By James Kinchin-White and Ed Moloney
Official IRA leader, Joe McCann was shot dead in his native Markets area of Belfast in April 1972 by paratroopers who were operating in a military environment in which regimental leaders were chafing at the rules set out for using deadly force against both IRA’s.
The Royal Anglian regiment was well known in West Belfast in the early 1970’s for their readiness to pull the trigger. In this extract from a document produced after one tour in that area, known as a post-tour report, dated August 19, 1972, the 1st Batt Royal Anglians admitted that only two per cent of the over 1800 bullets they had fired on their tour hit their intended target:
As the death toll from Army gunfire like that described above increased, and as Nationalist accusations of carelessness or malevolence rose in tandem, the military authorities introduced the Yellow Card which outlined the circumstances in which soldiers could open fire. But it wasn’t long before military units began to balk at the restrictions, limited though they were, on when soldiers could fatal shots.
Here is an extract from a post-tour report of Derry’s Creggan district from the Coldstream Guards (the guys who wear those furry hats outside Buckingham Palace) admitting that the Yellow Card rules were being broken ‘almost daily’, undermining the Yellow Card’s authority and confusing the soldiers. The regiment also wanted to use live rounds on rioters because the rubber bullets did not have adequate range and instead CS gas had to be used:
The 3rd Battalion Royal Green Jackets insisted, Yellow Card restrictions notwithstanding, that it was ‘important’ that soldiers be allowed to fire an ‘adequate’ number of bullets back at IRA snipers since ‘return fire puts the IRA off its aim’, and the chances of hitting innocent civilians were ‘fairly small’ since they would have taken cover when the gunfire began. What that would mean in practice is not difficult to determine:
The Royal Green Jackets also wanted to ease the procedure of identifying IRA snipers through the so-called ‘crack and thump’ method. ‘Crack’ and ‘thump’ is a technique for estimating the location and range of shots being fired. It has to do with the ‘crack’ being the sound of the shot that travels faster than the bullet – the ‘thump’ is the sound of the bullet strike. There is a formula based on the number of seconds between the two that can help estimate the distance the fire is coming from. That is then visually related to the terrain to identify a possible location at the estimated distance.
So 3 RGJ, regarded as the most elite regiment in the British Army, wanted to fire many more shots than implied in the Yellow Card rules and to ease the rules governing the choice of targets:
More tomorrow on how the Army’s top brass worked assiduously to undermine the rules governing the use of fatal gunfire.