A decades-old secret government report into the shooting dead of Aidan McAnespie found it was “difficult to accept” the defence of the British soldier responsible for the killing.
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, a former member of the Grenadier Guards, had admitted firing the shot that killed 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 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 Belfast Agreement.
However, according to papers released on Wednesday into the National Archives in Dublin, 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 government ordered gardaí to carry out their own inquiry led by then Garda asst commissioner Eugene Crowley. The move caused considerable tension with Margaret Thatcher’s Tory administration and the inquiry’s findings were never released.
A summary of the inquiry’s conclusions notes how it was “not possible to establish with evidence whether the shooting was deliberate or otherwise” — but Crowley “gives it as his opinion” that Holden’s defence represented “too much of a coincidence. It is open to conjecture that the soldier involved had McAnespie in his sights and, with whatever thoughts there may have been in his mind on what he would wish to do to him, he accidentally discharged a burst of fire. 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.”
Crowley subsequently went on to become Garda Commissioner.
Crowley also expresses his opinion that shooting McAnespie was not a deliberate act by the soldier involved — adding “there can be no doubt about the fact that he was being singled out for particular attention and harassment at the Aughnacloy checkpoint … but if the final intention were to kill him, I would consider that the Security Forces could have chosen a more surreptitious occasion and time to effect a killing.”
Crowley believed “a short burst of 3 or 4 was fired (from a general purpose machine gun)” and McAnespie was shot by a ricochet bullet that “entered his back”.
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 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 from the young male population of the Aughnacloy area. Partially for this reason, 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”.