The admissions by former members of the secret, plain-clothes ‘Military Reaction Force’ suggest they were responsible for killing Irish civilians in the 1970s, writes Richard Rudkin.
Speaking to the Mail on Sunday in 2012, Simon Cursey stated: “The rules of engagement in Northern Ireland were very clear: you were allowed to open fire at a person actively shooting at you or someone you are with. We had our own slight variation of these rules. We opened fire at any small group in hard areas, neighbourhoods that even looked suspicious, armed or not.”
This was a blatant admission by a former member of the Military Reaction Force (MRF), a clandestine unit of British soldiers, dressed in civilian clothes, armed with non-military issue weapons that drove in unmarked cars and operated in Republican areas, that death squads did existed in Belfast in 1972.
Despite Cursey’s admission, agencies of the British government have constantly denied that the British military ever acted outside the law. However, Ciaran MacAirt, author and founder of “Paper Trail,” together with researcher James Kinchin-White, uncovered files that suggest Cursey’s statement to be true.
Records recovered suggest the MRF, together with similar plain-clothed units of British soldiers, may have been responsible for killing at least two civilians and injuring 16 others including a 15-year-old boy.
One victim was 24-year-old Jean Smyth-Campbell. At around midnight on June 8 1972, Jean was a passenger in a car close to her home that was attacked for no clear reason. Following the tragedy, the family were provided with limited information including the assumption that the IRA was responsible having mistook the car as an undercover British army vehicle. There was absolutely no evidence to reach this conclusion as the RUC failed to secure the crime scene or even examine the area.
After the shooting, Jean’s body was bundled into a back of a taxi and taken towards the hospital. The taxi never reached the hospital. It was stopped, and for some inexplicable reason, with Jean’s body still in the back, taken to Andersonstown Police Station.
Jean’s family stated that they heard machine gun fire. A fact supported by a survivor of the attack. Yet, the now disbanded Historical Enquires Team reported that Jean was killed with a single shot. Photographs taken of the car that could prove otherwise disappeared. When some were eventually found, the photos of the side of the car were it was claimed the machine gun bullets struck, were still missing.
Files uncovered by Paper Trail, show at the time Jean was shot dead, a MRF unit was operating in the area and claimed a “hit.” This appears to be a consistent thread with similar incidents.
Where unarmed civilians had been killed or injured, British army logs record that MRF units were operating at that time, in the area.
For example, the case of an 18-year-old male teenager shot on Glen Road, Belfast, on May 6 1972.
The log states an MRF patrol on Glen Road saw three gunmen (one with a rifle and two with pistols) at the back of Glenveagh Drive. The report claims “one definite hit” and alleges that a gunman fired two shots at the patrol.
The following day, a 15-year-old boy with no military intelligence to connect him with any criminality or paramilitary activity, was shot as he left a disco at Oliver Plunkett School on the Glen Road.
The British army log records state: “MRF at Glen Road. Plunkett school saw three men at back of Glenmore Drive. 1 with a rifle, 2 with pistols. 4 x 6 shot bursts at gunmen. 1 definite hit. 2 shots by gunmen. No hits.”
Another file uncovered by researcher James Kinchin-White confirms British soldiers either belonging to the MRF or a surveillance unit from the Royal Green Jackets, operating in a similar format as the MRF, were responsible for the killing of 18-year-old Daniel Rooney in Belfast in September 1972.
The incident report stated that the undercover unit was fired upon. They returned fire, injuring one teenager and killing Daniel Rooney. Local witnesses dispute the circumstances of the incident and state both teenagers were unarmed.
In another incident, a hand-written log found by Kinchin-White confirms a plain-clothed unit from the Kings Own Scottish Border regiment were responsible for shooting and wounding two innocent men as they were waiting for a bus to take them to work in April 1972.
The company log states the Lieutenant Ball gave chase. Bryson (a wanted man) had fired a number of shots at the lieutenant before tripping and dropping his 9mm Star automatic pistol (and states the serial number) and two magazines containing live rounds. The man thought to be Bryson made his escape while the second man, later named as Gerard Conway, was hospitalised after suffering gunshot wounds to both legs.
But it was not James Bryson. The victims were John and Gerard Conway who ran a fruit and veg stall in Belfast. There were no shots fired by any of the brothers as there was no weapon of any sort. But what about the pistol that was recovered? It “disappeared.” However as soon as it became clear that these were two innocent men, the RUC stated there were no police or troops in the area and claimed the shootings were IRA punishment.
In all cases highlighted, along with the others investigated by Paper Trail, the police tested for gunshot residue but found no trace on the living or dead victims. Nor was any weapon recovered or those wounded charged with an offence.
When you see the progress being made by organisation fighting on behalf of the families to uncover the truth, you can understand why some MPs and others are calling for urgent action by the Prime Minister to stop the prosecution of former soldiers. Their claim that these allegations are vexatious are an insult to both the British soldiers that did try to do their job acting within the law, and the families of innocent victims.
There is nothing vexatious about complaining about British soldiers dressed in civilian cars, using non-standard military weapons, driving around republican areas and indiscriminatingly firing at unarmed civilians. It is not vexatious to highlight that statements were then falsified to justify the killing or wounding of innocent people
If a vote is held on an amnesty law, it’s imperative that MPs — regardless of party — oppose such a move. If the law comes to fruition, Boris Johnson’s Conservative government will be bedfellows with military dictators like Robert Mugabe, Pinochet of Chile and Raul Alfonsin as president of Argentina, who all did similar to protect their troops from prosecution. The people of Britain and Ireland — and more importantly the victims of these alleged crimes — deserve much better.