Ireland Revisited: Part 13
Throughout the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, a significant number of people from the nationalist community believed that the RUC and British Army operated a ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy when targeting militant republicans. Many argued that republican suspects, irregardless of whether they posed a significant threat to the security forces, were simply murdered without any attempt being made to arrest them. Although always vehemently denied by the Northern Ireland and British Governments, the SAS carried out several missions which did little to alleviate nationalist concern. In particular, the ‘Loughgall Ambush’ – as it was commonly referred to – sparked controversy throughout the island.
The ‘Loughgall ambush’ took place on the 8th May 1987 in the quiet village of Loughgall on the outskirts of Armagh City. An eight-man Provisional IRA unit (Jim Lynagh, Padraig McKearney, Gerard O’Callaghan, Tony Gormley, Eugene Kelly, Patrick Kelly, Seamus Donnelly, and Declan Arthurs) from the East Tyrone Brigade, unaware of some 25 SAS men lying in wait, set off for the village. The eight men planned to smash into the local RUC station with a dumper truck packed with some 90kgs of explosives, breach the main entrance and then take control of the station and kill any remaining occupants. However, the SAS had received some valuable intelligence on the operation and were ready for any eventuality.
Just after 7:00pm on the day, Declan Arthurs drove the digger through the outside fence of the RUC station and a blue Toyota Hiace van pulled up moments later carrying the seven other armed and masked IRA men, who then opened fire on the police station. With the eight Provisional IRA men now in their sights, the SAS, backed up with highly skilled marksmen from an RUC unit, proceeded to break cover and open fire on the men. The SAS fired more than 600 rounds at the IRA men, killing all eight with head shots within a matter of minutes. In a cruel twist of fate, and synonymous with most atrocities throughout the ‘Troubles’, an innocent civilian (Anthony Hughes), wearing the same type of boiler suit the IRA men usually wore on operations, was mistakenly shot and killed by the SAS who thought he was another gunman.
The murder of eight armed Provisional IRA men was deemed as a major success by the British Government as well as many in the loyalist community. The nationalist and republican communities however, were outraged at the attack, claiming it was an ambush and a perfect illustration of the ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy employed by the British security forces against republicans. The Provisional IRA released a statement which seemed to back up such claims when they stated, “Volunteers who shot their way out of the ambush and escaped saw other volunteers being shot on the ground after being captured.”
The Provisional IRA was in disarray immediately after the attack, carrying out several internal investigations to try and oust any moles within their ranks. It was clear to the republican hierarchy that the SAS attack was no coincidence; there had to be somebody within the organization who provided the SAS with the specifics of the operation. The mole was never found and suspicion as to who betrayed the operation festered within Provisional ranks for years afterwards.
With morale at an all time low within the group, the Provisionals concentrated more on tightening up internal security in the following months, until the 8th November 1987 the group once again demonstrated its lethal potential with an indiscriminate bomb which would leave eleven civilians and one RUC officer dead….
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