The murder of my cousin Michael Leonard by the RUC on 17th May 1973 affected us all as a family and it greatly influenced my thinking about the conflict in Ireland and the role of the British state in the murder and intimidation of Irish citizens. Not only was I deeply affected by my cousin’s killing but I began to see a pattern in all the killings by the Forces of the State–the British army/UDR. It also became evident that the killings of innocent Catholics by loyalist death squads were carried out in collusion with the Forces of the state. After many of these murders, British propaganda described the victims as belonging to some Irish republican group which justified their assassination.
My cousin, Michael Leonard, who lived with his parents in County Donegal was killed just across the border in Fermanagh. Because his family were denied truth and justice, I felt that as a Catholic priest, I had to take a strong stand for justice and truth. I felt a moral responsibility to challenge the British untruths. I soon found myself empathising with all the victims of State violence.
I have always felt that it was important to pursue justice for Michael Leonard and for other people killed by British state forces. In Michael’s case I did not know how I might pursue the truth. There were no witnesses that we know, besides the RUC men at the scene and they were hardly going to say anything to me about it and anyway I did not know their names.
It was only in 2019, with the discovery by Ciaran MacAirt of British army files relating to Michael’s murder, that I decided that we can now bring this killing further and demand that the Irish government become involved in the quest for truth and justice. That would involve holding a new Inquest. The Leonard family solicitor, the late Pat Fahy, contacted the office of the Attorney General with the fresh information about Michael’s case. A responding letter from the Attorney General to Pat Fahy, described the killing as ‘unjustifiable’. That was enough to convince me that it was necessary to pursue this matter further.
The British army files uncovered by Ciaran MacAirt in Kew Library revealed that the RUC and British army put out lies about Michael and tried to justify his murder by labelling him and his father as members of PIRA-a proscribed organisation. I decided to publish a Report containing these British army reports and the facts about his killing as we knew them. We then requested a meeting with the Department of Foreign affairs in Dublin but due to Covid this had to be postponed –until the 19 November 2021.
The meeting followed continued delay in securing a new inquest for Michael in the north of Ireland and British government threats to shut down all conflict-related legal cases.
New evidence which the family presented in 2019 proved that Michael was not shot accidentally with a single shot as the RUC alleged, but deliberately targeted and shot at multiple times by his police killers before he could reach the sanctuary of the border and his home in Pettigo, County Donegal.
British Military archives discovered by the charity Paper Trail recorded that the RUC officers who killed him 200 metres before the border:
“… fired 2 shots at the car which did not stop. They gave chase in a Land Rover and fired another shot which hit him.”
The secret British Military files also included disinformation that Michael had broken through an RUC roadblock and that he and his father were members of the IRA when neither of them were. The new evidence also proved that the British state and RUC lied to the Irish government at the time.
The family were accompanied by myself and the family solicitor, Adrian O’Kane from Pat Fahy Solicitors, along with Ciaran MacAirt from the charity Paper Trail (Legacy Archive Research), and Donegal County Councillor Michael Naughton.
This was a welcome and valuable meeting with the Department of Foreign Affairs as we updated the officials on the disgraceful delay in obtaining justice for Michael Leonard. Michael was an unarmed civilian from Donegal murdered by the Royal Ulster Constabulary just as he was about to drive across the border to his home in Pettigo. In the light of new evidence uncovered by Paper Trail – which proved that the RUC fired multiple, deliberate shots at him and then lied to the Coroner at the original inquest – a new inquest is necessary. Michael’s poor parents went to their grave without truth or justice for their son. His siblings are not going to stand for any further delay just because Britain wants to protect its killers.