THE SHOOTING DEAD of Sinn Féin election worker Aidan McAnespie as he walked through a permanent British Army checkpoint in County Tyrone in 1988 on his way to a GAA match and the dropping of a manslaughter charge against the Grenadier Guards soldier responsible is being re-examined by the North’s Public Prosecution Service at the request of the Attorney General and Aidan’s family.
Aidan (pictured) had complained of ongoing harassment by the British Army and RUC when he frequently had to use the checkpoint at Aughnacloy.
On Sunday 21 February 1988, Aidan was shot and fatally wounded by a soldier firing a General Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG) from the permanent British Army checkpoint at Aughnacloy.
Grenadier Guardsman David Holden was charged with manslaughter but the then Director of Public Prosecutions later withdrew the charge.
Holden claimed that he was moving the GPMG when his wet fingers (allegedly wet from cleaning the sangar) slipped on to the trigger, which resulted in the discharge of three shots. One of the shots struck Aidan in the back, fatally wounding him.
A report by the Historical Enquiries Team found that the soldier’s explanation “could be considered to be the least likely” genuine explanation.
Now the North’s Attorney General has asked the Public Prosecution Service to reopen the file on the case.
Solicitor Darragh McIntyre said the family maintain their belief that Aidan was unlawfully and deliberately killed.
Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew said that Aidan McAnespie was shot dead after years of harassment from the British Army and RUC.
“I welcome the decision by Attorney General John Larkin to refer the case to Director of Public Prosecutions Barra McGrory.
“It is important the family of Aidan McAnespie get the truth to what happened that day as Aidan walked through the British Army checkpoint.
“I will continue to support the family who have carried out a very dignified campaign to get justice for Aidan and hope that his inquest can now proceed as soon as possible.”
THE HET REPORT
GUARDSMAN HOLDEN claimed that he moved the weapon by holding the pistol grip with a “loose grip”. As he did so, his finger slipped and he inadvertently pulled the trigger. The HET test fired a GPMG and found that:
“Activating the trigger required having a firm grip on the pistol grip and squeezing the trigger until it activated. It was found to be difficult and required considerable force to activate the trigger without having the hand firmly gripped around the pistol grip.” Holden’s loose grip explanation therefore contradicted the results of the practical test on the weapon.
Furthermore, the HET discovered that the gun was mounted on a pivot that allowed the weapon to be swivelled. Consequently, there was no need for Holden to have his hand on the pistol grip and finger on the trigger-guard since he only had to swivel the butt of the weapon on the pivot in order to reposition the weapon. In addition, another soldier confirmed that he had already repositioned the weapon.
Holden claimed that his hands were still wet from cleaning the sangar 10 minutes earlier. HET investigators analysed the activities in the sangar that day which showed that the cleaning was conducted by a cleaning party and that Holden had resumed look-out duty half an hour before the shooting. The ‘wet hands’ scenario is difficult to reconcile with the timing of the cleaning duties.
Lance Sergeant Peters gave evidence that, on entering the sangar after the shooting and asking Holden what had happened, the reply was that he had squeezed the trigger.
Holden was not interviewed until more than 24 hours after the incident. In the intervening period he remained in military custody. There was a further 24-hour delay before the second interview took place.
The crime scene was not examined by the Forensic Service until the next day and there is no record of any crime scene protection in the interim. This would result in “crime scene evidence recovered being questionable”, according to the HET report.
Manslaughter charges against Guardsman Holden were dropped in 1990. He was fined by the British Army for “negligent discharge” of his weapon and allowed to return to duty. He was later medically discharged from the British Army.
FORENSICS AND BALLISTICS
The gun had been dismantled and cleaned earlier that day. It has not been established why or by whom the gun was left cocked and with the safety catch off. This was totally in contravention of standing orders.
The forensic evidence concluded that a ricochet bullet which struck the ground just directly behind Aidan before it entered his body inflicted the fatal injury.
The weapon discharged three rounds and the fatal bullet was a tracer round. There is now no way of knowing whether the fatal bullet was the first or the last of three shots fired. Swab tests taken from the roadway no longer exist.
If the first shot fired resulted in the ricochet from the fatal strike mark, then this could support the assertion that the gun was aimed at the victim or in his vicinity. The HET later discovered that the forensic report gave no consideration to the possibility that the fatal ricochet was a result of the first shot discharged from the weapon.
It should be noted that there is clear evidence that the guardsman had Aidan (whom he considered to be a ‘suspect’) under close observation as he passed through the checkpoint. However, at the moment of discharge, Guardsman Holden claimed to have been physically repositioning the weapon. In other words, he claimed not to have been aiming at or tracking Aidan when the shots were fired.
The HET questioned “the likelihood of an accidental random discharge striking the roadway only a few feet behind what would be from the vantage point of the machine gun post a minuscule figure at a distance of 283.4 metres”.
Having weighed up all the propositions and taken all the circumstances and available evidence into account, the Historical Enquiries Team decided that Guardsman Holden’s version of events “could be considered to be the least likely”.