Devils in the Shadows – by Michael Lagan


With three more ex-paratroopers, one posthumously from the British army’s elite Parachute Regiment facing trial over the killing of an unarmed person, namely Joe McCann, one has to wonder when these trained killers will begin to be prosecuted by the state they so readily served.  In the circumstances in which Joe McCann was shot and killed, that he was a leading member of the OIRA shouldn’t matter.  What was being carried out, in the words of the prosecution, was an arrest operation in support of RUC Special Branch.  Special Branch were there to arrest Joe McCann, but McCann began to flee when the soldiers supposedly shouted a challenge to ‘stop’ as per SOPs.  Whether they did or not is irrelevant.  What is of relevance in the death of Joe McCann is three soldiers opened fire on an unarmed man, hitting him in the back while he was running away.  

McCann posed no threat at the time, even though the soldiers thought he may have been armed.  Those four words “he was running away” have been pivotal in many cases where an assailant has been alleged to have been armed.  In other countries those words have led to guilty verdicts on police officers who have shot and killed people as they were running away.  However, this is the North of Ireland and this is the British state at work.  McCann, when the soldiers arrived at the spot where he fell is alleged to have said “You got me cold, I’ve no weapon” aka unarmed, yet these two paratroopers shot McCann in the back while he was running away.  One might sense a not so slight stench of a ‘shoot to kill’ policy at work in all of this.

What we see often when members of the security forces are brought to court is they retain their anonymity even in court, a luxury not afforded to the likes of John Downey or indeed the Birmingham Six.  The difference obviously being any soldiers on trial will have been acting on the orders of their senior officers, most definitely Special Branch and MI5 and carrying out their domestic policy and possibly a not so official policy alongside it.  In court the two paratroopers are referred to as ‘Soldiers A and C’, with a ‘Soldier B’ now deceased.  So even in death, these men are being protected by the state.

For those unaware of what the ‘Shoot-to-Kill’ policy was in the North – The British army and RUC were accused of operating a ‘Shoot-to-Kill’ policy under which suspected Republicans, some innocent, were alleged to have been deliberately killed without any genuine attempt to arrest them.  Such a policy was alleged to have been directed almost exclusively at suspected or actual members of Irish Republican paramilitary groups.  The SAS was the most high-profile of the regiments that were accused of employing this policy, as well as other British Army regiments, such as the Parachute Regiment.

It’s strange you know: the soldiers through the Crown Lawyer claimed they were manning an army checkpoint at the time.  So why did they shoot a man running away from it?  If someone was running toward you, or driving toward you at a military checkpoint and failed to stop post challenge to ‘stop’, then there would be a semblance of blame on that person who failed to ‘stop’.  However Joe McCann was running away from the checkpoint with his back to the three soldiers who, for some reason, decided to open fire hitting McCann in the back.

The thing about the ‘Shoot-to-Kill’ policy, dear readers, is it wasn’t an official state policy and so it will never be confirmed or admitted to in any court, as any policy with so much as a sniff of state sponsored assassination would clear any and all members of Republican paramilitaries killed in dubious circumstances by state forces.  Killings like the brutal murders of the Gibraltar Three.

There were also extremely controversial killings connected to the ‘Shoot-to-Kill’ policy such as the killing of three petty thieves robbing a shop on the Falls Road.  An undercover British army unit shot all three dead, one as he was sitting in the getaway car claiming they were IRA men.  It later came to light that none of the thieves were members of any Republican grouping.  The shooting dead of three young joyriders in West Belfast was also attributed to the much denied ‘Shoot-to-Kill’ policy.  The shooting took place in West Belfast on the 30th September 1990. Paratroopers manning a checkpoint on the Upper Glen Road fired nineteen bullets into a stolen car that passed through their checkpoint travelling at high speed. A certain Private Clegg fired four of the bullets, the last of which killed 18-year-old passenger Karen Reilly after the car had driven through the checkpoint, meaning the car was no longer a threat. The driver, 17-year-old Martin Peake, also died at the scene, and the third passenger, Markiewicz Gorman, escaped with minor injuries. Later at their barracks, the paratroopers placed a banner on the wall gloating that they killed three joyriders.

The simple details of Joe McCann’s death are, he was shot in the back while unarmed and running away from a Special Branch officer.  Realistically there could be hundreds of deaths in the North and abroad attributed to the British state’s ‘Shoot-to-Kill’ policy.  Unless something drastically changes, British army soldiers and RUC officers will have been permitted to carry out state sponsored assassinations with impunity.  So, the question begs asking, when will these murders ever be brought to justice? Or will the only people being held to account be those who were attempting to protect their communities from the very people carrying out state sponsored murder?

I think we all know the answer to that question.

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