Secret war with IRA: ‘Claims of a shoot-to-kill policy are utter garbage’

Hayshed near Lurgan where police shot dead Michael Tighe and wounded Martin McCauley   one of the so-called shoot to kill incidents in 1982
Hayshed near Lurgan where police shot dead Michael Tighe and wounded Martin McCauley  one of the so-called shoot to kill incidents in 1982

In ‘Secret Victory: The Intelligence War That Beat The IRA’ former Special Branch detective William Matchett gives an insider’s account of the ‘secret war’ that brought committed terrorists to the negotiating table

So, how valid is the ‘shoot-to-kill’ claim? An analysis of reactive deployments in the 34-months prior to the three incidents shows that approximately 96% of E4 SSU reactions resulted in arrests.

PACEMAKER BELFAST 08/11/2016 
Author William Matchett speaks to the News Letter about his New book Secret Victory.
Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press

PACEMAKER BELFAST 08/11/2016 Author William Matchett speaks to the News Letter about his New book Secret Victory. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press

Most involved perpetrators caught in the act of committing a serious terrorist crime.

Suspects were routinely apprehended in possession of loaded weapons and/or live explosive devices in a variety of situations. The timing of the intervention secured the physical evidence necessary to prove guilt ‘beyond reasonable doubt.’

Allowing the crime to develop in this manner increased the sentencing threshold from approximately one to five years to 15-25 years as the offences were much more serious.

The Provisionals were being pulverised. The restraint shown in such scenarios was a point Hermon highlighted in his 1982 annual report in the police response to disorder during the hunger strikes.

A former SB officer with 23 years in E4 SSU (later called HMSU) typifies former officers’ experiences:

“You are relying on people themselves, their own upbringing and respect for life – to do the right thing for people. In all those house entries if you saw someone who was no threat even though they were armed or making a bomb, you didn’t shoot. It was only if you believed your life was in danger or that of someone else. I was usually the first in the door; if I had shot everyone I was legally justified in shooting I’d have killed plenty.

“Personal and family values certainly were important, as were the values of the RUC. You’d be ostracised if you did not comply. You could not be gung-ho. Selection got rid of the cowboys. It was very disciplined. I reckon less than 1% of the unit ever fired a shot in anger.”

Selection and training had indoctrinated E4 SSU officers into an arrest-based culture. Arresting perpetrators ‘red-handed’ was the aim and the norm.

This is what an effective criminalisation policy looks like, placing terrorists before the criminal courts and putting them in prison.

Section 3 (1) Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967 covered the use of force. This was enshrined in RUC Code Section 34, which contained exhaustive detail about how the courts apply the law, circumstances for using firearms, warning before firing, firing without warning and warning shots when a verbal warning may not be heard. Section 34 was read out in every set of formal orders in E4 briefings.

As one former E4 HMSU officer states:

“We were not trained to kill and killing someone was the last thing anyone wanted. For a cop it’s your worst nightmare.”

An SAS trooper says of his first encounter with US special forces in Iraq:

“We were at the back of the room in our first briefing. There was a small detachment of us (SAS) but it was mostly Americans (US Special Forces).

“Anyway, the guy states the mission was to ‘kill or capture.’ We looked at each other thinking he’d got it mixed up, as you know, anything we ever did in the province the mission was to capture. If you had to kill it was because they’d forced your hand. You know, they’d brought it on themselves. I put my hand up to clarify the mission and he confirmed that it was kill or capture.”

The individual circumstances and the actions of terrorist suspects dictated how the SAS responded in Northern Ireland. Former SAS officer Tim Collins confirms this. Shootings were lawful because suspects were shot having posed an immediate

threat to life. Aimed shots were designed to stop the threat, not to kill. Once the threat no longer existed the shooting stopped.

E4 SSU and the SAS, as with all police and Army, were trained to aim at the upper body.

Every other Army and law enforcement agency in the west did the same. This is the largest part of the body that contains most vital organs. Hits in this area usually stop the threat.

They also are usually fatal. And as the SAS and E4 SSU trained endlessly on the ranges they were much quicker and more accurate than the rest of the security forces. When it came to a shoot-out the IRA was up against the world’s best. These were the ‘big boys.’

They didn’t have their own rules. But to many it appeared they did. This was because they didn’t take a step back.

There was no hesitancy. If you posed a threat you were in trouble.

In Iraq, at least 70% of covert operations ended in insurgents being killed. The same applies to Afghanistan. This is what a ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy looks like. If there was a ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy why is Martin McCauley alive? And why was SB so bad at it when it excelled everywhere else? Claims of a ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy are utter garbage.”

• ‘Secret Victory: The Intelligence War That Beat The IRA’ by Dr William Matchett – available from www.amazon.co.uk and No Alibis books Belfast from 17 November priced £12.95.