The killing ‘trophy’ – the SAS – and the battles for Truth

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On the wall behind Roisin Ui Mhuiri there was a quote from Albert Einstein: “Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.”

We were chatting in the offices of the project Relatives For Justice; talking about something that happened twenty years ago.

Roisin‘s voice is not often heard; not heard because her brother was in the IRA and was shot by the SAS.

In that undercover operation Barry O’Donnell was killed as were Patrick Vincent, Peter Clancy and Sean O’Farrell.

The story takes us back to February 1992 and a sequence of events in which the IRA carried out a gun attack on an RUC base in Coalisland and then travelled a short distance from that scene.

SAS soldiers were waiting for them and fired over 500 bullets; the events are detailed in a report – Ambush, Assassination and Impunity.

Many years later another part of the story is emerging; the story of a video bought at a market showing the aftermath of this undercover operation and the bodies: “I have seen it and it’s horrific,” Roisin Ui Mhuiri told me. 

“It shows them [the bodies],” she continued.

“It shows them all clearly. It was just awful to watch.”

She went on to describe the video as the soldier’s “trophy” – as something that was meant to say: “That’s them dead – look what we’ve done to them.”

Roisin has a question and a fear.

What if that footage had been posted online to gloat over, to laugh at or to mock what happened?

The truth she wants, and the other families want, is a statement from the British Government admitting the men could have been arrested, the attack on the police station prevented, the IRA weapons seized before they were used.

“We believe arrest was never in the equation,” she continued.

In other words this was shoot-to-kill.

“We want them to put their hands up,” Roisin said – “…say, ‘yes we did take this action. We decided these men were far more important to us dead than alive’.” 

That type of ‘truth’ statement, she said “would be my closure”.

She knows, and I put the question to her, that there will be people who will think and say her brother got what he deserved.

“My brother and Peter and Sean and Patrick, they’ve been demonised from the day and hour that they were killed and, as families, we’ve been demonised too,” she responded.

“They never knew peace,” she continued.

“They grew up with the hunger strikes and they grew up with seeing war on our streets day and daily, and they reacted to that -that was their lives.

“Our grief is no less and our tears are no drier because our brothers were IRA men,” she said.

This is when all of this enters another battlefield; that place of the peacetime tug-of-war over who is and is not a victim; who is entitled to truth and answers and who is not.

In this debate, there is something we must all understand.

That until and unless those questions are answered, the wars will never be over, and the questions are not just about what happened in the years of conflict but why it happened.

Roisin Ui Mhuiri gives a context for her brother’s involvement with the IRA; an explanation which many will reject but which many others across the republican community will recognise and understand.

Ignoring questions, dismissing people, redacting information, means we are dwelling in the past – not dealing with it, and there are many who want and who desperately need answers.

Among them is Ann Travers whose sister Mary was shot dead and Magistrate father Tom wounded in an IRA attack as they left mass in 1984.

Recently Ann wrote: “I would like the senior figures in Sinn Fein and those senior figures who were also in the IRA and had influence with the IRA to be held to account…

“Just as the British Government, British Army and RUC are being called for to be held to account.”

The IRA will not give the names of those who ordered the ambush on the Travers family, and the British Government will not disclose the identity of those officers who directed that undercover operation in Tyrone in 1992.

So, we need to find out what will be revealed, what will be said, in what type of process, and that needs to happen sooner rather than later, and needs to be created with international help.

The questions are for the governments – British and Irish – and all the other parties to the conflict; questions about what and why, context and circumstances, and it is about finding a better way of doing this.

I would be amazed if the questions being asked on behalf of the families of police officers Harry Breen and Bob Buchanan ambushed and killed by the IRA are going to be answered in the Smithwick Tribunal;

Amazed because we are still trying to drag that truth or information out.

How is it freely given and shared – no matter how difficult or embarrassing?

This is both the question and the challenge; to get participation across all the sides and a process that does not, in league table or hierarchy form, elevate a few killings and questions above the many others.

To go back to the Einstein quotation, peace is achieved in a process of understanding; in a process in which everyone should have the right to be heard and answered; a process in which all sides share the maximum amount of information.

No one should be barred from asking their questions – and better and best if they could all be asked within the same process and under the same rules.

Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson could demonstrate how serious they are about all of this by calling in the international team to shape the process – a process that is about a shared future and a shared peace, about everyone and about understanding.




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About Author

Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist/author. A former BBC correspondent in Belfast, four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Press and Broadcast Awards. He is the author of several books on the peace process. His latest book (published by Merrion Press) POLITICAL PURGATORY – the battle to save Stormont and the play for a New Ireland is now available at


  1. VictorCarmichael on


    Einstein also said: ‘I am not only a pacifist but a militant
    pacifist. I am willing to fight for peace. Nothing will end war unless the
    people themselves refuse to go to war’ 

    Not quite the approach the volunteers in East Tyrone took in the late 80s & 90s. How would it be right to level the playing field in your proposed int. commission. And have an unarmed victim of the troubles with absolutely no involvement with the security situation sitting alongside (equal to) the East Tyrone volunteers you list?

    I understand relatives questions about the past and trying to get some answers, but how does that exactly relate to a shared future and a country at peace with itself in 10-20 years time. I feel that dissecting the past 40 years will do far more harm than good and we will end up with two eyes on the past. Should jobs, the economy and shared schools for kids be above all of these issues for the country? 

    Maybe incidents like these were ‘shoot to kill’, and maybe as part of that the republican movement came to realise that they would have to settle for a score draw. I don’t know. What I do know is that when my sons grow up, I want them to be told the story of the past 40 years and how many people died for no good reason. I don’t want the past re-written with people making excuses for their actions. Other countries have moved on after similar conflicts in the past without ‘closing the book’ not sure how we should be any different.
    Sorry to be negative again…

    Regards, Victor

    • Victor – thanks again for your thoughts. Just to be clear, I’m not proposing an International Commission as a starting point. I’m suggesting an international team first explores off stage with all parties to the conflict what is possible in terms of sharing information and how that process could work. Let us explore how many sides will be there and under what terms and conditions, and then see if it is worth creating a place and a space where all questions from all the sides can be asked. I understand there will always be battles over why this conflict happened and why so many people had to die – battles too over ‘good’ and ‘bad’ victims. This afternoon I listened to a Palestinian medical doctor speak about how three of his daughters and a niece were killed by Israeli tank fire. Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish gave a talk using the title of his book: I Shall Not Hate.
      It covered apology, truth, justice – and a line jumped out at me when he said the priority of life is not the past, it is the present and the future. We are dwelling in our past – not dealing with it. The conversation on this website is thinking out on possibilities – on how we might  get answers to some more of the questions.
      The challenge is to find something that will work, that stops us shovelling our experiences on top of another generation and takes the political debate onto that ground of jobs, economy and shared schools – indeed shared everything.    

  2. Victor, you still have to grasp the fact that we are ALL victims of circumstance. ‘Free will’ is a good idea, but it doesn’t get the chance to work on this earth.

  3. Barney, do you ever foresee the time coming when Gerry and Marty admit that they have been lying for years about their true involvement in the troubles? Can you see Adams admitting even just to being a member of the ira? I can’t see it which is why there will never be a real truth and reconciliation process here.

    • J-McC – Thanks for your contribution. The editor of this website Eamonn Mallie encourages those who are part of this conversation to use their names along with their comments. Hopefully, this is something you will feel able to do.
      Your question is one of the big questions of this debate. 
      If we get to the point of a process then it would be a farce and a sham – indeed a hoax initiative – if Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams were not prepared to discuss their involvement with the IRA. 
      Do I think they will? I’m not sure, but there is only one way to find out, and that is if all others with questions to answer enter the same process.
      Adams and McGuinness are often singled out.
      What about John Graham the UVF leader and suspected Special Branch agent, or the leaders of the UDA, which was a legal organisation until 1992, or those in governments – London and Dublin – with collusion questions to answer – those in politics, security/intelligence and elsewhere?
      They all need to be involved.
      Let’s not narrow this down to one organisation or a couple of people. 
      It’s about all sides and the many sides – all the questions and not just some of them.


  4. Victor raised some interesting points about quizzing people and then went on to say he didn’t think there was much point in raising up issues from 40 years ago. I can sympathise with him up to a point. Not having been a member of the IRA all that I’ve heard about their security systems has come from snippets released by MI5/6/special branch that were meant to excuse their inability to capture/kill IRA members. Which makes me think, paper work was at the minimum, the cell structures they were supposed to have used would have put certain information into silos to stop leakages so it is quite likely that McGuinness and Adams had limited knowledge of operations because had they been captured (as Adams was ) then all their operations would have been rendered inoperable.
    Second point, If we are to forget the immediate history why not go the whole hog and scrap the history of the williamite war here and the setting up of the OO and the United Irishmen and all the rest. A clean sheet would allow people to live together, oh wait when Catholics try to live in other areas they have their houses petrol bombed, if they try to socialise in protestant areas, like that young girl last week on the Shankill they get beaten up by a squad of brave unionists. Where is the shared present never mind the shared future, if this hatred of Catholics isn’t treated and cauterised it won’t matter about shared education because there will never be peace.

  5. From the moment a professional soldier enlists he is taught to shoot to kill. It is ‘Holywood’ fiction that soldiers are trained to shoot to injure. Whether they be Infantry, a Chef, a Mechanic or a Sapper every soldier is disciplined through training to fire single aimed shots into the mass of visible target, and keep firing until that target ceases to be a threat. In any engagement with soldiers where the soldier must return fire there will be death.

    Over 245000 members of the Armed Forced served during Op Banner – had there been an ‘official’ shoot to kill policy or the acceptance of a ‘war’ setting then PIRA (at best around 500 activists) could have been cleared and killed in a short period of time.

    The ongoing dilemma is therefore to question what events lead to engagement by soldiers or
    what catalyst brought the professional soldier to engage resulting in death?

    In the specific of Clonoe the reality that there was a survivor is evidence of no coup de grace & again no shoot to kill state policy. Special Forces soldiers usually don’t make an error: either in winning a firefight, reaching their limit of exploitation or follow up – had instructions been received ‘to destroy’ all would be dead.

    Regarding ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ – any programme has to be just that i.e. truth and possibly reconciliation. It cannot be about ‘justice’ or ‘revenge’. The only way I see this gathering legs is an amnesty for those participating in the programme, and that followed amnesty followed by making the innocent victims a priority case should be the first step forward to find truth for those seeking it.

    • Hi Glenn – I wonder what you think about a British Government document dating back to 1972 and recently disclosed. 
      It points to a statement to be made in House of Commons by the Secretary of State to “announce the government’s intention to carry on the war with the IRA with the utmost vigour”.
      The document also reveals that “…the Army should not be inhibited in its campaign by the threat of court proceedings and should therefore be suitably indemnified.”
      It certainly reads like ‘war’.
      I do agree with you that a ‘truth’ or information process will require an amnesty, and then let’s see if we can build that process to ensure that all questions can be asked of all sides, including the obvious questions that flow from the above document. 

      • Barney,

        I cannot dispute the term ‘war’ used in this instance by a politician but as a former soldier (from here) who saw operational duty in many theaters, here was not ‘war’.

        Your average ‘Green-Army’ on Operations carries 100 rounds of ammunition for his personal weapon, 500 rounds of link for support MGs, at least 2 HE Grenades, at least 2 Phos Grenades, mortar bombs for his platoon support weapon. Outside these immediate accessible weapons he has on call Fast Air, Artillery, Heavy Mortar for support…… and while on many Ops restrictions to engage where in practice, the reality was that once the gloves came off it was ‘combat’

        In Northern Ireland a soldier was lucky to get 20 rounds of ammunition as standard, a reality that only changed after the murder of Howes and Woods. Up until 1988 it was only on certain tasks that the soldier in Northern Ireland would be issued 100 rounds.

        I could rattle of many other reasons why here was not ‘war’ to a soldier but this example alone, I hope shows one reality?

        The role of the ‘Green Army’ in Northern Ireland post 1972 and the end of military supremacy was to ‘support the Police in the protection of life and prevention of damage to property’. With around 240000 having served and the reality that Army casualties account for less than 7% of the deaths here, I feel that statistic alone should prove there was no State sanction agenda of ‘war’ to the Army.

        The evolution of covert activities in Northern Ireland as a method to eavesdrop or put eyes on players stemmed from the comical of the early 70s when Units like the Royal Army Education Corps played a role through to the formal introduction of Special Forces in 1974 (though the official record will list the date as 1976) the reality is that a collective of INT Operators & members of 22 SAS had created 14 INTSYCOY in 1973) to what is now classed as the ‘shoot to kill’ era under Mrs Thatcher’s HMG. However, whether 14 INTSYCOY or FRU or 22 SAS the day to day work was managing sources of Intelligence, acting on that information to prevent death, injury or damage to property in Northern Ireland society working within the rule of law. The fact that for every successful paramilitary operation, at least 9 where known to be compromised without death or injury to the paramilitary involved is evidence of no State sanctioned shoot to kill policy?

        Working within the rule of law means that one cannot arrest a suspect on hear say, conjecture or otherwise snippets of information from varying sources so even though Mr A may be stating that Mr B will be at an arms dump or doing xyz, the rule of law prohibits that person to be arrested? In addition, the very nature and practicality of covert surveillance means that you cannot be certain on a player 24/7.

        That leaves a reasonable responsive action, always based in practice, around the protection of life & injury to person or the prevention of damage to property in wider society. 

        So for example, INT comes in of an attack on Coalisland PS. From another source a jarked weapon shows as moving and from another source information about a flat bed lorry stolen for use as a mortar launch. Clearly player activity covering various TAORs and the reasonable response is heighten Green Army patrolling, and place some aggressive OPs in at tactically advantaged locations by members of Special Forces units. Then BOOM, incident happens, and paramilitary players are in the field of operations – going back to my initial post on a soldiers training – there will be usually 1 outcome and at all times Special Forces brief in these circumstances is to ‘capture or kill the terrorist within the rule of law’.

        Keeping to topic: all professional soldiers are trained to shoot to kill. Truth is just that, a truth. It cannot be about revenge or justice. It cannot be about perceptions. For those families wishing to find out the truth of a person’s death (by paramilitary or security forces) there has to first be in place the mechanism for them to talk openly without retribution and an amnesty is the only starting point (and I write as someone who lost relatives & colleagues to PIRA action).



        • Glenn – you’ve given me your answer on war. Can I now ask you about “working within the rule of law”? 
          Specifically, can I ask you for an opinion on the Stakeknife case, in which an agent operating inside IRA security was responsible for the culling of other suspected agents.
          Stakeknife’s role was interrogation in preparation for execution.
          Are we meant to believe that no one knew?
          Or were there occasions when the rule of law was just ignored?
          If all that has been suggested in this case is true, then we had an agent involved in interrogate to kill  and shoot to kill.
          I wonder what label we should attach to that type of activity.

          • Barney,

            My opinions are based on my experience as a soldier working in overt and covert operations.

            Most paramilitary players in their day who informed or became agents did so for personal gain – financial, status building, ego trips, revenge. Very little did it out of a sense of duty, patriotism or for the greater good of society. By definition of their ‘trade’ most where not reliable characters and I have no doubt that they committed crimes believing they could act with impunity.

            Did Army handlers always know details – I honestly do not know.

            In the case of Freddie, my personal view is that he led a complete double life – literally. I believe he fed back what he wished and held back on more. He wallowed in his reputation within PIRA as a ‘nutting man’ and he manipulated all – the Republican movement and Brit side. What was exactly known of his activities in the system – I honestly do not know. If his activities where known, then it is probable that the rule of law was ignored by individuals who believed Freddie was their most valuable asset of information. What label should we put to that – ‘accessories’ (if it happened).

            There exists a perception that the Military had some sort of
            ‘rule book’ or ‘procedure’ for covert activities here and that is simply
            not the case. All things, especially in the 70s and early 80s, where
            trial and error then evolving as the system learned, adopted & practiced. Sometimes it was correct
            and sometimes it was flawed. I have no doubt errors where made but I’ve
            also no doubt that intentions, always, where to work within the rule of
            law by the Army.

            There was no policy of ‘shoot to kill’. I spent almost 4 years of my life on operational duties in Northern Ireland between 1985 – 92 and not once was I told officially or unofficially with ‘a nod & wink’ that it was OK to kill. The word ‘kill’ didn’t even enter the vocabulary of a briefing room.

            Having said all that, MI5, SB, the Garda SB are other wings to the covert community in the day who fiercely guarded their activities and assets and most importantly rarely shared intel…….

          • Glenn- no ‘rule book’ – covert activity involving ‘trial and error’, all of which will raise many questions.

          • Barney,

            The Army was not ready for here? Practices that worked in Aden, Dhofar, Malaya etc all failed to work here – things had to be completed by trial and error. Jeez for the first 2 – 3 years the Royal Army Education Corps where, in effect, running covert ops. People lost their lives – 4 Square Laundry one well known example. The ‘rule book’ had to be written as events unfolded and paramilitary tactics changed – as they constantly where. When the murder machines changed tact so a whole new chapter on how to cope or manage had to be completed – that’s what I mean. Being a member of the Army – Special Forces or otherwise doesn’t give you a crystal ball.

            It wasn’t until the Int & Sy Gp NI was created (think it was around ’83) did things really become stable with clear policy on methods and all those methods where based around observation and eavesdropping covertly, it wasn’t about killing, it was all about the arts of surveillance.

            In a way I sometimes wish HMG had taken the gloves off – it could have been ended in 1 week but the casualty figures would have brought on nausea.

            Anyhow, it was all a very difficult time and I’ve no doubt some dirty dealing was done – the very nature of the troubles means it has to have happened at some level but as a policy of the Army, no.
            Disappointing to all the conspiracy theorists but hey that is a truth.