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How the fate of three unarmed and off-duty young men was sealed

Martin Lindsay


Dougald McCaughey, Joseph McCaig and his brother John from the Royal Highland Fusiliers were killed by the IRA while off-duty

Dougald McCaughey, Joseph McCaig and his brother John from the Royal Highland Fusiliers were killed by the IRA while off-duty

Dougald McCaughey, Joseph McCaig and his brother John from the Royal Highland Fusiliers were killed by the IRA while off-duty

It was the first multiple killing of the so-called Troubles. But the IRA murder of three young Scottish Fusiliers sent shock waves through a country which had not yet witnessed the wholesale slaughter of civilians and security force members at the hands of terrorists.

Narrow Water, Kingsmill, Loughinisland and Enniskillen had yet to happen. But that chilly night at White Brae, Ligoniel, when unarmed brothers John (17) and Joseph McCaig (18) and their friend Dougald McCaughey (23) were shot by the IRA, the unrest witnessed up to then was suddenly and brutally overshadowed.

Earlier that afternoon, the three young Scottish soldiers had filed out of Belfast's Girdwood barracks, dressed in civvies and with six hours leave - enough to get a few pints in and, perhaps, meet some locals.

That night most of the hacks drinking in McGlades bar - a popular Press watering hole - had filed their stories and were winding down, waiting for the next call-out.

But an hour before closing, the reporters - myself included - began a hurried departure and headed to Ligoniel, where an 'incident' had occurred. Police sealed off the scene, with orders not to speak to the Press. I tried talking to one officer but he flatly refused to say anything, so I began talking about the Troubles in general.

After about 20 minutes and for no apparent reason, the policeman stopped me in mid-sentence and gripped my arm. Then he whispered these chilling words: "There are three dead Scottish soldiers lying in a ditch. Shot. Young fellows. In civvy clothes."

The following morning, the Belfast Telegraph and the other papers and broadcasting outlets moved into top gear to find out how the first multiple murders of the Troubles were carried out and by whom.

Three soldiers on duty had been killed, in separate incidents, before that horrific night of March 10, 1971. Now, three unarmed, and off-duty, soldiers had been butchered by the IRA.

Journalists concentrated on two of the pubs the soldiers visited - Mooney's and Kelly's Cellars - and within hours, the atrocity was dubbed the 'honey trap killings', as fears grew women were involved.

Detectives discovered that McCaughey went into the main General Post Office in Royal Avenue to withdraw cash. The McCaig brothers went with him.

The first pint stop for the trio was the Abercorn Bar, where they were spotted drinking with two men with "southern Irish accents". They then walked to Mooney's before accepting an invite for more drinks at Kelly's bar, where a car (possibly an Austin Cambridge) was waiting to ferry them to the "party".

At White Brae, the Fusiliers got out to relieve themselves by the roadside, and as they did so, the killers shot them with a .38 revolver and a 9mm semi-automatic pistol. Witnesses spoke of seeing an Austin Cambridge and a red Mini leaving the scene. The Mini's occupants appeared to be covered by a white sheet.

Friends and fellow Fusiliers believe to this day that the soldiers were first spotted by a republican sympathiser - with British military background - as they entered the Post Office. After that, their fate was sealed.

I recall talking to a Special Branch officer when the Metropolitan police were sent to Belfast to break the case and bring charges. He told me that the RUC gave the Met the list of names of those involved. By the time the Met's inquiries ended, they had come up with the exact same names. And they, too, lacked the necessary evidence.

Years later, history repeated itself when an Historical Enquiries Team report into the murders didn't unearth enough new evidence to bring charges. But it contained one fascinating footnote: investigators found no evidence that women played any part in luring the sol diers to their deaths.

But the 'honey trap' label sticks to this day.

Belfast Telegraph