John-Paul Flintoff

Guard of honour

Two soldiers killed a young civilian. Murder, said the judge

This much everybody agrees. On 4 September 1992, in the strongly republican area of New Lodge in West Belfast, two Scots Guardsmen shot and killed 18-year-old Peter McBride.

It’s probably also safe to say this. Guardsmen Jim Fisher, from Ayr, and Mark Wright, from Arbroath, had encountered the young father-of-two only moments earlier, at around 10.15am, stopping him in Spamont Street off the New Lodge Road, and exchanging a few words. But everything else is rather more complicated. Probably everybody who was in the area on that sunny autumn morning can tell you what happened. Just don’t expect the different accounts to add up.

New Lodge is a housing estate comprising 1960s blocks and terraced houses. The front doors open directly on to the pavement. Gates at the back give on to an alley. Imagine Coronation Street – but with additional murals, hate-filled graffiti, and flags indicating the locals’ support for republicanism. In places, the kerbstones have been painted in the green, white and orange of the Irish tricolour, and during the day doors remain open, not so much for access between friendly neighbours but to provide terrorists with an easy escape route. The punishment for failing to do this, say soldiers who know the area, is a beating. In an area of massive unemployment, there were always plenty of people around on the streets – and in 1992, a number of them followed the patrols, taunting them or just watching – except on frightening occasions when everything suddenly goes quiet.

For the four-strong patrol led by Lance Sergeant Swift, it had been a long morning. Up at 5.30, they’d already covered an RUC search of the Celtic Bar, an illegal drinking club. That’s what they did, every day just like the last, providing cover for police in the course of routine duties. Heading back to Girdwood Barracks, they continued to carry out the usual random searches. And that’s when a message came over the radio: another team from the platoon operating just moments away was instructed to provide cover for the local CID, in a search of flat 5B, Templer House. It was shortly after receiving that communication, Swift remembers, that he saw a “shifty looking young lad with something concealed under his loose jacket”.

Precisely what McBride was carrying can never be proved. Some say it was one thing, some say another. Some say he was carrying nothing at all. One of McBride’s sisters, Roisin, says he was carrying a bap and a packet of crisps she’d bought him at a comer shop, for lunch at another sister’s house in nearby Hillman Street. But in retrospect, it’s easy to guess why McBride looked shifty. The RUC, according to some reports, was on its way to arrest him for non-payment of a fine. Police and Sinn Fein knew that McBride was a petty criminal. Only that week, he’d been spoken to by police about a minor offence, but his family say the matter had been “sorted out.” McBride was the sort of boy-man known to soldiers as a “scroat”, not necessarily dangerous, but potentially troublesome. He wasn’t suspected of terrorist connections – but Swift’s patrol were not to know that. In Northern Ireland at the time, McBride’s behaviour was sufficiently odd to raise the soldiers’ suspicions.

For the soldiers, as for McBride, random searches were a tedious routine. But they could also be dangerous.

While the other soldiers kept look out, Lance Sergeant Swift began filling in form C1, for passing to intelligence on his return to barracks. He asked for McBride’s name and address. On hearing “5B Templer House”, he remembered the earlier radio message and said: “Stand still, I am now going to search you and radio to see if you have to be detained.”

And that’s when it began to go wrong. After pulling out Swift’s radio earpiece, McBride simply ran. On Swift’s instructions, Fisher and Wright gave chase. They followed him through the pedestrian-only access at Glenrosa Street South, turning right after him into Upper Meadow Street. One witness told the Irish News the following day: “He had an intense look, scared, the adrenaline was really pumping.”

It’s not hard to see why the Guardsmen saw this frightened 18-year-old as a threat. Relations between soldiers and civilians comprised little but tension, bigotry and resentment. Republicans generally regarded Scottish regiments as instinctively “Orange” (though in fact the Scots Guards, which recruits from all over Scotland, represents a greater mix of recruits than most).

The soldiers, no less than the civilians, considered themselves constantly under siege. Even inside the 18-foot walls of their barracks, members of the 600-strong First Battalion wore helmets and body armour. (A dog handler, forgetting to do that, had recently been killed in a mortar attack). Duties occupied the soldiers for 18-hour days, seven days a week. They didn’t go out, ever. To relax, they had a multi-gym and a video recorder. Altogether, a tour of duty in Belfast meant one thing: stress. One Guardsman committed suicide during that six-month tour, shooting himself in his bed.

But as the soldiers ran after McBride, they would have had something more pressing than living conditions on their minds. For several weeks, the Scots Guards – the only regiment then serving in Belfast – had been the target of IRA attacks. Twenty-four year old Guardsman Damian Shackleton had been killed in those same New Lodge streets by an IRA sniper while escorting police at night. Guardsman Fisher, 24, a veteran of the Gulf War who had only joined the Guards after sampling the military life in the Territorials, had been a pall -bearer at Shackleton’s funeral. Running after Peter McBride, he would have been intensely aware of the dangers he faced.

Wright, by contrast with Fisher, was only just old enough, at 19, to qualify for service in Northern Ireland. “His friends in Arbroath,” says Ronnie Wilkie – a former captain in the Scots Guards now campaigning on behalf of Fisher and Wright – “would at that time have been getting up and selecting a pair of trainers, whereas this lot is sent out into the street with the power of life and death in their hands.”

What the Guardsmen particularly feared was a “coffee-jar bomb”, a home-made device, filled with shrapnel, Semtex and a detonator, which can kill from from 25m. Often the shrapnel consisted of small coins, collected by activists on tours of republican bars and pubs. During the previous month and a half, 20 coffee-jar grenades had been used against the regiment. The IRA, as Fisher and Wright would have known, did not waste experienced operatives on coffee jar attacks. They used scroats. “They gave them to low lifes and criminals,” says Wilkie. “They’d either swing them with a bag, like David (using his sling) on Goliath, or drop them off a roof.”

McBride was getting away. Weighed down by a 10lb rifle, body armour, a full web belt, radio equipment and a fibre helmet, Fisher and Wright were rapidly losing ground. From about 70 yards behind McBride, they shouted a warning at him. Margaret Reeves, a local resident who saw the incident, says: “One of the soldiers shouted to the other soldiers: ‘Don’t shoot, don’t shoot’ and I shouted: ‘Don’t shoot.’ ” But by this time one of the Guardsmen had cocked his rifle. She shouted out again: “Peter, stop. He’ll shoot”.

Before going out on the streets in Northern Ireland, soldiers are given two months’ intensive training and a Yellow Card which explains the rules of engagement. According to the Yellow Card, they must give warning before shooting. But another local resident reportedly told journalists he had heard something different. After the initial warning, “Halt!”, one of the Guardsmen, says this witness, yelled: “Shoot the bastard”.

To the Guardsmen, McBride appeared to be seeking cover behind a parked car – a perfect spot for launching a coffee jar – so they went on their knees – one on the pavement, one in the middle of the road – to aim their self-loading SA -80 assault rifles. Fisher, the more experienced man, shot first, and Wright fired immediately afterwards (he said later he thought the first report had come from McBride, and wanted to protect himself). After a pause, they fired again.

Altogether, they discharged five bullets. One of McBride’s three sisters, Kelly, heard the gunfire from her Hillman Street home. The shots sounded “dull”, she said. They weren’t just shooting to slow him down. Contrary to popular myth, explains Ben Wallace, formerly an officer in the same First Battalion as Fisher and Wright, it is impossible to stop someone by shooting them in the leg. “The modern bullet is designed to kill by trauma.” The damage is enormous. And soldiers are trained to “aim for the centre of the mass, because then you won’t miss”.

Two bullets hit McBride in the back. Just six doors from the bottom of the street, he managed to enter a house. Through the back gate, he emerged near the back of his sister’s home. That’s where he stopped, overcome by his wounds. The soldiers, arriving soon after, demanded to know where he’d gone. “I could hear them shouting: ‘Where the fuck is he?’ ” said one witness the next day. “Those were their exact words.” But the soldiers, led by Swift, were not allowed into 15 Upper Meadow Street.

“A lot of ladies threw ornaments at him,” says Ronnie Wilkie, who knows the soldiers’ stories inside out. (An hour later, police searched the house for a coffee jar bomb but they found nothing.)

Having found McBride in the alley, the Guardsmen attempted to administer first aid. Within moments, a crowd of local people had assembled. One man was holding McBride’s hand, talking to him about his two young daughters – one of them just eight weeks old – trying to keep him conscious. A priest arrived, and noticed McBride was losing his breath, his eyes rolling about. Another witness found a 10p coin covered in blood which he put to one side to hand to McBride’s mother, who soon arrived on the scene. “I rushed to be with him when I heard he had been shot,” she later recalled. “I knew he was dying. It was the colour of his face. It was so grey, and his mouth was open, trying to call me. He had beautiful blue eyes, and they were just big lumps of glass.”

McBride was dead before reaching the hospital. “It should not be the sentence of death to run away,” says a spokesman for the McBrides. “He was a working class, disempowered guy. Maybe he wouldn’t have won the OBE, but he still had a right to live.”

McBride’s father, also called Peter, did not find out what had happened until later in the day, when a friend stopped and told him in the city centre. “The wee lad had no involvement in anything,” he said. “He was stealing-stealing, that’s all. He was not a paramilitary. He was just murdered.”

Meanwhile, the soldiers had returned to barracks, handed in their weapons according to standard procedure, and were issued with new ones. They wouldn’t need them. The next day, as 500 protestors staged a demonstration outside North Queen Street RUC station, Guardsmen Fisher and Wright were arrested by officers of the RUC – the force they had spent weeks protecting – and charged with the murder of Peter McBride.

For two years and four months, they remained in custody. When their battalion was sent to Germany, they were placed with the Second Battalion in Edinburgh. When the First returned to the UK, they rejoined it in Windsor. Then in the spring of 1994 – against the vastly improved background of the first IRA ceasefire – Fisher and Wright were tried at Belfast Crown Court.

Under current law in Northern Ireland, British soldiers alleged to have killed a civilian on duty can only be charged with murder. Lesser charges of culpable homicide or manslaughter are not available -though they would be available to civilian defendants (including suspected terrorists).
And a murder conviction carries a mandatory life sentence. If this seems unduly harsh, it should at least reassure local people that soldiers will act with restraint.

But republicans dismiss that. They say the heavy penalty provides an incentive for judges not to convict. After countless fatalities, only 19 soldiers have been tried for murder, and of those only four were convicted.

Understandably, given that strength of feeling, the case of Fisher and Wright was tried by a senior judge, Lord Chief Justice Kelly, then one year from retirement. He sat without a jury (the so-called Diplock Courts having been established towards the start of the Troubles to eliminate the possibility of jury intimidation).

According to the victim’s father, the Guardsmen behaved badly in court: “They never said they were sorry,” he said. “They sat and laughed throughout the trial.” The soldiers’ families flatly deny that.

Certainly, their case was going badly. The prosecution introduced witnesses who said they had seen the soldiers thoroughly search McBride. This was dynamite, a crucial factor in the trial, because if true it would invalidate the soldiers’ defence that McBride was – or even might have been – carrying a lethal weapon. If they knew him to be unarmed, they had no justification for opening fire: they were simply trigger -happy.

The witnesses proved effective. The soldiers were finished. “I am satisfied beyond reasonable doubt,” said the judge before sentencing them, “that there was no reasonable possibility that Guardsman Fisher held or may have held an honest belief that the deceased carried or may have carried a coffee jar bomb.” Of Wright, Lord Chief Justice Kelly said this was “not a panic situation which required split second action or indeed any action at all”.

That may be how the judge saw it, others have strongly disagreed. The former Commander-in-Chief of the Army of the Rhine, General Sir Michael Gow has stated that, if he had been in the Guardsmen’s position, he might have acted similarly. Another supporter of Fisher and Wright, Tam Dalyell – by no means so experienced as Gow in military matters, but one of the few MPs to have served in the armed forces – dismisses the judge’s view as rubbish. “If anyone whipped the earpiece out of the ear of myself or my platoon commander, I would have done the same (as they did),” he adds.

Yet it’s impossible to ignore the suggestion that they’d searched McBride. That was the single most important factor in leading the judge to convict. Only recently has the suggestion been forcefully rebutted. Last month, writing in the Spectator, Sir Ludovic Kennedy, the veteran campaigner against injustice, exposed serious weaknesses in the prosecution evidence. The three witnesses, he wrote, were a Mr Yendell, his brother-in-law Mr McMullen, and a girl of 18, Arlene McKee.

Yendell admitted he had first been questioned on the day of the shooting, and a second time much later – but on neither occasion had he mentioned seeing McBride searched. McMullen gave a description of watching the soldiers carry out the search. In two previous statements he agreed he had heard one of the soldiers shout “Halt!” – but in court he substituted “shoot the bastard”, which was not reported by any other witness. Arlene McKee said she had seen two soldiers searching McBride – though at the time Army rules insisted that, in a four-man patrol, only one man was to do the searching, while the others gave him cover. The rule was designed for their own safety. Asked if she had any criminal convictions, McKee admitted to 12 for shoplifting, as well as others for receiving and handling stolen goods, disorderly conduct and failing to surrender to bail.

“I am not drawing attention to the flaws in the evidence of the Irish residents to suggest they were lying,” wrote Kennedy in the Spectator, “only that to my mind their evidence seems less convincing than that of the Guardsmen, all four of whom had spotless records, and all four of whom agreed that no search of McBride had taken place.”

Four years after the original trial, the Guardsmen remain in custody at Her Majesty’s Prison Maghaberry in Co Antrim. They’ve spent more than 2,000 days under lock and key. For Wright, that represents a quarter of his life.

Fisher’s mother Sheila, a care officer in a home for the elderly in Ayr, visits him every six weeks on GBP 16 day-return tickets. His wife Julie, a civil servant, makes a somewhat longer journey – from Windsor, where she met him while he was in custody before the trial. “You can’t live life in deep depression,” says Julie Fisher, “but we have been let down. Jim is a very capable person who is dealing with this much better than I would.”

Wright’s parents, shop assistant Isobel and her husband Douglas, fly every couple of months from Edinburgh. They’ve done their best to help since learning by telephone that their son was one of the soldiers referred to on a TV news report they’d just been watching. “I went to watch Neighbours,” remembers Isobel, “and then the phone rang. It was Mark. I just sat down on the bed and cried.” Douglas Wright says his son is bitter: “It was only his second posting.”

Isobel, meanwhile, points out the difference between the Guardsmen and other killers: “They aren’t cold-blooded murderers. They didn’t get up that morning and decide that they were going to shoot someone. They were only doing their job.” But Ben Wallace, formerly an officer in the Scots Guards First Battalion and a supporter of Fisher and Wright, sees it slightly differently: “What we are guilty of in Britain is putting soldiers into a policeman’s job. We are at fault for training people as soldiers and then putting them into a housing estate.”

Either way, supporters say it’s high time the pair were released. Fisher and Wright have already spent considerably longer in jail than either of the other two soldiers convicted for murdering civilians in Northern Ireland, Privates Ian Thain and Lee Clegg. Thain was jailed for life after shooting Thomas ‘Kidso’ Reilly in the back after a scuffle with troops. In court Thain claimed that Reilly, a roadie for Bananarama, had moved as if to draw a pistol, but the judge accused him of being “deliberately untruthful.” Even in those circumstances, Thain was released after serving two years and three months. Clegg was found guilty of murdering 18-year-old Karen Reilly in 1993 after firing at the car in which she was a passenger when it sped through a checkpoint. He was freed in 1995 despite the failure of two appeals, has subsequently been promoted, and continues the fight to clear his name. But his release led to protests by the Irish and American governments, and the resignation of one member of the 12-strong Life Sentence Review Board, Briege Gadd – as well as riots and street protests across Northern Ireland.

And those riots terrified the politicians. Supporters of Fisher and Wright argue that the government’s anxiety about similar disturbances is all that keeps the Guardsmen in jail. Nobody wants to rupture the delicate process of reaching peace in Northern Ireland. After all, the IRA spokesman Gerry Kelly warned before the general election that releasing Fisher and Wright could damage the peace process, “in much the same way as the release of Lee Clegg served to sap confidence.” In other words, Fisher and Wright were probably the only people with nothing to gain from the peace process.

It is certainly true that politicians have obstructed the Guardsmen’s release. In the courts, Fisher and Wright have tried everything. First, they appealed against the original verdict in December 1995 (without success). The following March, they applied (equally unsuccessfully) for leave to take the case to the highest court in the country, the House of Lords. Then in 1997, in a judicial review, they sought a referral to the Life Sentence Review Board. The judge appeared willing, but the incoming Northern Ireland Secretary, Mo Mowlam, appealed against his decision, armed with an affidavit from her predecessor, Lord Mayhew. This stated that Fisher and Wright ought to serve a “significantly longer term of imprisonment” than Clegg or Thain because he considered them more blameworthy. (In the latest twist, a judge at Belfast High Court found that Mayhew’s reasons for drawing this conclusion were unclear, but declined to bring forward the Guardsmen’s appearance before the Life Sentence Review Board, scheduled for October.)

Tam Dalyell has spoken to Mowlam about the case, but came away with little hope. ”(The soldiers) are the victims of politics,” he says, “which means that justice for individuals is being considered less than the perceived overall solution to the problems.” Martin Bell, the Independent MP for Tatton, joined the campaign last November. He says there “should be a firewall between politics and justice”. But that will not be possible so long as the Northern Ireland Secretary retains a semi-judicial role.

Dalyell and Bell are just two of the many MPs – from all parties-backing the Fisher and Wright Release Group. Another is the former Tory MP Phil Gallie, who led a delegation to John Major in Downing Street with letters of support from 15 Scots Guards associations across the country. Chaired by Maj-Gen Murray Naylor, a retired officer of the Scots Guards, the release group retains an expensive PR company, Shandwick. Generals, PR companies and Tory MPs may not be the likeliest campaigners against injustice, but they’ve put in plenty of work promoting the soldiers’ case, with letters to newspapers and a series of colourful events.

Every month, there’s been something new. In February, the men’s mothers joined 200 members of the Scots Guards in Perth, marching from the War Memorial in King Edward Street to the 51st Highland Division monument. And in April the regiment marked its annual parade with calls for the soldiers’ release. The families were joined by several MPs, and 60 pipers from the regiment played a new tune, called ‘Freedom’. And the MPs representing the Guardsmen’s families in Ayr and Arbroath, George Foulkes and Andrew Welsh, visited the Guardsmen in prison last month, not long after death threats had caused them to be moved to a segregated unit.

But above the regimental level – and the well-meaning support of individual campaigners – the soldiers have been left to fend for themselves. “The Ministry of Defence wiped its hands of this,” says Dalyell. “I’m livid with the MoD, they behaved disgracefully as employers.”

Nevertheless, it’s interesting to note that Fisher and Wright are still in the army despite their convictions. Queen’s Regulations stipulate that soldiers should automatically be ejected from military service on receiving any custodial sentence, let alone murder. For the Guardsmen to remain in the Scots Guards one of their commanding officers must have made a case for them as special subjects. One officer who may have done that was Colonel Tim Spicer – himself a figure of some notoriety since coming to public attention recently for his role as a mercenary in Sierra Leone.

It’s the fact that Fisher and Wright remain in the army which most upsets the family of Peter McBride. “The inference is that they did nothing wrong,” complains a spokesman for the McBrides.

“Everyone has blood on their hands. We all do,” says a spokesman for the Pat Finucane Centre, which was set up to help families involved in the Bloody Sunday massacre and has taken on the job of speaking for the McBrides. “Only two soldiers are in jail after all these deaths (at the hands of security forces), and those two are described as ‘good people’ in the British press.”

Martin Bell wrote a letter to Jean McBride, explaining why he was backing the soldiers, but that didn’t help. “I was very, very upset,” she said. “I would prefer that he hadn’t written to me.” Both Mowlam and the armed forces minister Dr John Reid have declined to meet the McBride family -despite meeting supporters of the Scots Guards.

The tide, it seems, is turning in favour of the Guardsmen. The momentum behind the campaign for their release gets stronger every day. A debate in Parliament is due soon while the release group is planning to press the matter in the Lords. The Prime Minister has given his view. In response to a question from the leader of the opposition, William Hague, Tony Blair promised an early review of the case. Some suggest Blair will use the Guardsmen’s release to buy off Tory anger about the release of IRA prisoners under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

And the IRA is reported to favour the soldiers’ release as that would give greater leverage when it comes to negotiating the release of its own men. (It’s certainly fair to say the republicans used Clegg’s release to exert similar leverage.)

Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, paramilitary prisoners still in jail in two years’ time will be released on licence so long as the organisations they belong to remain on ceasefire. If Fisher and Wright are released on the same terms, they will have served eight years – far, far longer than Clegg or Thain. It may not go that far. Mowlam’s junior minister, Lord Dubs, said in April that for once the peace process might have a beneficial effect. He told the House of Lords that a decision on Fisher and Wright “will not be delayed as a result of the peace process – indeed, it may be accelerated.” The Northern Ireland Agreement, says Bell, has completely changed the landscape. “It is inconceivable that terrorists could be released while these two are inside.” In a few weeks – who knows – Fisher and Wright may be able to put on once more their regimental colours. They’ve missed the Trooping of the Colour, but perhaps they’ll be there next year. It’s by no means certain, however. Dalyell remains gloomy: “I’m not sure they’re going to get out. I don’t count on it.”

For the McBrides, no news is good news. “I’d be amazed if they were not released,” said Jean McBride last year before Mowlam intervened to block the soldiers’ early deliverance. “I’ll have a heart attack if they don’t, and I’ll have one if they do. That’s the way it is for me and my family.”

Keywords: justice, military