On the night of 11 November 1982, two young IRA volunteers, Eugene Toman and Sean Burns were sitting in another volunteer, Gervais McKerr’s house in Lurgan, County Armagh, drinking tea, and waiting for a lift to a safe house. The atmosphere was friendly and relaxed, according to a girl in the McKerr house that night, with the lads joking as usual and enjoying the company. Within a few hours, the three volunteers would be dead, the first victims of an horrific shoot-to-kill policy by the RUC.
The fact that this was a planned assassination operation was vehemently denied by the British government and the RUC at the time. The RUC claimed that McKerr, Burns and Toman had being speeding through a road-block when they had opened fire on the car. This point was later disputed as a result of the forensic and medical evidence at the scene of the deaths of the three men.
Gervais, Eugene and Sean were valued members of the IRA and were respected and admired by their friends and neighbours, as the enormous turnout at their funerals showed. They were mourned deeply by their families. Sean and Eugene were just 21 years of age, and Gervais (30) had a wife of ten years, Eleanor, and two children. Gervais was primarily a family man, who was considered easy-going and kind. He was multi-talented and was a keen photographer as well as an expert handyman. Eugene and Sean were friends since childhood, and in republican terms were considered dedicated, fearless and resourceful. Socially, they both enjoyed life to the full; both were interested in traditional music and Eugene was a talented artist. Eugene, at the time of his death, had been going with Colette Gaskin for six years and the young couple were due to get engaged.
The version of events given by the RUC on that night is that Gervais McKerr’s green Ford Escort, which was well known to them, had approached a checkpoint that they had set down at the junction of the old Portadown Road and Tullagally Road East, initially slowed down and then accelerated through the checkpoint, knocking down an RUC man in the process and slightly injured him, (so slightly that the man needed no hospital treatment). The RUC claimed they pursued the car for some time before opening fire on it.
However, all the evidence found disagreed with the RUC’s account.
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, the RUC cordoned off the area where the car eventually crashed for five hours, and physically restrained the local priest, Fr. Poland, from administering the last rights to the men. This information is even more horrific in the light of subsequent medical evidence which found that backseat passenger Sean Burns may well have died from shock and loss of blood over a period of time, rather than from his initial wound, a one bullet shot to the side of his body.
Forensic evidence was also at odds with the RUC’s version of events. Firstly, it was established that the RUC had fired roughly 109 bullets, and that the majority of these were fired into the bodywork of the car on the driver’s side. Only five of the bullets had in fact been fired into the bodywork at the back of the car, which is precisely where the majority of the bullets should have gone if in fact they had been fired at a fleeing car. Secondly, medical evidence revealed that Eugene Toman had received most of his injuries, not in the back or the side, but in the chest. His body, when found, lay half way out of the car, as though he was trying to escape the onslaught of bullets.
Further to the forensic and medical evidence were the reports of witnesses, some of which said that they had seen no checkpoint on the road, but had in fact seen an unmarked RUC vehicle parked in a lay-by along Tullygally Road East from 7pm, and that of a man who when listening to RUC messages on his radio heard exchanges about ‘three suspects’ in a ‘green car’, and orders given to follow ‘our three friends’.
Other evidence, such as that from a doctor who examined the bodies at the scene and believed that Eugene’s body had been moved to accommodate the RUC’s story (the new position didn’t tally with the photos taken by the RUC 30 minutes before the doctor arrived) added to the belief that the RUC had either ambushed the men and shot them, or did stop them at a checkpoint and allowed them to proceed before shooting them.
Three of the RUC men were tried and acquitted of the three men’s murders.
The coroner appointed to the case afterwards could not gather enough evidence to state exactly how the men were killed and Sean’s father says that they received a death certificate with nothing on it.
Ten years after their deaths, the inquest was reopened. The ill-fated Stalker inquiry began, and brought into the open a range of official lies and false evidence. The protracted delay of inquests into killings by British crown forces is one of a wide range of practices in the Six Counties, which human rights groups and legal representatives have highlighted as restrictive and detrimental. At this time also, the replacing at inquests of ‘verdicts’ with ‘findings’ was slammed by families seeking justice.
The trial indicated the lengths the RUC had gone through to cover up what really happened the night of the three men’s deaths.
As was so often the case in disputed killings, one injustice soon led to another. John Stalker, senior officer in the greater Manchester police, was sent over to investigate the shoot-to-kill incidents. When it was clear that his report would expose serious and criminal wrongdoing by the crown forces, a cover-up began at the highest level. Stalker himself became a victim of what many believe was a dirty tricks campaign and was taken off the case, his work discredited.
Stalker had concluded in his investigation that Special Branch had played a central role in the direction and carrying out of shoot-to-kill incidents, although his report, nor the version produced by his replacement , Colin Sampson, was never published
Twenty years on, and the families of the three men are still seeking justice. Sean’s father is still angry that the families have yet to receive any acknowledgement from the British government.
“We’ve had no satisfaction,” he said. “Initially, we went with another solicitor who wasn’t pushing the case at all, so eventually we transferred to Madden & Finucane, which has taken the case to the European courts but still can’t get justice. We are still grieving. The lads were ambushed, it’s clear for anyone to see, but I don’t think we’ll ever get an acknowledgement form the British government.”
Earlier this year, the family of Gervais McKerr was granted leave in the High Court to apply for Judicial Review against then Secretary of State John Reid for his failure to provide an effective investigation into McKerr’s death.
Solicitor for the family, Peter Madden of Madden and Finucane said:
“This case is the first of many that will test the failure of the British government to provide proper public inquiries into the deaths of hundreds of people killed by British crown forces. The European Court of Human Rights ruled last May that the current legal process for public inquiry (the coroner’s inquest) was in violation of Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to life). Even though this judgement was delivered in May of last year, so far the British government has not told any of the families how they intend to comply with the ruling. It is clear to us that the only chance the McKerr family have of receiving the type of effective investigation, that the European Court has said they are entitled to, is for an independent judicial public inquiry to be established immediately.”
In another attack, on Wednesday 24 November 1982, 17-year-old North Armagh youth, Michael Tighe became the fourth fatality of the RUC’s shoot-to-kill policy. The shooting was another deliberate planned attack involving three carloads of RUC men, not a routine patrol, on a shed on the Ballinary Road where Michael and a friend of his, 20-year-old Martin McAuley were shot down. Three rifles were claimed to be subsequently found on the premises, though none of them had been fired. The youths were given no opportunity to surrender, and the RUC shot at the shed for up to four minutes. The two young men had been legitimately on the premises, and a witness later stated that it was dark and would have been almost impossible for the RUC to see what they were firing at.
Within minutes of the killing being announced, local DUP Assembly member David Calvert was expressing full backing for, and satisfaction with, the RUC action.
On Sunday, 12 December, INLA members Roddy Carroll and Seamus Grew became the fifth and sixth victims in North Armagh of the RUC’s new shoot-to-kill policy. The pair were unarmed when they were gunned down by the special undercover RUC unit. As in the case of the three IRA Volunteers the previous month, the crown forces claimed that the pair had accelerated through a checkpoint at Girvan’s Bridge on the Armagh to Keady Road, injuring an RUC man. The RUC claimed the men were shot after a chase that went on for several miles, butt an eyewitness reported that Seamus Grew had waved at him as he passed him on the Killylea Road. He estimated that the car was doing no more than 30 mph. He reported that an RUC car travelling at high speed caught up with and ovewrtook Grew’s car. He did not see what happened next but heard a burst of gunfire, followed by two single shots. Both men were later found to have been shot three times, in the arm, the chest, and the back of the head.