A statement issued through the Pat Finucane Centre by the family of Dennis Heaney, who was shot dead on the streets of Derry by undercover SAS soldiers on 10th June 1978, 40 years ago this week.
He sat in the garden reading.
She said “Catch 22? I thought you read that”.
“I did” he said and gave his little grin.
“Take one of me” he said.
To brother with camera.
It was ready for his memoriam
Two weeks later,
When the bullets of an assassin
Cut him down in his prime.
DENNIS MICHAEL HEANEY - AGED 21 YEARS
Dennis Heaney was 21 years of age when he was shot dead on the streets of his home town Derry by under-cover soldiers of the British Army’s 14th Intelligence Company (a cover name for the SAS) on 10th June 1978. The British claimed he was armed and attempted to hijack a car. This claim is denied by his family who believe that Dennis was a victim of state violence and a policy of ‘Shoot to Kill’ introduced by the then Secretary of State, Roy Mason M. P.
Dennis was born in the family home at number 9 Westway, Creggan on the 1st November 1956. His brother Seamas recalls, “I remember it well, as I was a full 5 years of age and being a precocious (nosey) child, I snuck into my parents’ bedroom having heard noises and whispers in the early hours of the morning. My mother was awake and tried to shoo me back to bed but I was determined to find out what was happening. Finally relenting, my mother pulled back the bed covers to reveal a new baby boy. Now, she said, get back into bed and don’t be waking your brothers and sisters. I, of course, ran out of the bedroom shouting “we’ve got a new baby brother” and waking the whole household. And such was Dennis’ introduction to the Heaney family, the youngest of four boys in a family of thirteen children.
His sisters and brothers remember him being very affectionate as a child, always climbing up on mammy’s knee, arms around her neck, hugging and kissing her. He even hung onto her when she was trying to light the fire or do a washing! But he was also a quick wit and a bit of a take-a-hand. When he was about 3 years of age, he was taken for a walk with big sisters Kay and Stella. He wearing a wee white jacket sent over from America. When asked what he wanted in the shop he replied, “Candy!” they couldn’t believe he’d made the connection between the jacket and America.
As he got older, his call from the doorway when coming into the house was “Mam I’m home.” Dennis was just an ordinary boy growing up in a city that was yet to experience the horrors of war on the very streets we walked to school, work and home again. Of course, he was no saint, he was forever teasing his sisters young and old alike “have you heard they’ve put a zip on bananas to make it easier to open”; closing the front door on their friends when they called at the house - but he always opened it again; wolf whistling at his sisters on the street with them turning expectantly only to see their wee brother smiling innocently at them.
On visiting his sister Pat in London, he nearly drove her to distraction saying “this is the first time I was ever on an aeroplane. This is the first time I was on the Tube; This is first time I was on a London bus, at the zoo, on a boat”. His first and only time.
On 6th September 1971, he was returning home from school when he witnessed the shooting of 14-year-old Annette McGavigan by a British soldier as she was returning home from school. He arrived home in a state of shock and told his mother about a young school girl being shot dead by a blond-haired soldier.
He was himself subjected to daily harassment going to and from school; stopped, spread-eagled against the nearest wall and searched. He saw and experienced all these things before his 14th birthday.
He was fifteen years of age when he witnessed the murder of fourteen people who were marching on the streets of Derry calling for Civil Rights. That day became infamous throughout the world as ‘Bloody Sunday’. He was acutely aware of the injustices meted out to his fellow citizens, country men and women and his future politic was shaped by experiences some of which we were aware of and many which will never be known.
He left school at sixteen and started work as an apprentice fitter at Maydown Training Centre. Six months later, he was returning home when someone threw a bolt from the bus, hitting the windscreen of a police vehicle. Everyone on the bus was arrested and all but Dennis and two of his friends released after 2 hours. They were kept spread-eagled against a wall in a courtyard at Victoria Barracks for several hours. During this time, Dennis being Dennis, was wise-cracking and no doubt slagging off the soldier left outside to guard these three dangerous felons. Eventually, as intended, the soldier cracked and went over to Dennis kicking the feet from under him and shouting “do you think that was funny!?” Dennis got back on his feet and assumed to position, spread-eagled against the wall, and of course muttered something under his breath to his friends who burst out laughing, further enraging the soldier who this time grabbed Dennis by the neck throwing him against the wall and kicking his feet out from under him again. “Do you think that was funny, you fucking Irish bastard!” At that moment, a ranking officer walked into the court yard and witnessed the assault on Dennis. He berated, the soldier, telling him that these men were in the custody of the Queens Armed forces and were to be treated humanely. He added that if he witnessed any further assault from the soldier he would bring him up on charges and deduct money from his salary. “Do I make myself clear Private?”, to which the soldier replied “Yes Sir!, Sorry Sir” Won’t happen again Sir. As the ranking officer left the courtyard, Dennis looked over his shoulder and said, “I thought that was funny.” He was eventually interviewed by the police and released without charge at 11.30pm that night.
Dennis was only one of the thousands of young people destined to live their teenage lives under the shadow of oppression and violence. Riots took place day and daily around him. He saw friends and relatives arrested, imprisoned and shot.
He completed his apprenticeship and was employed as a fitter in Du-Pont, a multi-national company with a Derry based plant. He was like so many other boys his age and perhaps more fortunate than most in so far as he had a steady job. His favourite pastimes were heavy rock music and, in contrast, playing traditional music on a fiddle given to him by his father.
To the family Dennis was known as ‘Wee’ Dennis to distinguish him from his father also called Denis. He had a steady girlfriend and played football twice weekly. He was not overtly political but he contributed to discussions in the family home about what was happening on the streets of his home city.
Arrest and detention May 1978
In May 1978, the British Army and RUC raided the Heaney home at 32 Greenhaw Road and arrested Dennis under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. He was held in Strand Road RUC Barracks for three days during which time he was refused visits and access to legal counsel. Interrogation sessions lasted an average of three hours with an hour’s break and then more interrogations. A number of other men had been arrested on that day and were also being held at Strand Road barracks. During interrogations, he was punched and slapped about the room by at least three different police officers (most likely Special Branch). He later told the family that when one got tired knocking him about, another took over. At one point a Special Branch officer put his knuckles behind Dennis’s mastoid bones, lifted him clean out of the chair and held him several inches off the ground. When the pain became unbearable Dennis knocked the officer’s hands away, whereupon he was punched savagely in the stomach as he fell. When not being interrogated, he was made to stand to attention for hours on end. At various stages RUC officers presented him with statements written by them and tried to force him to sign them. He refused to sign any statements. In the meantime, demands by the family to see Dennis or for him to have access to a doctor or legal counsel were refused and rumours circulated that the men being held were being subjected to torture and abuse. When one of those held was taken to hospital with a perforated ear-drum, the protest became so great that the men, including Dennis, were released. After his release, Dennis was examined by a doctor who listed his injuries which Dennis confirmed resulted from abuse and ill treatment at the hands of his RUC interrogators.
Dennis later told members of his family that the RUC officers interrogating him told him minutes before he was to be released that he needn’t think that was the end of it - they said they would pick their time and shoot him, “Don’t fucking worry you’ll be got. We’ll stiff you first chance we get”.
10th June 1978
Dennis stayed with his brother Seamas at 26 Clarendon Street, Derry, on Friday, 9th June 1978. It was customary for him to stay there on Friday and Saturday nights in order to meet his girlfriend in town.
Dennis got up early on Saturday morning and left before Seamas and his family were awake. He went to his parent’s house at Greenhaw Road arriving there at about 10am. His mother remembers him sitting in the armchair at the fire reading a book, ‘Vanishing Derry’, which his brother Bernard had bought. ‘It’s not worth the money,’ he commented. His mother looked at him bemusedly, noting his brown head of hair, his reddish moustache and the black hair on his stomach. ‘If I wasn’t your mother,’ she teased, ‘I would say you were dying your hair’.
His mother went upstairs bringing clothes up to the hot press. Gabrielle, his sister, was in the bathroom. Dennis came up, saw the bathroom door was closed and went back downstairs, crossing the kitchen and placing his hand on his sister Paula’s head by way of good-bye and calling to his father “Cheerio, Pops” before leaving the house. That was the last any of the family saw him alive. He left home between 1.30pm and 2pm.
What happened next is contested by the family and they have been striving to get to the truth about the events that occurred on Saturday 10 June 1978 ever since. What is not contested is that Dennis was confronted by undercover soldiers of 14th Intelligence (SAS) as he rounded the junction of Chamberlain Street and Harvey Street in the city centre area of Derry. Two cars drew up beside him. There are two versions as to what happened next but the outcome for Dennis was the same. The British Army claimed that Dennis was armed and attempted to hi-jack a car which just happened to be one of a convoy of cars being driven by SAS undercover soldiers in the area that day. They claimed that two cars containing SAS soldiers were stopped by Dennis and an unknown accomplice. As he approached the first car, Dennis was shot and wounded by the soldier in the second car. The soldier in the first car claimed that, “as he lay wounded on the ground Dennis continued to point a gun at him presenting a danger to him. He then fired four bullets into Dennis’ chest fatally wounding him.” However, at the inquest, which returned an Open Verdict, forensic evidence demonstrated that all of the bullets, which struck Dennis, entered from behind. He was shot in the back. The first bullet entered the back of his leg and exited through his knee effectively crippling him. The second bullet entered his lower left back and exited high on his right chest. The three fatal shots struck him in the middle of his back and exited through his chest. Dennis was not facing either soldier when he was shot. The first shot brought him down as he was moving away from the cars and the second shot struck him as he was falling. As he lay helpless on the ground clutching his leg the soldier in the first car fired three fatal shots into his back killing him. This was not the action of a soldier under threat but the action of a ruthless and dispassionate killer whose actions were ordered, condoned and later exonerated by the State.
Volunteer Dennis Heaney was buried with full military honours on Tuesday 13 June 1978. Thousands of mourners lined the route from Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Shantallow to the City Cemetery. The cortege was led by a uniformed piper playing laments with a guard of honour of Fianna na hEireann, Cumann na mBan and Cumann na gCailini. At the gates of the cemetery, three volleys from rifles were fired in a last farewell to a young Volunteer of 1st Battalion, Derry Brigade, Oglaign na hEireann.
To this day, the family believes that Dennis was the victim of ‘a shoot to kill’ policy introduced by the then Secretary of State for NI, Labour MP Roy Mason. Dennis was singled out by members of the RUC during his arrest and detention in the weeks leading up to his killing and told by a member of the Special Branch that they would “pick their time and kill him”. The family believes that the police and military carried out their threat and killed Dennis the first opportunity they had.
In 1985, the family took a Civil Action against the soldiers, initiated by his father Denis Heaney (senior). Sadly, Dennis’ father died on 25th April that year and the case was then brought forward in the name of his mother Eilis Heaney as administratrix de-bonis-non of his estate. The case was heard by Justice L. J. Kelly who listened to the improbable accounts given by the soldiers and found in their favour:
“Soldiers A and B appear to be mature experienced soldiers. They were both NCOs at the time and this case is concerned with the analysis of their actions and reactions and not with those of young inexperienced soldiers caught in an unexpected situation that perhaps might lead to impulsive action or disproportionate reaction. Indeed, Soldier A frankly said that he did not shoot the deceased in panic, but coolly and deliberately and with the intention of killing him.
“At the end of the day, it is the credibility of the soldiers’ account that matters. I have carefully considered all the points made by Mr McCollum that bear on this. My conclusion is that the account given by them is a truthful account. I am quite satisfied there was no unlawful conduct on their part and that they honestly and reasonably believed that their lives were in danger at the material time and had reasonable grounds for so believing. In particular, Soldier B believed his own life was in danger when he fired at the deceased’s associate, that is the second gunman, and later when he fired at the deceased. And I am satisfied that Soldier A believed his life was in danger when he fired at the deceased.
“The degree of force the soldiers employed was necessary and proportionate in the circumstances that arose. It was a reasonable use of force against the unlawful threat of imminent and deadly force”. (Justice Kelly, 18th April 1986)
The family continue to reject the accounts given by the soldiers and equally rejected the judgement of Justice Kelly who went to great lengths to stretch the credibility of accounts given by the soldiers that Dennis was facing them and the fact that all of the bullets fired hit Dennis in the back.
In November 2009, the family initiated an investigation by the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) into the circumstances surrounding the fatal shooting of Dennis. The family welcomed the investigation and were hopeful of an independent and objective review of:
the circumstances leading up to and surrounding the shooting;
the quality of the investigation conducted by RUC officers into the circumstances surrounding the shooting;
the accounts of the shootings given by Soldiers A, B and C;
the intelligence reports from any source concerning the events leading up to the shooting;
the police and army intelligence concerning Dennis as a person of interest;
the forensic, ballistic and other evidence relating to the trajectory of the bullets fired and the location and position of Dennis when the fatal shots were fired by Soldier A;
the forensic evidence concerning traces of lead and barium found on Dennis’s hands and forehead;
the absence of forensic evidence (including lead, barium and blood) on the glove allegedly found on Dennis’s right hand;
the chain of evidence concerning the gun allegedly recovered from the scene and
the chain of evidence concerning the glove allegedly found on Dennis’s right hand;
the failure of police to take charge of and preserve the scene of the shooting;
conflicting witness statements at the time of the shooting; and
the new witness statements by persons coming forward at the time of this review.
The HET investigation was brought forward on the grounds that Dennis’ mother Eilis was elderly and quite frail. It was hoped the investigation would be completed within 18 months but it dragged on unsatisfactorily until its suspension in July 2013 and formally ceased in 31st December 2014, leaving the family in a virtual limbo state with no answers to the 5 years of enquiry and no access to crucial forensic reports carried out by the HET investigation team. And it proved no comfort to Dennis’ mother Eilis who died on 22nd February 2013 leaving us all to wonder if the truth would ever come out.
In October 2015, Dennis’ brother Seamas wrote to the Chief Constable George Hamilton asking for the release of a review of the finding of the autopsy carried out by an independent pathologist at the request of HET. His request was denied on the grounds that:
“The review into your brother’s death is within the caseload of the PSNI’s Legacy Investigation Branch and remains incomplete. It is important that the views expressed by Dr Shephard and other witnesses in this case are fully considered to ensure the review conclusions are factual.
“Unfortunately, until the review is completed, I am not in a position to consider releasing any documentation to you.” (Will Kerr, Assistant Chief Constable)
In 2017, the family arranged to have a 2nd independent review of the finding of the Autopsy Report and as a result new forensic evidence has been uncovered which runs contrary to the account of the killing given by the soldiers. The family is currently investigating a new inquest in light of this new evidence and will also be pursuing a civil action against the MOD for the unlawful killing of Dennis caused by the negligence and assault and battery of the soldiers.”
The family have requested that anyone who witnessed the incident and who has not yet come forward to contact Paul or Sara from PFC confidentially 71268846
A series of events to remember Dennis on the 40th anniversary have been arranged by the Heaney family and they have asked us to share the details:
Sunday 10th June 2018
12 noon Shantallow Republic Monument: wreath-laying
2.15pm Harvey Street, minute’s silence
3.00pm Republican Monument, City Cemetery for short service presided by Father Chris Ferguson
I looked into his eyes and saw nothing.
I gazed on his face
And saw the trained Killer
Without human emotion.
Just an instrument
Of the State.
I felt not hatred
He had taken the life of my beloved son
Yet I could not hate him
Just the regime that gave
This Automaton the right to kill.