Family Welcome Statement from Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Minister for Defence

27 August 2009

The family of Aidan Mc Anespie who was shot and fatally wounded by a British soldier in 1988 have issued the following statement through the Pat Finucane Centre. Speaking this morning Una Mc Cabe, niece of the victim said, “"In recent days our family held a meeting with Secretary of State Shaun Woodward MP at Hillsborough. We were accompanied at the meeting by our MP, Michelle Gildernew of Sinn Fein, Fianna Fail Senator Mary White and Paul O’Connor of the Pat Finucane Centre. During this meeting the Secretary of State told the family that he intended to issue a statement which we understand the NIO has released this morning. “We appreciate the fact that Shaun Woodward took the time to read the HET report into Aidan’s killing and to listen to his family. We believe that this meeting was very important for both the family and the British Government. It was very emotional for all concerned and allowed Aidan’s elderly parents, John and Liz, to explain the extensive harassment that Aidan had been subjected to in the lead-up to his death and the devastating effect of his loss on his family, friends and community.

“The circumstances of the shooting and the findings of the HET report were discussed. We explained to the Secretary of State that the version of events offered by the army, that a bullet ricocheted off the ground and then killed Aidan because a soldier had wet hands and was cleaning a gun which accidentally discharged was the ‘least likely’ explanation according to the HET report. Aidan was fatally wounded by a ricochet bullet. In respect of why a bullet should strike the ground less that 2 metres behind Aidan at 283.4 metres range the HET report is clear that ‘…the chances of it being un-aimed or random seem so remote in the circumstances that they can be virtually disregarded.’

Given the findings of the HET report we find it highly significant and positive that the Minister of Defence has co-signed this public statement along with the Northern Ireland Secretary. For years we have fought for truth and acknowledgement.

The HET report, in our view, represents the closest that we as a family have got to the truth of what occurred that day. The meeting with Shaun Woodward is the acknowledgement at official level that was missing. Our only regret at this stage is that Elish was not with us last week. She carried the torch for her brother Aidan for many years and her spirit is still with us.”

We wish to thank all those who have supported us over the years.

(see unedited HET Conclusions below)

HET Conclusions

This review into the death of Aidan Martin McAnespie has been examined against the below factors:

  • The original case investigation
  • Exhibits records
  • Ballistic evidence
  • Family concerns
  • Intelligence records
  • Analysis of available evidence

The HET concludes that, on the basis of the available evidence: -

Aidan McAnespie died as a result of being struck by a high velocity bullet, which ricocheted from the roadway a short distance behind him and was fired by Guardsman David Holden from a General Purpose Machine Gun located in an upper sangar nearly 300 metres away. Guardsman Holden has already been interviewed, arrested and charged with manslaughter, although the charge was withdrawn by the DPP at the time, and this review has found no legal grounds or new evidence to justify re-interviewing him or for submitting a file of evidence for reconsideration by the PPS.

The HET has considered the accounts given by the witnesses, in particular the soldiers involved. There are three possible scenarios;

1.   Guardsman Holden accidentally discharged the gun in the manner described by him in his statements or in some other unknown and undisclosed circumstances.

2.   Guardsman Holden deliberately discharged a burst of aimed shots at the victim or in his vicinity.

3.   Guardsman Holden was tracking the victim with the gun, or was aiming the gun at him, and being unaware that the gun was cocked and ready to fire, pulled the trigger, inadvertently discharging the three shots.

There is little doubt that, as a young British soldier in control of a lethal weapon, with a person he considered an IRA suspect in his sights, Guardsman Holden would have felt some antipathy towards the victim; the evidence does not definitively rule out an accidental discharge, but nor does it preclude the possibility that Guardsman Holden deliberately fired the gun at the victim. It was also suggested in the interview with Guardsman Holden, and is a possibility, that he had been tracking the victim with the gun, or had the gun aimed at him, and had pulled the trigger, unaware that it had been left cocked, resulting in the discharge. The issue of the remains of a dust cap, still in place when the weapon was fired, may support this contention. He denied this account, however.

The accidental discharge version is based on the statement of Guardsman Holden, supported to some degree by the findings of Forensic Scientist and Ballistic expert, Gary Montgomery. The evidence of a ricochet was also used to support this version. This formed the rationale for the subsequent decisions made by the SIO and his senior officers to recommend no prosecution and possibly then the decision by the DPP not to prosecute.

The opinion of Mr Montgomery, an experienced Forensic Scientist and ballistic expert, undoubtedly warrants serious consideration; however, the HET must assess it on the basis of it being an opinion and, like any opinion, open to debate and challenge. From a critical (and the family, perspective) it could be argued that his findings were too readily accepted by the police and not subject to any other expert scrutiny until Keith Borer's submissions in 1990. He bases his opinion on his expectation that the three bullets fired would have struck in the same area if the weapon had been deliberately discharged from a firm firing position. Yet whilst one of the bullets struck below and to the left of the victim, the other two bullets struck, more or less, in the same area.

Given it is unknown, and likely to remain unknown, exactly under what conditions or circumstances Guardsman Holden fired the weapon, except for his version of events, then Mr Montgomery's conclusions are arguable and, to some degree, based on assumptions made from the circumstances explained to him; for example, he does not appear to have been invited to consider whether a surprise firing resulting from the soldier tracking Aidan with the weapon, unaware that it was cocked, might account for the spread of strike marks. If the nearest/lowest strike mark (KD 1) resulted from the first shot fired from the gun, it would to some degree support the contention that the gun was not aimed at the victim. However, if the first shot fired, resulted in the ricochet from the fatal strike mark (KD 2) then this could support the assertion that the gun was aimed at the victim or in his vicinity.

In Mr Montgomery's report, the possibility that the fatal ricochet was as a result of the first shot discharged from the weapon is not examined. The evidence of the fatal shot being a ricochet is also used to support the accidental discharge version, which is perceived by the family as ruling out the other options; yet an aimed shot, directed close by the target, could also have resulted in an unplanned ricochet with catastrophic consequences. This does not seem to have been considered. The fact that the bullet struck the roadway only a metre or so behind the victim at a distance of 283.4 metres from the firing point, does not add any great weight to the view that the shooting was accidental and conversely could indicate that the gun was deliberately aimed towards him.

An impartial and objective observer must question the likelihood of an accidental, random discharge striking the roadway only a few feet behind, what would be from the vantage point of the machine gun post, a miniscule figure at a distance of 283.4 metres. The statistical odds, as outlined by Independent Ballistic expert Keith Borer, are strongly against the accidental discharge account. When the facts that the victim of this alleged random shot was a subject that the soldiers had kept under observation, and was perceived by them as a potential terrorist suspect, are added to the equation, then the likelihood that it was a random shot is even less. Add to this the minimum 9lb pressure required to pull the trigger and the probability of accidental firing recedes further.

Having weighed up these propositions and taken all the circumstances into account, none of the three scenarios outlined can be definitively ruled out; Guardsman Holden's version of events, however, can be considered to be the least likely. The HET cannot judge, on the available evidence, whether the shot was fired deliberately or unintentionally. The fact that the dust cover was in place, and the possibility that the weapon may well have been left cocked without the knowledge of Guardsman Holden, may support the view that the actual discharge was unintentional. However, the chances of it being un-aimed or random seem to be so remote in the circumstances that they can be virtually disregarded.

This leaves the option of a deliberate shot, or the option that Guardsman Holden was tracking Aidan with his weapon aimed, and was unaware that the weapon was cocked when the trigger was pulled. The family believe that it was a deliberate shot, either to kill Aidan or aimed nearby to scare him.

In the final analysis, the HET is of the view that, whatever the truth of the matter in this case, it is unlikely that the GPMG was discharged in the circumstances, or in the manner, described by Guardsman Holden.