Ombudsman report on deaths prompts fresh ex-RUC legal challenge

A number of former RUC officers are considering a fresh legal challenge after the Police Ombudsman (PONI) published a finding of “disproportionate and unsafe” use of firearms resulting in the deaths of four people.

Thursday, 6th May 2021, 6:30 am
Updated Thursday, 6th May 2021, 9:19 am

Ombudsman Marie Anderson also highlighted “significant operational and investigative failures” over the deaths of Patrick Rooney, aged nine, Hugh McCabe, 20, Samuel McLarnon, 27, and Michael Lynch, 28 – who were all shot during disturbances in the Divis and Ardoyne areas of Belfast in August 1969.

The ex-officers have challenged the authority of Mrs Anderson to issue a public statement accusing them of what they claim amounts to “a criminal offence,” when the PPS has assessed the evidence and declined to prosecute.

The four deaths happened across August 14-15 at a chaotic time at the start of 40 years of conflict.

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A military armoured car and barbed wire road block in Divis Street, Belfast.

The new report has found that, even allowing for the tumultuous circumstances of the time, the then police force, the RUC, failed to effectively investigate any of the deaths. None of the officers linked with any of the deaths are set to face trial due to a lack of evidence.

Following an investigation into the deaths, the ombudsman’s report found that the use of vehicle-mounted machine guns in an area of high-rise housing such as Divis was “fundamentally flawed”.

Mrs Anderson criticised the manner in which police marksmen fired over 20 shots from the roof of a local police station towards the Divis Flats. She also raised concerns that the method used by the RUC to allocate some of the guns involved in the Ardoyne deaths prevented them being linked to individual officers.

One of Mrs Anderson’s conclusion is that the decision of police to fire at targets in the Whitehall Block of Divis Flats was “disproportionate and unsafe”.

Police Ombudsman NI Marie Anderson

One of the officers investigated was aggrieved to be notified by PONI that his actions were deemed to have been “indiscriminate firing” from a high-powered Browning machine gun.

His legal advisor wrote to PONI, describing this, and similar conclusions, to be “a public finding of guilt” – of the type heavily criticised by the judge when the NI Retired Police Officers’ Association challenged the previous ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, over his public statement on the Loughinisland atrocity.

Acting on behalf of the ex-officer, former solicitor Ernie Waterworth said: “An investigatory body which fails to persuade the PPS to undertake a prosecution has absolutely no right in law to go behind the back of the PPS and to pronounce to the public at large that an individual who has not been prosecuted is somehow nevertheless guilty. I respectfully suggest that you ask your legal advisors ... to rehearse with you the judgments of Mr Justice McCloskey and subsequently the Appeal Court.”

Patrick Rooney, nine, was shot in the head while sheltering with his family in a bedroom of their ground floor maisonette in the Divis complex. Fresh forensic examinations of a bullet fragment and ballistic material recovered from the Rooney home confirmed that the fatal bullet had been fired from a Browning machine gun mounted on an RUC Shorland vehicle. However, investigators were unable to determine which vehicle had fired the shot.

“The evidence also indicates that the officers who crewed the Shorlands were insufficiently trained in the use of the Browning machine guns, and that there was a lack of clear instruction as to how the weapons could be used to control public order without risking the lives of innocent bystanders,” Mrs Anderson said.

At least two of the officers known to have fired shots during the incidents are now deceased while another has been certified as medically unfit to be interviewed.

PONI investigators established that a total of seven officers had discharged shots in the Ardoyne. However, as their weapons had been allocated to police vehicles rather than to individual officers, the identity of the officer who fired the fatal shot could not be conclusively established.

“Ballistic tests ought to have been pursued and officers should have been interviewed in respect of the discharges, as a minimum investigative response,” Mrs Anderson said.

Mrs Anderson said she was of the opinion “that there was no effective investigation into these deaths by the RUC”.

She said there had been limited inquiries, inadequate forensic examinations, and noted that there was no evidence that any police officer had been interviewed for potential criminal or misconduct offences.

When the PPS ‘no prosecution’ decision, in respect of the death of Patrick Rooney, was announced in August last year, Ernie Waterworth said the officers who were investigated regretted the tragic death that “should never have happened”.

Mr Waterworth said the ex-officer he was representing had always been forthcoming about the rounds he fired on the night – while police and soldiers were facing persistent terrorist attacks.

“On that night, for eight or nine hours, there were gun battles raging with the IRA shooting, the UVF were shooting and the police were shooting. A young boy lost his life and it should never have happened,” the legal representative said.

“He has rejected suggestions from the very outset that he was responsible for the tragic death of young Patrick Rooney.

“He fully cooperated with the Scarman Tribunal and the police ombudsman’s investigation, however, in later life has become extremely stressed as a result. There were three gunners on the Shorland [armoured cars] that night – [the ex-officer] is alive but the other two are dead.

“Over the years he has done his best to get the Rooney family closure. He has always acknowledged that he fired shots, coming forward at the first opportunity to give an account of his actions,” Mr Waterworth added.

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