that were accused of employing this policy, as well as other British Army regiments, and the RUC.[1]

Notable incidents alleging the use of the shoot-to-kill policy include the Loughgall ambush, Operation Flavius in Gibraltar, and an incident in Strabane. The SAS killed a total of 14 Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) members at these locations.

Other high-profile incidents involving alleged shoot-to-kill incidents occurred in Belfast, Derry, East Tyrone and South Armagh. The killing of Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) member Brian Robinson by undercover soldiers is notable for being the most prominent of the very few alleged "shoot-to-kill" incidents where the victim was a loyalist.[2]

Stalker/Sampson Inquiry[edit]

On 24 May 1984 an inquiry under Deputy Chief Constable John Stalker of the Greater Manchester Police was opened into three specific cases where it was alleged that a specially trained undercover RUC team known as the "Headquarters Mobile Support Unit" had carried out a "shoot-to-kill" policy. These three cases were:

The shootings were initially investigated by other members of the RUC, and the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland decided to bring prosecutions. At the first trial, relating to the shootings of the two INLA men, Constable John Robinson admitted to having been instructed to lie in his statements, and that other witnesses had similarly altered their stories to provide justification for opening fire on Grew and Carroll. When Robinson was found not guilty, the resulting public outcry caused RUC Chief Constable John Hermon to ask John Stalker to investigate the killings.

On 5 June 1986, just before Stalker was to make his final report, he was removed from his position in charge of the inquiry. On 30 June, he was suspended from duty over allegations of association with criminals. On 22 August, he was cleared of the allegations and returned to duty, although he was not reinstated as head of the inquiry. The inquiry was taken over by Colin Sampson of the West Yorkshire Police. Its findings were never made public.

In the book Stalker, published by Stalker in 1988, the following descriptions of his investigation into the three shooting incidents appeared, concerning the McKerr, Toman and Burns shooting:

The Stalker inquiry discovered that the three victims of the shooting had been under surveillance for many hours by the police who planned to intercept them at a place different from where the killings occurred. No serious attempt to attract the attention of the driver was made, and no policeman was struck by the car. Immediately after the incident the police officers drove from the scene with their weapons and returned to their base for a debriefing by senior Special Branch Officers. Officers from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) were denied access for many days to the police officers involved and to their car, clothes and weapons for forensic examination. On the night of the killings, CID officers were given incorrect information about where the shootings began and part of the forensic examination was conducted in the wrong place. Many cartridge cases of rounds fired were never found.

We believed... that at least one officer had been in an entirely different position from that which he had claimed to be in when some fatal shots were fired. I also established that the police pursuit took place in a different manner from that described. But most damning of all, almost 21 months after the shooting we found fragments of the bullet that undoubtedly killed the driver still embedded in the car. That crucial evidence had lain undiscovered by the RUC and Forensic Science service... My conclusion in relation to the missing cartridge cases was that as many as twenty were deliberately removed from the scene. I could only presume that this was in order to mislead the forensic scientists and to hide the true nature and extent of the shooting.

I had to regard the investigation of the matter as slipshod and in some aspects woefully inadequate. I was left with two alternative conclusions, either that some RUC detectives were amateur and inefficient at even the most basic of murder investigation routines; or that they had been deliberately inept.

Concerning the three incidents as a whole, Stalker wrote:

Even though six deaths had occurred over a five-week period... and involved in each case officers from the same specialist squad, no co-ordinated investigation had ever been attempted. It seemed that the investigating officers had never spoken to each other. Worse still, despite the obvious political and public implications, no senior officer had seen fit to draw the reports together.

We had expected a particularly high level of enquiry in view of the nature of the deaths, but this was shamefully absent. The files were little more than a collection of statements, apparently prepared for a coroner's enquiry. They bore no resemblance to my idea of a murder prosecution file. Even on the most cursory of readings I could see clearly why the prosecutions had failed.

According to The Times of 9 February 1988, Stalker stated that although he never found written evidence of a shoot-to-kill policy, there was a "clear understanding" that officers were expected to enforce it.

In 1990 the RUC issued a response to Stalker's book, saying that the book contained many inaccuracies and distortions and gave a misleading impression. In particular it stated, in contradiction to Stalker's assertions, that:

Criticisms were also made that Stalker had gone outside his remit to reinvestigate the shooting incidents as well as a terrorist incident on 27 October 1982 in which three police officers had been killed and that his report, when submitted, lacked the clarity and precision normally associated with criminal investigations.

The government also submitted that on 23 June 1992 Thorburn, when he withdrew a libel action against the RUC Chief Constable, made a statement in which he took the opportunity to submit publicly that he was satisfied that the RUC had not pursued a shoot-to-kill policy in 1982 and that the RUC Chief Constable had not condoned or authorised any deliberate or reckless killings by his officers. Other members of the Stalker/Sampson inquiry team also stated in June 1990 that "the Greater Manchester officers wish to stress that the Stalker/Sampson Enquiry found no evidence of a 'Shoot to Kill policy'".[5][5]

Court rulings[edit]

Some of the victims' families have won compensation from the Ministry of Defence following cases brought to the European Court of Human Rights against the British government. The European judges considered four separate cases between 1982 and 1992 in which 14 people were killed. They involved the deaths of 12 IRA members and two civilians (one a Sinn Féin member) by the SAS, the RUC and the loyalist Ulster Defence Association, allegedly acting in collusion with the RUC.

In the judgement the court ruled that eight armed IRA men shot dead by soldiers of an SAS unit at Loughgall, County Armagh, in 1987, and two IRA men killed by RUC officers, had their human rights violated. It said this had arisen because of the failure of the state authorities to conduct a proper investigation into the circumstances of the deaths, though the court did not rule that the use of lethal force itself was unlawful. A similar finding was brought in the case of Sinn Féin member Patrick Shanaghan, who was killed by loyalist paramilitaries. The findings were brought under Article Two of the European Convention on Human Rights.[6]

Cultural impact[edit]

A number of television programmes were produced about or in reaction to specific incidents in particular or the shoot-to-kill issue in general:


  1. ^ Human Rights in Northern Ireland, Human Rights Watch, pp.48–49
  2. ^ Bill Rolston and Mairead Gilmartin. "Unfinished Business:State Killings and the search for Truth (Extract)". 
  3. ^ House of Lords
  4. ^ "'Shoot-to-kill' case gets go-ahead", BBC
  5. ^ European Court of Human Rights – McKERR v. THE UNITED KINGDOM – 28883/95 [2001] ECHR 329 (4 May 2001) THIRD SECTION
  6. ^ McCANN AND OTHERS v. THE UNITED KINGDOM – 18984/91 [1995] ECHR 31 (27 September 1995)
  7. ^ Shoot to Kill – The Issues (Yorkshire Television for ITV, 4 June 1990)

Further reading[edit]


Stalker Affair[edit]


External links[edit]