Northern Ireland

Inquest to determine whether lethal force was justified in SAS shooting in 1992

The Clonoe inquest opened at Laganside Courthouse in Belfast (Liam McBurney/PA)
The Clonoe inquest opened at Laganside Courthouse in Belfast (Liam McBurney/PA)

An inquest will determine whether the use of lethal force was justified in an SAS ambush which killed four IRA men in Co Tyrone in 1992, a court has heard.

Northern Ireland’s presiding coroner Mr Justice Michael Humphreys opened the inquest into the shootings in Clonoe at Laganside Courthouse in Belfast.

The hearing was told that because the full disclosure process has not yet been completed, the inquest would open before being adjourned.

Kevin Barry O’Donnell, 21, Sean O’Farrell, 23, Peter Clancy, 19, and Daniel Vincent, 20, were shot by SAS soldiers minutes after they had carried out a gun attack on Coalisland RUC station.

The special forces opened fire as the men arrived at St Patrick’s Church car park in a stolen lorry they had used in the police station attack.

A barrister representing the coroner said because of the absence of material, the precise scope of the inquest has not yet been determined.

He added: “It is however likely to include consideration of the following – the state of knowledge of those involved, the purpose of the operation, its planning and control, the actions of those involved at all stages of the operation, the nature and degree of force used, the circumstances in which that force was used and whether the use of lethal force was justified.

“A particular focus of the inquest will be that final question, whether the use of lethal force was justified.

“In that regard, the actions of the soldiers within the special military unit, as well as those of the deceased and others, will be the subject of substantial scrutiny.”

Setting out the circumstances of the incident, the barrister said that on the night of Sunday February 16 1992 at approximately 10.40pm a Provisional IRA unit attacked Coalisland RUC station.

Laganside court
The inquest heard that proceedings would be adjourned to allow the disclosure process to be completed (Liam McBurney/PA)

He said the attack had involved a stolen lorry with a Soviet-made anti-aircraft heavy machine gun welded onto the tailgate.

The court was told that the shooting lasted for less than a minute and that police officers and 12 soldiers inside the station escaped injury.

The lorry then travelled to the car park at St Patrick’s church in Clonoe.

The barrister added: “The police and Army were in receipt of intelligence in advance that an attack was to take place on the RUC station that night and that it would involve the use of the car park at Clonoe chapel.

“As a consequence, an Army special military unit comprised of 12 soldiers was concealed on the perimeter of the car park at its southern end where there was a small hedgerow.

“They had been deployed there for some hours before the incident occurred.

“The lorry drove into the car park preceded by another car. The soldiers opened fire on the lorry and its occupants as well as the three cars which were also in the car park.

“No verbal warning appears to have been given prior to them beginning to shoot.”

The court was told that the four men were all pronounced dead at the scene.

It also heard that tests showed the lorry had been hit by at least 68 bullets.

The barrister said the soldiers involved had provided witness statements in 1992.

He said: “In each instance they claimed that their use of lethal force was justified in order to protect their own lives and those of their colleagues from the danger presented by the IRA unit.”