Northern Ireland news

Attorney General believes RUC killing of Catholic man not justified

Michael Leonard was shot dead by the RUC in 1973. Picture by Hugh Russell.
Connla Young

ATTORNEY general John Larkin believes the RUC killing of an innocent Catholic man 46 years ago was not justified and has described attempts to blacken his name as “despicable”.

Co Donegal man Michael Leonard (24)was shot dead after a car chase close to the Fermanagh and Donegal border between Pettigo and Belleek on May 17, 1973 - 46 years ago today.

At the time police claimed that Mr Leonard, who was a disqualified driver, had failed to stop when he got into a car after leaving a shop and that a single shot was later fired during a chase.

However, new evidence uncovered during a trawl of British army logs at the National Archives at Kew in London now appear to contradict the single shot claim made by the RUC.

It was uncovered by researcher Ciarán MacAirt from the charity Paper Trail and is published today in a report written by Mr Leonard’s cousin and campaigning Catholic priest Fr Joe McVeigh.

None of the three RUC officers involved gave evidence at a 1973 inquest but an RUC inspector claimed that a policeman who held a rifle out of the passenger side of a chasing Land Rover “accidentally snatched the trigger and discharged a round” after the vehicle “took a violent turn”.

However, it has now emerged that British army logs from the time reveal that a total of three shots were fired at the cattle dealer during the incident.

An entry in an operations log for the British army’s '3 Brigade' states: “He drove off in his car and the police fired two shots at the car which did not stop.

“They gave chase in a Land Rover and fired another shot which hit him.”

The new book reveals that an entry in a military log falsely claimed that Mr Leonard was a member of the IRA while a second claim made by a senior officer in a report also wrongly suggested that “he was known son of an IRA man (sic)”.

A jury returned a verdict of misadventure while the Irish government later raised the case with British officials.

It has now emerged that Attorney General John Larkin recently referred the matter to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

In a letter, officials for Mr Larkin said he “is of the view that even on the police case as related to the original inquest there was no justification for a warning shot and the act of preparing to fire such a shot was, in his view grossly negligent.

“There was clearly no justification for the shooting at Mr Leonard whether by way of warning or otherwise and the posthumous attempts to blacken his character are despicable.”

Fr McVeigh, who is based in Enniskillen, last night said “there have always been questions arising from Michael’s killing which were never answered”.

The priest revealed he has written to Pope Francis seeking his support for a new inquest and investigation.

“The family demands an immediate criminal investigation and new inquest,” he said.

Mr MacAirt said he discovered “that the version of the killing reported in the aftermath and at the inquest in October 1973 do not correspond to contemporaneous reports made by British units at the scene to their commanders”.

A spokeswoman for the PPS said the referral from the Attorney General “is under consideration”.

Fr McVeigh’s report will be launched at 12 noon today at Conway Mill in Belfast.

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