Forty-seven years ago today

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by Joe McVeigh

My cousin, Michael Leonard, was shot dead by the RUC on 17 May 1973 in the townland of Letter, Co Fermanagh. He lived in Co Donegal near Pettigo. At the time of his death, Michael was engaged to be married to Mena Gallagher who lived near Ederney, County Fermanagh. He was 24 years old.

A number of different versions of how Michael came to be shot emerged in the immediate aftermath as is clear from British army logs discovered in Kew Library. At first it was claimed he had tried to break through an RUC checkpoint near St Angelo. This initial report stated that he was wounded and that ‘the occupants have been apprehended’. In a log entry three hours later, it was stated that Michael died after the incident, that he was driving into Northern Ireland while disqualified from driving and it was thought this was the reason he failed to stop. This report noted that ‘there was no other occupant in the car’. In the right-hand column, it was noted: ‘B2 report says he is PIRA’.

Two hours after that, in a log entry headed ‘New Story’ it was reported that the RUC, on a routine patrol, entered a shop and, recognising Leonard, went to question him. It was claimed that he ran off despite the fact that he was told to halt. It was noted that, as he drove off, the police fired two shots at his car which did not stop. They gave chase in a Land Rover and fired another shot which hit and fatally wounded him.

In a telegram to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in July the British Ambassador in Dublin, Arthur Galsworthy, reported that Donegal TD, Neil Blaney, had raised the shooting in the Dáil the previous day. In reply, the Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr. Garret Fitzgerald said that he had sought a report from the British authorities about the circumstances in which Michael had lost his life but was told that investigations were incomplete at that stage.

In a memo to David Blatherwick at the British Embassy in Dublin, another official remarked:

‘It is a rather peculiar story and it would be best to restrict yourselves to saying it is being investigated very fully.’

A report prepared by Brigadier Commander CS Wallis-King of 3 Brigade, dated 8 September 1973, included a reference to Mr Leonard’s death. Wallis-King wrote:

‘On 17 May 73 at 1740 hrs Michael Joseph Leonard (25) was shot dead by the RUC after refusing a call to halt in a car. He was known IRA man.’

When the Inquest into Mr Leonard’s death was held in Enniskillen on 31 October 1973, yet another version of events was presented. None of the three police officers involved in the incident was present in the Coroner’s Court. The Coroner made the decision not to call these officers stating he felt ‘that it was proper that they should not be present at the Inquest.’

Inspector Darrell Beaney of RUC Kesh relayed information from the three officers to the Coroner. Again, in his rendering of events there is no mention of two shots being fired before the car chase began but there is a new claim that the officer driving the police Land Rover ‘saw Leonard turn half-way around in his seat and raise his right arm.’ Inspector Beaney told the Coroner that the driver, ‘unsure of Leonard’s intention, swung hard immediately to his right to try and get out from behind Leonard’s car.’ This action, he claimed, caused the constable with the rifle to ‘accidentally pull the trigger and discharge a round.’ This bullet struck and fatally wounded Mr Leonard. He died shortly after arrival in the Erne Hospital, Enniskillen. On being questioned by Mr Fahy about the significance of Mr Leonard having raised his right arm, Inspector Beaney replied:

‘I would imagine that anyone turning round in such a fashion in a car would give rise to concern to the security forces.’

When asked if that was an allegation that Mr. Leonard might have had a weapon, Inspector Beaney said it was. There was, however, absolutely no allusion to any weapon being found subsequently in Mr Leonard’s car. Beaney noted that Mr Leonard had a number of convictions which Mr Fahy sought to clarify as being motoring offences. He responded to a further question from Mr Fahy that he had no knowledge of Mr Leonard being a member of the IRA. (As noted above, this false claim was included in an early version of the incident in the Army logs). A verdict of misadventure was returned.

The family’s solicitor, the late Mr Patrick Fahy, told me some months before his untimely death, that, in his view, the Inquest was ‘highly unusual even by the standard of the times.’ He observed that there were no statements from the police officers involved. In his opinion, this was ‘highly irregular.’

The fresh claim made at the Inquest that Mr Leonard raised his right arm, causing the police driver to swerve hard, was clearly intended to suggest that the officers feared for their lives and, as a result, the officer with the rifle discharged it accidentally. It is apparent that an NIO official did not believe the RUC version or versions of events. Also, the early assertion that shots were fired by the police officers just before the car chase began was not repeated at the Inquest or subsequently. What is abundantly clear, however, from the Army and NIO documents, is that a false narrative was concocted by the RUC.

Sadly, Pat Fahy who was pursuing this case on behalf of our family, died last year. One of his partners has taken on the case and will be making further inquiries as soon as it is possible to do so. Even though 47 years have passed, the family is still determined to find out the full truth about Michael’s murder by the RUC on a lonely country road in Fermanagh near the border with Donegal.

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