Thursday 24 January 2019

'This should never have happened' - Review into murder of two Irish troops in Lebanon hears of 'errors'

Hugh Doherty and Kevin Joyce
Hugh Doherty and Kevin Joyce
Tom Brady

Tom Brady

An independent review by a retired High Court judge of the circumstances surrounding the murders of two Irish peacekeeping troops in south Lebanon more than 37 years ago has revealed a litany of mistakes in the military operation at the time.

The review was ordered three years ago and focused on the death of Pte Hugh Doherty and the disappearance of Pte Caomhan Seoighe (Kevin Joyce) while on duty at an observation post outside the village of Dyar Ntar on April 27, 1981.

The body of Pte Doherty, who had been shot three times, was found at the post while Pte Seoighe was abducted and believed to have been also murdered shortly after the incident.

The two soldiers were alone in an unprotected post in an area, known to be used by members of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

Pte Seoighe's body was never found.

The identity of the attackers is still unknown but they are widely believed to have been members of the PLO.

The review was carried out by retired judge, Mr Justice Murphy, whose final report was submitted to Minister with responsibility for defence, Paul Kehoe earlier this year.

It has now been published after consultation with the office of Attorney General, Seamus Wolfe.

Commenting on the findings last night, Mr Kehoe said the report identified a number of failings and shortcomings in the Defence Forces operation in south Lebanon at the time.

"It also highlights the manner in which these two soldiers were deployed in an isolated location.

"This should never have happened", Mr Kehoe said.

Accepting the findings and recommendations in the report, he said he wanted to assure the families, friends and colleagues of the two young soldiers that important lessons had been learnt for the future.

"Errors that occurred at the time of the incident and also in the way the subsequent investigations were conducted and communicated or, indeed, not communicated, must never be repeated", he added/

Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces, Vice Admiral Mark Mellett said the hard lessons the Defence Forces had learned "from this tragic event continue to shape how we train and prepare our personnel for overseas service today and into the future".

Mr Justice Murphy reported that the tragic events of April 27, 1981, had taken place in an observation post, known as 6.22D, which had been set up thirteen days earlier.

He said there were no natural built defences or shelter. It was an exposed post and was manned during daylight hours only.

Blunders outlined by Mr Justice Murphy included:

A persistent and inadequate assessment of risk, given the exposed nature of 6.22D

The absence of an NCO at the post

Inadequate manning

Failure to provide a landline and the absence of reports of incidents

A casual approach to the posting and supervision of the post

No system of checks or visits to the post by the platoon commander or others

The sentry on duty at the nearby post of 6.22 was not familiar with his duties as he had arrived in Lebanon five days earlier and was adequately trained, instructed or supervised.

The abductions and murders took place during a handover between 48th and 49th infantry battalions, attached to UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon).

UNIFIL set up a board of inquiry and its two-page report was finalised on September 11, 1981.

Mr Justice Murphy said its findings and conclusions lacked an evidential basis and were perfunctory in nature.

He took the view that the UN investigation "was, notwithstanding its recommendations, inadequate".

On August 27, 1982, Col Vincent Savino, who went on to become a major general, was nominated by the Defence Forces to undertake a further investigation.

Col Savino made what Mr Justice Murphy described as three important recommendations, that observation posts should be located where there was visual contact with other posts; they should be opened only where commanders were satisfied they could be garrisoned in sufficient strength to maintain their safety; UN headquarters must not be allowed to override the battalion commander's view on this issue.

However, the Savino findings were not published when his report was completed in 1984.

In the absence of the facts, the Doherty family heard a rumour that Pte Seoighe had shot their brother.

They did not become aware that this was untrue until July 2014 when they met Department of Defence officials.

Mr Justice Murphy commented : "This would never have arisen if the findings of the Savino report had been made known to the public".

The Savino report contained ballistic conclusions that the three shots, which killed Pte Doherty, were not fired by an Army FN rifle.

The Savino report findings and recommendations were very critical of the manner in which the Defence Forces operated in UNIFIL in relation to this incident.

Savino found that the Irish commander should not have agreed to the establishment of an observation post in the location where the incident took place, that the post was undermanned, there was a failure to maintain communications and to take action when communications failed and criticised named officers and enlisted personnel for those failures.

However, Mr Justice Murphy said that while Col Savino had complied with his instructions, he had not fully addressed the terms of reference and, in critical areas, made findings without corroborative evidence in relation to manning, communications and supervision of the observation post.

He was particularly critical of Col Savino's decision to interview only one person, who had served at post 6.22D and said this notable lack of involvement of colleagues in the investigation had deprived him of information.

The retired judge pointed out that Col Savino had been deputy chief of staff and the senior Irish officer with UNIFIL from September 1980 to April 1981 and added: "While there is no evidence of partiality, he could have been seen to have a conflict of interest in relation to the investigation".

He also told the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces that the disappearance of the original Savino report document represented a security problem for them.

A rough photocopy of the report was found some years ago but the original cannot be traced.

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