Loughgall, Gibraltar, Coagh and Clonoe: How the SAS took the fight to IRA at home and abroad

The Special Air Service (SAS) entering the Iranian Embassy to end a six day siege in central London in 1980 siege
The Special Air Service (SAS) entering the Iranian Embassy to end a six day siege in central London in 1980 siege

Prior to the Iranian embassy siege in 1980 not many people outside of military circles knew the Special Air Service (SAS) existed.

Broadcast live on television, that dramatic hostage rescue in London shone a spotlight of a vehemently publicity-shy collective of highly specialised troops.

SAS emblem

SAS emblem

Just a few weeks after the embassy siege, the regiment stormed a house on Belfast’s Antrim Road in an operation to capture an IRA gang armed with an M60 machine gun.

Captain Herbert Westmacott was shot dead as he led the assault on the property. He was the highest ranking SAS member to be killed in Northern Ireland and was posthumously awarded the Military Cross.

The SAS would also play a major role in driving Argentinian forces from the Falkland Islands two years later.

In Northern Ireland soldiers from the regiment were involved in a number of shooting incidents – mainly in counties Tyrone and Londonderry – during the 1980s, but it was the operation at Loughgall that signalled a more aggressive approach towards the IRA in east Tyrone and beyond.

Michelle O'Neil at the IRA commeration for IRA members killed in Loughall.

Michelle O'Neil at the IRA commeration for IRA members killed in Loughall.

In one of the most controversial Troubles-related incidents, SAS soldiers shot dead three IRA members in March 1988 as they prepared to bomb British troops in Gibraltar.

Mairead Farrell, Sean Savage and Daniel McCann were found to be unarmed but one vehicle being used by the gang contained explosives while another was found to contain a bomb timer unit and other items associated with terrorism.

In August the same year, another three IRA members were shot dead by SAS troops as they attempted to murder an off-duty part-time UDR soldier near Carrickmore in Co Tyrone.

Another major reverse for the IRA at the hands of the SAS came in Coagh, Co Tyrone in June 1991.

The funeral in West Belfast of the Gibraltar bombers; Mairead Farrell, Sean Savage and Danny McCann, who were killed by the SAS  Pacemaker Press Intl. 16/3/88

226/88/BWC

The funeral in West Belfast of the Gibraltar bombers; Mairead Farrell, Sean Savage and Danny McCann, who were killed by the SAS Pacemaker Press Intl. 16/3/88 226/88/BWC

As a three-man IRA gang entered the village with the intention of murdering a building contractor, who also served in the UDR, soldiers lying in wait opened fire killing all three in their car.

One of the terrorist weapons recovered was found to have been used to murder two men in the area in the months previous.

The regiment was again deployed in Co Tyrone in February 1992 when the IRA staged an audacious attack on the police station in Coalisland.

After opening fire on the base with a heavy machine gun mounted on the back of a lorry, the IRA men drove through an area of the town waving an Irish tricolour on their way to the car park of a Catholic church at Clonoe.

Four of the terrorists were shot dead by SAS troops at the scene and a number of others were later charged with involvement in the attack.

The Clonoe incident is thought to be the last time soldiers from the regiment caused fatalities in Northern Ireland.