Newly released documents reveal that an unpublished Irish Government report into the fatal shooting of Aidan McAnespie almost thirty-five years ago found it was 'difficult to accept' the defence of the British solider responsible for the killing.
The documents also show that Northern Secretary Tom King admitted that the British Government could have handled the fall-out from the McAnespie killing better.
The 23-year-old Catholic man was shot dead as he walked through a checkpoint on the Tyrone-Monaghan border at Aughnacloy on his way to a GAA match in February 1988.
David Holden, now 52, then a member of the Grenadier Guards, had admitted firing the shot that killed Aidan McAnespie, but claimed it was accidental as his wet hands slipped on the trigger when moving a heavy machine gun.
A Judge in Belfast last month found Holden guilty of the manslaughter of Mr. McAnespie, accusing him of giving a deliberately false account of what happened. It was the first conviction of a former soldier for a historical killing since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
However, according to papers released by the National Archives, an Irish Government Inquiry into the killing also raised questions over the British Army’s version of events in 1988.
The day after the shooting, the Haughey Government ordered Gardaí to carry out their own inquiry led by then-Assistant Commissioner Eugene Crowley. The move caused considerable tension with the Thatcher administration and the inquiry’s findings were never released.
A summary of the inquiry’s conclusions notes that it was ‘not possible to establish with evidence whether the shooting was deliberate or otherwise’ – but in Eugene Crowley’s opinion, Holden’s defence represented ‘too much of a coincidence’.
"I would find it difficult to accept the press report that his fingers slipped when cleaning the gun. It would be too much of a coincidence that McAnespie happened to be in the line of fire at the time", Deputy Commissioner Crowley wrote.
Commissioner Crowley also expressed his opinion that the shooting of Aidan McAnespie was not a deliberate act. While ‘there can be no doubt about the fact that he was being singled out for particular attention and harassment at the Aughnacloy checkpoint... if the final intention were to kill him, I would consider that the Security Forces could have chosen a more surreptitious occasion and time’.
The report notes that the RUC suspected Aidan McAnespie of gathering intelligence about the movement of security force personnel in the Aughnacloy area and supplying details to local units of the IRA.
The papers reveal how the inquiry took statements from 49 people – with some evidence ‘clearly indicating that [Aidan McAnespie] was being subject to an excessive amount of harassment’ by security force personnel prior to the killing. This, in Mr. Crowley’s opinion, ‘went beyond the bounds of necessity and was not in accord with what one would expect from trained, disciplined personnel’.
The inquiry also received complaints of harassment generally, mainly of the young male population of the Aughnacloy area. Partially for this reason, Mr. Crowley ‘strongly requested confidentiality’ for his report for fear that if the identities of witnesses were known, it may lead to further harassment by the security forces in Northern Ireland.
A separate note adds: ‘it would not be proper to publish Mr. Crowley’s statement that he would find it difficult to accept that the soldier’s fingers slipped on the trigger when cleaning the gun’
‘This was a bad one’
The shooting exacerbated tensions between Dublin and London, with Taoiseach Charles Haughey saying that the British explanation for McAnespie’s death ‘gave rise to disbelief’.
Criminal charges against David Holden were initially dropped in September 1988 due to a lack of evidence (he would eventually be charged again in 2018).
A Department of Foreign Affairs briefing document shows that officials in Dublin felt blindsided by this decision: ‘On 26 September, the Northern Ireland Director of Public Prosecutions announced the withdrawal of the charge of manslaughter against Private Holden. The same day the Government issued a statement noting with surprise and concern this decision of the DPP and noting also that the Government had been given no indication of this decision’.
‘It also pointed to the effect which the latest decision must have on public confidence in the rule of the law in Northern Ireland’.
A week later, Northern Secretary Tom King wrote to Foreign Affairs Minister Brian Lenihan, seemingly seeking a rapprochement.
‘This was a bad one in which I think we both have lessons to learn’, wrote Mr. King to Mr. Lenihan about the fall-out from the McAnespie shooting, ‘I know you share my concern to try and avoid these minefields and the damage they do to relations between our countries’.
‘This was a very unhappy matter for both of us and I am most anxious that we should discuss, when we next meet, how we can avoid this happening again in this way’, he said.
Tom King admitted to Brian Lenihan that the Irish Government should have been better informed of the decision to drop charges against David Holden. However, Mr. King also took umbrage with Dublin’s statement after this decision – saying it drew an unnecessary link, in his view, with the Stalker/Sampson case.
‘I think the handling at this end was not good over providing some greater background information to explain on what basis the decision had been taken by the DPP’, wrote Mr. King to Mr. Lenihan.
He added: ‘I see that this left open the possibility that it might be assumed that there was in some way some similarity with the decisions not to prosecute in the Stalker/Sampson case, where in fact there was no similarity at all. Having said that, the response did obviously place us in a very difficult position in which it was inevitable that we had to reply. I ensured that the reply was couched in as moderate a form as possible’.