Undercover soldiers fired 'up to 150 bullets' at IRA men in Coagh, inquest told

A legacy inquest has been told that up to 150 bullets were fired by undercover soldiers when they shot and killed three IRA gunmen in the Co Tyrone village of Coagh more than 30 years ago.

A lawyer for families of two of the deceased told the coroner that the inquest needs to determine whether the use of lethal force was justified in an incident that was subject to allegations of a so-called "shoot-to-kill" policy. 

In June 1991, three armed Provisional IRA men - Peter Ryan, Tony Doris and Lawrence McNally - drove a hijacked car in Coagh.

The police believe the men intended to target an off-duty Ulster Defence Regiment soldier.

But a military ambush was in place, with undercover soldiers hiding in a lorry and in covert positions nearby.

They opened fire at the IRA gang who drove off but crashed into another car. Both vehicles burst into flames and the three IRA men died at the scene.

At the time, the shootings brought allegations of a "shoot-to-kill policy" being used against the IRA.

Senior Catholic clergy and prominent nationalist politicians said unjustifiable lethal force had been used against men who could have been intercepted and arrested.

On Tuesday at Banbridge Courthouse, the coroner Mr Justice Michael Humphreys opened an inquest that he says must deal with "difficult and contentious issues".

Karen Quinlivan KC, counsel for families of two of the IRA men, said the Coagh shooting incident involved "a very high use of force".

For comparison, she said 108 bullets were fired on Bloody Sunday, but the specialist military unit deployed in Coagh had fired around 150 high-velocity rounds.

Ms Quinlivan said the coroner should look at other incidents where undercover military units shot and killed members of the IRA.

She told the hearing: "The suggestion could be made that the operation was planned in such a way that death was the inevitable outcome.

"The suggestion is that excessive force was tolerated by the senior officers who commanded this unit, tolerated by the military in that soldiers who kill paramilitaries face no threat of sanction, and tolerated by the RUC whose conduct of the investigation is inadequate and slipshod."

But counsel representing soldiers disagreed, saying that the coroner had no need to look at other incidents where undercover troops opened fire.

He said it was hardly surprising if there were "operational similarities" between the Coagh shootings and other incidents involving a specialist military unit.

The inquest will resume on Thursday 22 September