Former members of Military Reaction Force admit on BBC Panorama they did not always follow guidelines on lethal force
Claims that members of an undercover army unit shot unarmed civilians in Northern Ireland during the 1970s have been referred to the police, according to the Ministry of Defence.
The allegations against the Military Reaction Force (MRF) are contained in a BBC Panorama programme, Britain’s Secret Terror Force, to be broadcast on Thursday evening.
Seven former members of the plain-clothes detachment – which carried out surveillance and, allegedly, unprovoked attacks – have spoken to the programme. The existence of the MRF is well known but its unorthodox methods and the scope of its activities have been the source of continuing speculation.
The soldiers in the Panorama report are not identified. One said that surveillance had been the MRF’s main purpose, but that it also had a “hard-hitting anti-terrorist” role. “We were not there to act like an army unit,” he explained. “We were there to act like a terror group. We had our own rules, but I don’t recall being involved in the shooting of an innocent person.”
Their weaponry was not always standard issue. On one occasion, the programme reports, a Thompson sub-machine gun was used. The men drove Hillmans and Ford Cortinas with microphones built into the sun visors; some were cars that had been stolen and recovered.
The year 1972 was the most violent of the Troubles: 497 people were killed including 134 were soldiers.
All seven former MRF soldiers told the programme that they sometimes acted in contravention of the “yellow card” – the strict rules that spelled out the circumstances under which soldiers could open fire. Lethal force was generally only lawful when the lives of security forces or others were in immediate danger.
One soldier explained: “If you had a player who was a well-known shooter who carried out quite a lot of assassinations …it would have been very simple – he had to be taken out.” All the soldiers, however, denied that they were part of a “death” or “assassination squad”.
Two fatal shootings have been linked to the MRF. On the night of 12 May 1972, an MRF patrol shot dead Patrick McVeigh, a father of six children and a member of the Catholic Ex-Servicemen’s Club whose members had been manning barricades in Belfast.
The soldiers involved made statements to the Royal Military Police saying they had been shot at and returned fire. However, the programme, made by the production company twenty2vision for Panorama, says there is no evidence that McVeigh or anyone beside him were members of the IRA. Those hit tested negative when swabbed by the police for firearms deposits, the programme says.
In September that year, another MRF patrol, the BBC programme says, shot dead 18-year-old Daniel Rooney in West Belfast. An MRF sergeant was acquitted of attempted murder following a trial in 1973. After 18 months’ duty, the MRF was dissolved in late 1972 following army concerns about the adequacy of its command and control structures.
An MoD spokesperson told the Guardian: “This is a matter for the Police Service of Northern Ireland Historical Enquiries Team (PSNI HET), who are examining all deaths that occurred during Operation Banner; the Ministry of Defence has co-operated fully with their inquiries.
“The UK has strict rules of engagement which are in accordance with UK law and international humanitarian law. This applied to operations in Northern Ireland. Soldiers were at all times subject to the general criminal law on the use of force, which was made clear to them in training and before operations.”
The PSNI said it would wait to see the programme. A spokesman added: “It would be inappropriate to comment at this point.”
Owen Bowcott, legal affairs correspondent
theguardian.com, Thursday 21 November 2013 06.12 GMT
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