Published Date: 06.05.2021
The Police Ombudsman, Marie Anderson, has identified significant operational and investigative failures by the RUC in relation to the deaths of four people during severe disorder in Belfast on the night of 14/15 August 1969.
Download the full public statement.
In a 128-page report published today, Mrs Anderson concludes that nine-year-old Patrick Rooney, Hugh McCabe aged 20, Samuel McLarnon aged 27, and 28-year-old Michael Lynch, died after being struck by police gunfire during disturbances in the Divis and Ardoyne areas of the city.
The report finds that even allowing for the tumultuous circumstances of the time, the RUC failed to effectively investigate any of the deaths.
The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) has directed that no former officers should be prosecuted due to a lack of evidence 50-plus years after the events.
The report’s main findings include that the RUC’s use of vehicle-mounted machine guns in an area of high-rise housing such as Divis was “fundamentally flawed.”
Mrs Anderson also criticises the manner in which police marksmen fired over 20 shots from the roof of a local police station towards the Divis Flats, and raises concerns that the method used by the RUC to allocate some of the guns involved in the Ardoyne deaths prevented them being linked to individual officers.
The report sets out in detail the circumstances in which the deaths occurred, during a period of significant social upheaval and sectarian clashes at the outset of the period which came to be known as “The Troubles.”
During their investigation, Police Ombudsman investigators examined evidence originally presented to the Scarman Tribunal, which between September 1969 and June 1971 heard evidence about the circumstances of the deaths. This material is held at the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI), in files which are currently closed to the public but were made available to Police Ombudsman investigators.
Investigation had access to records "closed" to the public.
A number of new witnesses were identified and interviewed during the Police Ombudsman’s enquiries, and fresh forensic examinations were conducted in relation to each of the deaths – including the examination of bullets and bullet fragments recovered at the time.
The investigation found that Patrick Rooney
– the first child killed during the Troubles – sustained a gunshot to the head while he and his family sheltered in a bedroom of their ground floor maisonette in the Divis complex during disturbances on the night of 14 August 1969.
A witness described the situation in the area at the time as “as close to anarchy as you are ever going to get.” Hundreds of rioters confronted police, and exchanges of gunfire were reported. One man, Herbert Roy, was killed by gunfire from Divis Street and three police officers sustained gunshot wounds.
Fresh forensic examinations of a bullet fragment and ballistic material recovered from the Rooney home confirmed the Scarman Tribunal’s finding that the fatal bullet had been fired from a Browning machine gun mounted on an RUC Shorland vehicle.
The Police Ombudsman’s investigation found that three such vehicles had fired shots in the Divis area that night. Known locally as a “Whippet”, the Shorland was developed by the RUC for use in rural areas and was not designed for use in an urban setting.
An RUC Shorland fitted with a Browning machine gun. Source: PSNI Museum.
Police officers said they had been told to fire the vehicles’ weapons over the heads of rioters to disperse the crowds, and to “fire for effect” (to kill or wound) if fired upon. Multiple witnesses said gunfire directed from the vehicles towards the Divis Flats had been “indiscriminate.”
One officer reported returning fire after an explosion had lifted his vehicle off the ground during a simultaneous gun and grenade attack. None of the gunners in the vehicles accepted that fire from their weapon could have been responsible for Patrick Rooney’s death.
Browning machine gun "fundamentally unsuitable" for use that night.
“Having considered all the available evidence, I am of the view that the Shorland vehicle equipped with the Browning machine gun was fundamentally unsuitable for use in the circumstances that arose in the Divis area that night,” said Mrs Anderson. “This was due to the Browning’s heavy calibre, its rate of fire and the fact that it was designed to discharge a pattern of shots rather than focus on a specific target.
“I am also concerned that an order was given to fire these weapons over the heads of rioters in an area of high-rise housing.
“The evidence also indicates that the officers who crewed the Shorlands were insufficiently trained in the use of the Browning machine guns, and that there was a lack of clear instruction as to how the weapons could be used to control public order without risking the lives of innocent bystanders.”
Enquiries undertaken during the Police Ombudsman’s investigation - including forensic analysis of a bullet fragment and other ballistic items recovered from the Rooney home - were unable to determine which vehicle had fired the shot which struck Patrick Rooney.
The Death of Hugh McCabe
Married father of two, Hugh McCabe (20) was a trooper in the British Army who was home on leave when he was fatally wounded while at the Whitehall Block of maisonettes within the Divis Flats complex.
The Whitehall Block of the Divs Flats complex. (Source: Scarman Tribunal Papers, Deputy Keeper of the Records, PRONI)
Mrs Anderson said that after examining evidence presented to the Scarman Tribunal, and having considered new witness and forensic evidence obtained during her enquiries, she concurred with Scarman Tribunal’s finding that Mr McCabe was most likely to have been shot by one of two police marksmen positioned on the roof of Hastings Street Police Station.
“These officers stated that they returned fire after seeing muzzle flashes from gunfire being directed at police from the roof and the top of a stairwell of the Whitehall Block. Other officers also reported seeing muzzle flashes in these areas,” said Mrs Anderson. “However, none of the witnesses who had been in the building or on its roof at the time reported seeing anyone with a firearm.
No witnesses in the building or on its roof saw Mr McCabe with a firearm.
“There was, though, clear evidence that police were attacked with petrol bombs and other missiles being thrown from the building, including by a group of people on the roof of a stairwell. The evidence suggests that Mr McCabe was in the company of this group at around this time, but no one, including any police officer, stated that he had been in possession of a firearm.”
One of the police marksmen is now deceased, and forensic enquiries undertaken during the Police Ombudsman’s investigation suggested it was more likely that he had fired the fatal shot. The other marksman was certified as medically unfit to be interviewed.
Police Ombudsman investigators submitted a file to the PPS, who directed that the surviving officer should not be prosecuted due to a lack of evidence.
Mrs Anderson said that while evidence presented by police officers suggested that there had been a serious risk to officers’ lives, the decision to fire at targets in the Whitehall Block was disproportionate and unsafe. There is evidence of multiple gunshot injuries caused to civilians within the Divis complex.
“Police were firing at a discrete target surrounded by residential housing and other members of the public who were on the roof of the flats and on the upper balconies,” she said. “The surrounding darkness and the fact that the officers were aiming at muzzle flashes points to a margin of error that could have resulted in persons other than a gunman being fatally or seriously wounded.”
The Death of Samuel McLarnon
Samuel McLarnon, a 27-year-old married father of two, was killed by a single gunshot wound to the head sustained while he stood by the sitting room window of his home at Herbert Street in Ardoyne.
Forensic enquiries undertaken during the Police Ombudsman’s investigation found that a bullet recovered during Mr McLarnon’s post mortem, and held by PRONI, was consistent with those fired by a 9mm Sterling submachine gun of the type used by RUC officers.
A forensic expert stated that the bullet was one of three which had struck the same window. He said it was most likely that the shots had been fired directly at the window from the junction of Crumlin Road and Herbert Street. Three adjoining houses were also struck by gunfire believed to be from the same firearm.
He also concluded that the bullet which struck Mr McLarnon had ricocheted off a metal grille over the window. Mr McLarnon’s widow stated that her husband had fitted the grille the night before, following disorder in the area.
The forensic expert believed that the bullet, although damaged, could have been matched to a weapon presented for comparison. There is no evidence that the guns fired by police officers in the area that night were submitted for forensic examination at the time.
No evidence that guns fired by officers were seized for forensic examination.
Police Ombudsman investigators established that a total of seven officers had discharged shots in the Ardoyne area during the night of 14/15 August 1969.
However, as their weapons had been allocated to police vehicles rather than to individual officers, the identity of the officer who fired the fatal shot could not be conclusively established.
Mrs Anderson said: “the manner in which the Sterling submachine guns were allocated to vehicles was wholly unsatisfactory as this impeded the identification of which officer had any particular weapon at a given time that night. Ballistic tests ought to have been pursued and officers should have been interviewed in respect of the discharges, as a minimum investigative response.”
The Police Ombudsman concluded that the police officer most likely to have fired the fatal shot is now deceased. The officer stated that he had fired 15 shots in Herbert Street after being ordered to “stop” a sniper after reports that shots had been fired at officers on the Crumlin Road.
Mrs Anderson said she was satisfied that there was evidence of gunfire having been directed at police officers in the area, and said she accepted the Scarman Tribunal’s finding that the fatal shot had most likely been fired by a police officer.
The Death of Michael Lynch
Michael Lynch (28) was shot in the Butler Street area of Ardoyne in the early hours of 15 August 1969 and died later in the Royal Victoria Hospital.
A post mortem examination established that a single gunshot had damaged an artery of his heart and was consistent with “wounding from behind by a bullet of medium or high velocity fired at more than short range."
One police officer stated that he took a Sterling submachine gun from a police vehicle and returned fire after seeing gun flashes at the corner of Butler Street and Elmfield Street. He was the only police officer to state that he had fired shots into Butler Street. He is now deceased.
A forensic analysis conducted during the Police Ombudsman’s investigation concurred with the Scarman Tribunal, which found that Mr Lynch had been shot by a police officer who discharged a Sterling submachine gun into Butler Street.
Having examined the circumstances surrounding each of the deaths, Mr Anderson said she was of the opinion “that there was no effective investigation into these deaths by the RUC.”
No effective police investigation of the deaths.
She said there had been limited enquiries, inadequate forensic examinations, and noted that there was no evidence that any police officer had been interviewed for potential criminal or misconduct offences.
“It is possible that if the Inspector General [of the RUC] had taken proactive steps on the 15 August 1969 to examine the deaths of Patrick Rooney, Hugh McCabe, Samuel McLarnon and Michael Lynch that evidence may have been recovered capable of establishing responsibility for each of the deaths,” said Mrs Anderson.
“Unfortunately, given the passage of time, establishing the responsibility of individual officers, from the available evidence, has not been possible.”