DEFENCE secretary Liam Fox has described a £75,000 compensation award to an IRA gang’s getaway driver as “outrageous” and said he would consider the judgment very carefully.
Mr Fox was speaking as the row over the payment to Aidan McKeever continued with TUV leader Jim Allister calling for a change in the legal system to prevent such actions.
The controversial decision was taken by judge Mr Justice Treacy at the High Court in Belfast on Friday.
McKeever — who had been wounded by undercover soldiers following an IRA machine gun attack on Coalisland RUC station in February 1992 — brought his civil action claiming damages against the MoD for assault and battery through unreasonable force.
Mr Fox said: “Instinctively, I find it quite outrageous that the government is being ordered to pay compensation to the getaway driver for terrorists who had just used a heavy machine gun and rifles to attack a police station.”
It is not yet known if the MoD will launch an appeal against the award but the defence secretary added: “We are clearly going to consider this judgment very carefully, but I do welcome the fact that the claim for aggravated and exemplary damages has been rejected.”
Mr Allister, who is also a barrister and QC, said that civil law should be brought into line with criminal law — under which the substantial payment would not have been possible in the circumstances.
Four other IRA members were shot and killed by the soldiers as they arrived in the car park of St Patrick’s Church in Clonoe immediately after the attack in Coalisland.
The terrorist gang was travelling in a flatbed lorry which had a Russian-made DHSK 12.7mm heavy machine gun mounted on the rear. They also carried AKM assault rifles.
McKeever had been driving what was to have been a getaway car and was seen entering the car park before the lorry arrived, the court heard.
According to a forensic scientist, McKeever’s car was hit by at least 15 bullets fired by four soldiers, although he claims to have been unarmed and not close to anyone with a weapon when fired on and given no opportunity to surrender.
McKeever later pleaded guilty to assisting offenders, receiving a three-year suspended jail sentence.
Lawyers for the MoD defended the action on the basis that justified force was used because the soldiers reasonably believed the IRA team intended to kill them.
Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Dondaldson said that “right-thinking people” will be deeply disturbed by the court’s decision.
“Mr McKeever may have been unarmed at the time he was shot, but he was not an innocent bystander, he was a member of a terrorist gang,” the DUP MP said.
“In a situation where Mr McKeever was assisting terrorist colleagues, who carried out a machine-gun attack on a police station, it may not have been unreasonable to believe that he would be armed and presented a danger.”
Mr Donaldson said the terrorists styled themselves as an army yet presented themselves as “innocent victims of the state” when met with resistance. He added: “The reality is that terrorists were happy to go out and create innocent victims, yet the compensation received by Mr McKeever dwarfs the amount awarded to many victims created by Mr McKeever’s colleagues.”
In his judgment, Mr Justice Treacy said only one of the soldiers who fired at McKeever was called by the MoD, despite special measures being taken to conceal their identity.
He said the others were no longer prepared to give evidence after the first soldier involved gave an “utterly implausible” and “incredible” account of the shooting.
His ruling stated: “In light of the above I find that the shooting of the plaintiff has not been justified.
“I do not propose, in light of the overall state of the evidence, to reduce the recoverable damages.”
Some republicans have claimed the stage was set for the army ambush in Clonoe at a Downing Street meeting the week previous.
According to the An Phoblacht magazine, Ulster Unionist leader Jim Molyneaux met prime minister John Major, emerging to say there were some “unpleasant surprises” in store for the IRA — the meeting taking place only weeks after the massacre of eight Protestant workmen at Teebane Crossroads on January 17.
Speaking on the Nolan BBC radio show yesterday, Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly said it was “fair enough” for Mr McKeever to apply for compensation in the circumstances.
“I’m making the assumption that when this attack took place, because it was obviously an ambush by the SAS, and the IRA were going out to try and attack this police station and probably kill people, that the SAS clearly had the information and ambushed them,” Mr Kelly said.
The scene at St Patrick’s Church, Clonoe, where four IRA men were killed by undercover soldiers having carried out an attack on Coalisland police station