An IRA unit wiped out by the SAS during an attack on Loughgall RUC station in 1987
opened fire first, a major report has found.
The conclusion that the SAS were within their rights to shoot dead the terror unit
in one of the most notorious cases of the Troubles is the key finding of an
investigation by the Historical Enquiries Team.
The revelation is sure to cause a political storm as the families of those killed in
the ambush have always claimed that the men were intentionally gunned down as part
of a shoot-to-kill policy without any warning or attempt to effect arrests.
The full HET findings are due to be released to the families of the dead within weeks.
The Belfast Telegraph understands that the HET report concludes that the IRA unit,
the most feared then in existence, could not have been safely arrested and that the
SAS were within their rights to open fire in the circumstances.
The Loughgall shootings were among the most controversial of the Troubles. Eight IRA
members died in the attack in May 1987.
The SAS also shot Anthony Hughes, an innocent civilian who was clad in a boilersuit
as he drove home from work with his brother Oliver. Their car chanced to drive into
the 'killing zone' set up by the special forces around the rural police station.
Around 14 east Tyrone IRA volunteers were involved in the planned terrorist operation.
Eight of them travelled in a van and a hijacked digger, which carried a bomb in its
bucket, to carry out the attack.
Others held the digger's owner hostage in his home, or travelled unarmed in cars
used to scout the route for security forces.
The account accepted by republicans, set out in Fr Raymond Murray's book The SAS In
Ireland, is that the SAS started shooting as soon as the bomb fuse was lit.
Fr Murray believed that three IRA men returned "a few shots" in response to
"withering fire" from the soldiers.
The bomb then detonated, virtually demolishing the station, and the SAS continued
firing for several minutes.
One IRA member, Seamus Donnelly (19), died as he tried to escape into a football
field where soldiers and police were concealed. The rest died in the van or around
The republican account has it that the IRA men thought the station was unmanned at
However, the HET concluded that the IRA unit opened fire as they approached the
The HET found they were unlikely to have shot at a building they believed to be empty.
This was similar to what happened when the same unit had attacked Ballygawley RUC
station in 1985, killing two officers.
The HET was asked to expedite the Loughgall case after the European Court of Human
Rights found, in 2001, that the British Government had not yet carried out a
thorough enough investigation into the nine deaths.
It also awarded each of the bereaved families £10,000 compensation.
The IRA operation was led by Paddy Kelly and Jim Lynagh.
Mairead Kelly, Mr Kelly's sister, said she had been told that the report was in its
"editing" stage but they had given her no hint of the contents.
She said the families of the dead had, as they were invited to do, asked the HET a
number of specific questions.
Questions included why their loved ones were not arrested and why civilians, such as
Mr Hughes, were not directed away from the area.
"I suspect that it was because the security forces wanted the IRA operation to go
ahead so they could kill them," said Ms Kelly.
"They should have tried to stop the incident from taking place," she added.
The Loughgall massacre was the IRA's biggest loss of life of the Troubles.
Last night (Thursday) a HET spokeswoman told the Belfast Telegraph "the Historical Enquiries
Team work with bereaved families on a strictly confidential basis. It does not
discuss the contents or progress of a review with anyone except the families
concerned or their representatives".