There’s a country pub not far from where I live, The Derryhirk Inn. I passed it today and was reminded of events of 1997, long before I moved to the area. Here’s a clear, impartial report of the events from the High Court case for compensation:
On the evening of 14 March 1997 Joseph Douglas, who was then 44 years of age, was working as a doorman at the Derryhirk Inn. Shortly after 10.00 pm, accompanied by another doorman, he left the premises in order to investigate two men who seemed to be acting suspiciously near cars in the car park. As Mr Douglas approached an entry leading into a field he was confronted by a gunman who pointed a gun at him and told him not to move. Mr Douglas reacted by turning and running back to the Inn and, as he did so, a number of shots were discharged. After returning to the Inn he saw a gunman who appeared to be standing at the foot of some stairs shouting up towards people in an attic. He also observed a gunman in the lounge area who seemed to be threatening somebody who was kneeling on the floor.
On the same evening Paul Fearnon and his wife, Mary Fearnon, had attended the Derryhirk Inn for a meal. They had just finished their main course when they heard shots outside the premises and the lights were extinguished. A man then entered the area in which the diners were seated acting in a very aggressive manner and carrying a gun to which a light was attached. The Fearnons, together with other visitors to the premises, panicked and sought to take refuge under the tables. The gunman, who was dressed in dark clothing and wearing a baseball hat, then picked out Mr Fearnon with the light on his gun and compelled him to kneel in the open space with his hands behind his head. He presented the gun to Mr Fearnon’s head and alleged that he had recently been in the car park and had just run into the premises. Mr Fearnon did his best to explain his presence believing that he was being interrogated by a paramilitary terrorist and that he was about to be shot. Two police officers, wearing normal police uniform, then arrived on the scene and Mr Fearnon thought that there was going to be a shoot out in which he might be killed or injured during cross-fire. However, these officers walked past the gunman without any undue concern and they were quickly followed by a large number of police and soldiers. Mr Fearnon realised that this was some form of police/army operation and he returned to his wife.
A short time later the person who had compelled Mr Fearnon to kneel, and presented a gun to his head when doing so, returned in the company of two police officers whose attention he directed to Mr Fearnon. Mr Fearnon was then arrested, taken outside the premises where he was handcuffed and made to wear a forensic cape and, subsequently, he was removed to Gough Barracks. At Gough Barracks Mr Fearnon was processed and he agreed to co-operate with a number of tests carried out by a forensic investigator. After being placed in a cell he was subjected to two interviews by detectives before eventually being told that he would be released. The duty sergeant, to whom Mr Fearnon referred to in evidence as “a gentleman” then arranged for Mr Fearnon to be conveyed back to his home.
The main reason I was aware of the incident was that my partner was Assistant Producer on the BBC Spotlight programme made about it, just a few weeks after it occurred. Additional material brought out by the programme included footage of the police “finding” three rifles in a follow-up search. I put the word in quotes, because the weapons, AK-type assault rifles, were heavily rusted, and can’t possibly have had anything to do with a current incident. And in that case, it was a curious “coincidence” that they were found near by. The IRA let it be known that the guns were theirs, but had been recovered from a completely different location. Of course, the IRA are a bunch of lying, murdering bastards, but in this case, what they were saying seemed plausible to me.
What I thought at the time, and am still inclined to believe, is that the rifles were planted by police officers to validate their operation by suggesting that there really was terrorist activity at the site. The additional implications of that are that police kept back an earlier arms find, a gross violation of both the law, and expectations of how a police force should be behaving.
In the court case above, the Chief Constable of the RUC admitted liability, and the three plaintiffs (the Doorman, and Mr & Mrs Fearnon) were awarded modest damages. No criminal charges were ever made against any member of the police, but two officers were taken to a disciplinary tribunal for disobeying orders and abuse of authority.
The reason the whole thing stuck in my mind was because it brought out a cultural difference between myself and my girlfriend. I’m from a working-class, Protestant background, and although during “the troubles” the police force then, the RUC, was widely held to have a Protestant bias, we all knew that they were often brutal and authoritarian toward all sides, and quite unaccountable. The chant from the seventies and eighties of “SS RUC” was entirely cross-community.
So I was largely unsurprised to see dubious police behaviour, even in the late nineties. My partner, though, was a middle-class Catholic, brought up to think that the police were doing a jolly good job in difficult circumstances. I could see the haunted look growing in her eyes over the days when the programme was being made, and more and more alarming details emerged.
The lesson, if there is one, is that the RUC really was unfit to continue as a civilian police force and was ripe for replacement by something better. I wouldn’t deny that there were good, honest cops in the force, but as well as the existence of the other sort, the conflcit, and constant threat wore down the RUC and, in a way, corrupted it. I’m hopeful that the current police force is better, although at the back of my mind I still have the distrust of authority from my youth.