Belfast coroner to examine 21-year-old case that raised fears of a shoot-to-kill policy by security forces

Henry McDonald
12 Mar 2012

An inquest has opened in Belfast into the deaths of two IRA members who were shot by British special forces soldiers more than two decades ago.

Dessie Grew and Martin McCaughey died in an SAS ambush in October 1990. The incident prompted allegations that the security forces were still operating a “shoot-to-kill” policy in Northern Ireland.

The court heard that the 11-strong jury would have to consider how the two men came to be at an isolated farm building and how they met their deaths.

In May last year, the supreme court in London ruled that a coroner must examine the “planning and control of the operation” that led to the shootings.

McGaughey, a 23-year-old Sinn Fein councillor, and Grew, a former member of the Irish National Liberation Army, were killed close to a farmhouse near Loughall, Co Antrim.

The court will be told that four undercover soldiers fired 72 rounds at the two men. Autopsy reports showed Grew sustained 48 wounds and McCaughey was hit by 10 bullets.

Three AK47 rifles were later found beside the men. The pair were regarded as among the most active IRA members operating in Co Armagh at the time. The farm was believed to have been under surveillance by an army undercover unit.

Over the next few weeks the inquest will hear from more than 30 witnesses.

The case has become one of the oldest outstanding inquests in Northern Ireland. Lawyers for the men’s families have claimed that the failure to hold a prompt inquest breached their right to life under European legislation.

Relatives sought a ruling by the supreme court after disagreements about the parameters of the inquest. The coroner must comply with article 2 of the European convention on human rights, even though the Human Rights Act 1998 was not in force at the time of the shootings.

The European court of human rights has ruled that states have a duty to investigate suspicious deaths and determine whether they comply with human rights legislation.