Belfast Telegraph

The way we treat the true heroes of Troubles brings shame on us all

As republicans today commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Loughgall attack, former Special Branch detective William Matchett condemns the 'sanitising' of paramilitaries' pasts

The South Down IRA killed nine police officers in a mortar attack in Newry in 1985. The atrocity was something the brigade was delighted by and bragged about. Its record is brutal and bloody.

Colum Marks (29) was in this brigade. He was in charge of a terrorist cell in Downpatrick. His name takes pride of place on the IRA's roll of honour.

In April 1991 Marks was on 'active service' when he was shot dead by police. 'Active service' is republican language for terrorism. The Provos hated being called terrorists. Indeed, they hated being called Provos.

Specialist police in a covert operation confronted the Provo commander.

The E4 officer who fired the shots saw a terrorist suspect he identified as a threat.

That is, he believed Marks posed a real and immediate risk to his life or that of others.

It may come as a surprise to people and bodies that make careers from criticising the security effort, but police officers also have a right to life.

Considering the antecedents of the South Down Provos, the officer's assessment is credible. He was up against men from a brigade that had committed mass murder.

The coroner's court found that Marks was positioning a horizontal mortar at the side of a road. The weapon was historically used to great effect. It was part of a homemade arsenal that terrorist groups adopted all across the world.

These crude devices could be set off remotely. A terrorist did not need to be beside it to detonate it.

An example is the murder of policewoman Colleen McMurray (34) by the South Down IRA, a year after the Downpatrick incident.

To say Marks (far right) was unarmed, as most media coverage has, downplays the gravity of the life-threatening situation the officer faced.

When the IRA man was hit, it was not by a volley of shots but several bullets.

The officers at the scene gave medical aid. They tried to save him.

Marks died on the operating table at the hospital. Another suspect escaped.

The inquest jury returned a verdict of lawful killing.

Twenty-seven years later, a new eyewitness has emerged. Reports claim that he saw a man under arrest beside three police officers. The inference being that this was Colum Marks.

In other words, three police officers walked him on a public road to a location where he was then shot dead.

According to the witness, Marks was executed in cold-blood and at least three officers are implicated.

This is very different to claiming one officer made a bad call and other opportunities to arrest Marks or disrupt the attack were not taken.

But why, if the objective was to kill, did they try to keep him alive and call an ambulance? Why would they risk him talking to medical staff? It makes no sense.

Covert operations often involved different teams from different locations coming together. E4 armed response crews in uniform ran close to single E4 surveillance operators in plain clothes.

When an operation went down, it was usually when people were out of position or not entirely ready.

This is the nature of covert operations, whether in Northern Ireland, Iraq or Afghanistan. Not everything goes to plan.

In the commotion, it was not uncommon for an E4 surveillance operator to be mistaken for a suspect and challenged by an armed response crew, especially at night.

The operator knew that to comply with the instructions was to stay safe. Even when they realised who it was, the pretence of arrest was maintained. Otherwise, the operator's cover is blown. This was standard operational procedure.

There are normally three officers in a crew. Is this what the new witness saw?

If it is, the difficulty for the officer is that historical inquiries have been disinterested in how the intelligence machinery worked and dismissive of the explanations of officers from this background.

What was used in England, should have been used here, is the mindset. Few of these investigators have policed a conflict and fewer have been in this officer's shoes. The witness is not the issue.

What also makes no sense in this new claim is that no officer was trained or told to shoot to kill. They shot to stop the threat and were trained to target the chest.

At times, however, shooting was unavoidable and often fatal because E4 were crack shots.

In numbers, 0.5% of E4 operations resulted in a fatality. The last terrorist they killed was a decade prior to Marks.

This is an incredible record in a peacetime setting, let alone in a conflict. Given these figures, again the claim does not stack up.

Police shooting to kill is a belief or political catchphrase. It is what nationalists, left-wingers and the mainstream media have been conditioned to believe by Provo propagandists.

Critics who claim shootings of this kind could have been prevented ignore the elephant in the room - a person not becoming a terrorist was the best preventative measure. For the majority, this is where moral values greatly helped.

It is to the lasting credit of both communities that only a tiny minority took up arms.

Had Marks not been in Downpatrick that night, neither would the police.

MP Ian Paisley recently said the officer who killed Marks deserves a medal and not an investigation. He is right.

The comment outraged Sinn Fein. In their eyes, he was a good man, a victim and a martyr, like the IRA men killed in Loughgall.

The thirtieth anniversary of Loughgall is today. Sinn Fein will exploit it to re-justify the 'armed struggle' (their language for terrorist campaign), applaud legacy inquiries such as Marks's and demand more.

In 1991 a cowardly terrorist tried to murder and a brave cop stopped him. Why this seems controversial today is down to a 'peace process' that has encouraged, funded and popularised an opposite view.

How true heroes have been treated is shameful, how terrorism has been sanitised is sickening and how the past is being rewritten is pitiful. No other democracy would tolerate this madness.

Belfast Telegraph


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