Amnesty International has called for an inquiry after former members of a secret British Army unit said soldiers killed unarmed civilians in west Belfast with impunity during the Troubles.
The Military Reaction Force (MRF) carried out drive-by shootings of nationalists manning barricades to keep out loyalists 40 years ago, although there was no independent evidence any were paramilitaries, a BBC Panorama documentary has claimed.
The elite soldiers believed military regulations prohibiting firing unless their lives were in immediate danger did not apply to them.
Amnesty Northern Ireland director Patrick Corrigan said: “Today’s revelations in Panorama underline our call for the UK Government to establish a new, over-arching mechanism to investigate human rights violations and abuses in Northern Ireland, whether carried out by paramilitary groups or the security forces. “Victims and bereaved family members have a right to truth and justice.
“Such a process must focus not just on those who pulled the trigger, but also those in positions of authority who pulled the strings.”
Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams said the revelations emphasised the need for a truth recovery process.
“The BBC programme shines a light on one aspect of Britain’s dirty war in Ireland,” he added.
“The existence of the Military Reaction Force and its activities have been known for many years but tonight’s programme contains new information and provides a fresh insight into the use by the British Government of counter-gangs and secret military units.”
Ivan Lewis MP, shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland, said the disclosures raised very serious concerns.
“The Ministry of Defence should disclose all relevant information regarding these allegations to the police as a matter of urgency,” he said. The former soldiers claimed the unit had saved many lives.
One told the BBC’s Panorama programme: “We were not there to act like an Army unit, we were there to act like a terror group.
“We were there in a position to go after IRA and kill them when we found them.”
Northern Ireland’s attorney general John Larkin QC, chief legal adviser to Stormont’s power-sharing ministerial executive, has faced criticism after floating the possibility of ending prosecutions for Troubles-related killings.
More than 3,000 deaths are being investigated by detectives from the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) as part of the peace process.
The most notorious unjustified Army killings happened at Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972, when soldiers opened fire on innocent civil rights protesters.
The reaction force had around 40 hand-picked men from across the British Army who addressed each other by first name and dispensed with ranks and identification tags. They operated at the height of the Northern Ireland conflict early in the 1970s, when bombings and shootings by paramilitaries happened almost daily. Another ex-member said it was part of his mission to draw out the IRA and minimise its activities.
“If they needed shooting they’d be shot,” he said.
The Army has a series of rules known as the Yellow Card, which guides when a soldier can open fire lawfully. Generally, lethal force was only lawful when the lives of members of the security forces or others were in immediate danger. Another soldier said: “If you had a player who was a well-known shooter who carried out quite a lot of assassinations… it would have been very simple, he had to be taken out.”
According to the Panorama programme, seven former members of the force believed the Yellow Card did not apply to them and one described it as a “fuzzy red line”, meaning they acted as they saw fit. Some said they would shoot unarmed targets.
The MRF’s records have been destroyed but the soldiers denied they were part of a death or assassination squad. Tony Le Tissier, a major in the Royal Military Police, said: “They were playing at being bandits, they were meant to be sort of IRA outlaws.
“That’s why they were in plain clothes, operating plain vehicles and using a Thompson sub machine gun (favoured by the IRA).” Some soldiers said they would drive by the barricades and open fire, even if they did not see anybody brandishing a gun.
Among those they killed, in May 1972, was father-of-six Patrick McVeigh.
His daughter Patricia said: “We want the truth. We don’t want to stop until we get the truth.”
Many relatives of people killed during the conflict by republican and loyalist paramilitaries and state forces have expressed outrage at the suggestion by the attorney general that those perpetrators yet to be caught should not face justice. The legal figure also advocated ruling out further inquests and inquiries into the crimes committed during the 30-year conflict, insisting a line should be drawn on offences perpetrated before the signing of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.