Stolen army gun linked to second killing
Steven McCaffery, Irish News | 03 May 2006
Shocking documents show that as early as 1973 the British government knew security force collusion with loyalists was resulting in murder. In the second day of a series of special reports, we recount the murderous history of an army gun - as recorded by British military intelligence
THE single page of typed sentences looks like a common or garden shopping list, but its contents are chilling.
"February 3rd, kidnapping...."
"February 20th, attempted murder...."
"May 9th, attempted murder...."
Number '6' on the list of loyalist paramilitary attacks reads: "31/5/73 - The murder of Thomas Curry, and the attempted murder of others in Muldoon's bar, Tomb St. Fired cases found at the scene."
The page is entitled 'Annex E' and is attached to a document detailing 'Subversion in the UDR' - both were written in August 1973 by British military intelligence and have never before been seen in public.
The main 'Subversion' document, carried in yesterday's Irish News, contained a series of shocking revelations, including that:
- five to 15 per cent of UDR members were linked to loyalist groups
- the "only significant source of modern weapons for Protestant extremist groups has been the UDR"
- the first loyalty of many soldiers was to "Ulster" rather than "Her Majesty's Government"
- removing undesirables from the UDR could "result in a very small regiment indeed".
The documents offer an unprecedented insight into the scale of security-force collusion and accompanying letters indicate that the information was to be passed to "No 10 Downing Street". In an extraordinary development, the documentation, therefore, forms a paper trail that stretches from the heart of the British government to the scene of murder and attempted murder in Belfast.
The trail begins on page seven of the main document, where intelligence officers recount how, in October 1972, UDR and territorial army troops at the King's Park camp in Lurgan "were 'overpowered' by a number of armed men" - the report's author using inverted commas to signal his scepticism.
The document asks:
- how the gang successfully avoided a series of patrols arriving and leaving the camp
- why the base's weapons had been gathered in one central location
- why guard orders were "contravened" to ensure "there was only one man on the gate".
"The possibility of collusion is therefore highly probable," the report says, adding later: "It is difficult to resist the conclusion that members of the UDR were party to these incidents." The loyalist gang left with 85 semi-automatic rifles and 21 sub-machine guns. According to the document: "It is apparent that the raiders found rather more weapons in the arm-oury than they had bargained for and within hours 63 SLRs and eight SMGs had been recovered close to an abandoned Land Rover." A total of 22 SLRs [self-loading, or semi-automatic, rifles] and 13 SMGs [sub-machine guns] were not recovered - until July 1973.
The main document explains: "One of the Sterling SMGs stolen from the Lurgan centre was recovered in the Shankill on 21 July 1973 in the possession of three men, two of whom were known members of the Shankill UFF/UVF group: they had just robbed a bar. "Research at the Data Reference Centre has subsequently indicated that this weapon has been used in at least 12 terrorist outrages, including the murder of a Catholic, and seven other attempted murders (details are at Annex E)."
Today The Irish News reproduces Annex E. It bears the heading: "A list of terrorist outrages in which one of the sub-machine guns stolen in the Lurgan UDR/TAVR [territorial army] Centre arms raid on 23 October 1972, has subsequently been used." It states: "The examination of test [shell] cases fired from the SMG recovered from three men, two of whom were known UFF/UVF, following an armed robbery and attemp-ted murder at 192 Shankill Rd on 21 July 1973, has revealed that the same weapon has been used in the following incidents....." It then lists 11 loyalist attacks, including references to a murder, a kidnapping, two unidentified shooting incidents and seven attempted murders.
All of the shootings took place in the Belfast area and in most cases the victims of the attacks are named. Significantly, while the annex identifies seven attempted murders, three of the shootings targeted separate groups of Catholic youths and a detachment of security forces. When the information is matched with news reports from the time, it becomes clear that the shootings could have ended in multiple deaths. The third incident on Annex E is listed as: "20/3/73 - The attempted murder of three youths who were fired at from a passing car on Brookvale Avenue." The reference to the incident carries little detail, but the Irish News report from the time suggests an atrocity was narrowly avoided. "Twelve boys in the 14-15 years old age group, playing together in Brookvale Avenue, off Antrim Road, had narrow escapes when a masked gunman stepped from a Ford Cortina which pulled in close to them and opened fire," reads the report in The Irish News. "The boys scattered in terror. The gunfire, from an automatic weapon, missed." The paper quotes an eyewitness as saying: "It was a miracle there were not half a dozen bodies left behind." The fact that the Brookvale murder bid was carried out using a British military weapon and that security forces believed it was stolen with the help of soldiers, was never made public. In a further point, which may yet prove significant, it is reported that the gunmen sped off in a 'Ford Cortina'.
The Irish News records that on the same night loyalist gunmen - also armed with a sub-machine gun and driving what was described as a 'white Ford Cortina' - killed one Catholic youth and injured another. The tragedy is not mentioned in the annex but the circumstances of the death raise further questions of the security forces. The report in The Irish News of the time reads: "A 16-year-old Catholic youth was shot dead and a schoolboy companion critically wounded from a passing car at the corner of Merrion street and Grosvenor Road, Belfast, late last night. "The dead boy was Bernard McErlean of Durham Street. He was rushed to the Royal Victoria Hospital, only 200 yards away, but he was dead on arrival. "The wounded boy... was hit by six bullets from a sub-machine gun in the chest, arms and buttocks. "Soon after the shooting lower Falls residents accused the British army of 'facilitating Protestant ex-tremist gangs'. "Eyewitnesses said the boys were shot from a white Ford Cortina car which passed, did a U-turn, and re-passed the corner of Merrion Street when the gunmen opened fire. "Local residents said that only minutes before the boys were shot an army saracen burst through a barricade at the corner of Merrion Street, scattering barrels and other articles 'in all directions', before 'disappearing into the darkness'."
The Irish News quotes one woman as saying: "People came running out when they heard the crash and a crowd gathered at the corner of Merrion street. "Then the Ford Cortina came up Grosvenor Road, turned, and the gunmen opened fire. "Young McErlean was killed in-stantly. It looked like a well timed operation - first the barricade was swept aside, bringing a crowd into the street, then the murder car swept by. The people around here can't be blamed for thinking that the British army had a hand to the murder." The death of Bernard McErlean does not feature in the Annex and it may be unrelated to the British army sub-machine gun in question. But the attacks happened on the same night, both involved a sub-machine gun and on each occasion the gunmen used a Ford Cortina.
If, however, the same weapon was used, then Thomas Curry was not the only person killed by the gun taken in the "self-service" raid in Lurgan. And the significance of the attack may yet go further. The youth who was shot and injured alongside Bernard McErlean was 15-year-old Kieran Nugent. Nugent, of Merrion Street, survived and went on to become a well-known republican and a key member of the prison 'blanket protest'. Imprisoned in 1976, he refused to wear inmates' clothing: "The only way I will wear a prison uniform is if they nail it to my back." Although he died six years ago, his words kick-started years of republican prison protests, culminating in the hunger strikes and he is commemorated in a mural on the Falls Road.
The main 'Subversion' document details how large quantities of UDR semi-automatic rifles, pistols and machine guns were stolen by "well briefed gangs, without a shot being fired in anger or any significant attempt made to resist". The document also reveals that: "Since the beginning of the current campaign the best single source of weapons, and the only significant source of modern weapons, for Protestant extremist groups has been the UDR." 'Annex E' has given us the story of just one of those weapons.