The British army ran an undercover unit that operated a sanctioned shoot-to-kill policy in Belfast during the Troubles, it has been claimed.
Former members of the Military Reaction Force (MRF) said that they killed an unspecified number of IRA members and shot them regardless of whether or not they were armed.
The force killed at least two men in drive-by shootings who had no paramilitary connections and injured more than 10 other civilians, it is further claimed in the BBC Panorama programme, Britain's Secret Terror Force which is being broadcast tonight.
Seven former members of the force spoke to reporter John Ware about their involvement in the unit, which was commanded at brigadier level, while three of them appeared on camera, albeit disguised and with their voices slightly altered.
Panorama reports that there were several drive-by shootings carried out by MRF soldiers in which people were killed and wounded – even though there is no independent evidence that any of them were armed or were members of the IRA.
“We were not there to act like an army unit, we were there to act like a terror group,” said one former soldier. “We were there in a position to go after the IRA and kill them when we found them.”
The force comprised about 40 men hand-picked from across the British army who operated in west Belfast for an 18-month period between 1971 and 1973, including all through 1972.
Some of the soldiers said they would shoot their “targets” even if they were unarmed. None would go into detail about specific incidents they or their colleagues were involved in. Nor is it known how many people they shot. The MRF’s records were destroyed.
The MRF was the forerunner to other similar plainclothes undercover British army units that operated in Northern Ireland. Panorama said the overall commander was an army brigadier. The programme does not make any specific allegation about what or any level of political control it was under.
It notes, however, a 1972 memo from the then British prime minister Ted Heath, at a time when the MRF was about to be disbanded, in which he stated that "special care should be taken" to ensure the British army's replacement squad "operated within the law".
They operated at a time when several barricades were erected in nationalist and loyalist areas of Belfast. Some of the soldiers said they would drive by barricades manned by nationalists in west Belfast and open fire. One said this would happen even if they did not see anyone brandishing a firearm.
Panorama details five cases in which more than a dozen people with no paramilitary involvement were shot by the MRF in 1972, including two men who were killed, Patrick McVeigh, a father of six children and a member of the Catholic Ex-Servicemen's Club, and 18-year-old Daniel Rooney.
It also instances how two young west Belfast men who ran a fruit stall were shot by the MRF who had mistaken them for two IRA members.
Reporter John Ware also tracked to Australia one of the MRF members who was part of an undercover patrol that opened fire on two separate barricades, killing Mr McVeigh and wounding five men. It said that this former soldier, who favoured using a Thompson sub-machine gun, was also part of a drive-by shooting six weeks later on the Glen Road in west Belfast in which four men were wounded.
This soldier stood trial on three counts of attempted murder but was acquitted. Key information was withheld from the trial, according to Panorama.
Relatives of the MRF's victims told Panorama that 40 years on, they are still seeking answers. "We want the truth. We don't want to stop until we get the truth," said Mr McVeigh's daughter Patricia.
The soldiers told Panorama they agreed to be interviewed because they believe their role in the fight against the IRA has gone unrecognised.