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The Coagh Ambush was a controversial incident that took place on 3 June 1991, when a Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) unit from the East Tyrone Brigade was ambushed by the Special Air Service (SAS) in the village of Coagh, County Tyrone. The three-man IRA team was on its way to assassinate a high-profile Officer of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR). Eight SAS members opened-fire on the IRA unit's car, killing the three men and causing the car to burst into flames. There have been claims that two of the IRA members fled the blazing car, only to be shot and then put back inside by the SAS.
In May 1987, an eight-man unit of the IRA East Tyrone Brigade was ambushed and shot dead by a Special Air Service (SAS) unit seconds after bombing the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) base at Loughgall, County Armagh. The SAS also killed a civilian who had accidentally driven into the ambush. This was the IRA's greatest loss of life in a single incident during its campaign. Despite this major setback, IRA activity in East Tyrone didn't lessen in the following years.
In August 1988, the SAS shot dead another three IRA members who were stalking a UDR soldier near Carrickmore. British intelligence sources claim they were involved in the Ballygawley bus bombing, which killed eight British soldiers and injured 28. The British military had to ferry its troops in and out of East Tyrone by helicopter as result of the Ballygawley bombing.
Tit-for-tat killings in East Tyrone
According to author Kevin Toolis, the series of killings which led to the Coagh Ambush began on 26 April 1988, when a 23-year old UDR soldier from Coagh, Edward Gibson, was shot dead by an IRA unit at Ardboe. Gibson was working for Cookstown Council on a bin lorry at the time. Off-duty UDR soldiers, who tended to be Protestants, were usual targets of the IRA in County Tyrone. These kind of assassinations fostered the perception among the Protestant community that the IRA was waging a sectarian war against them. The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) retaliated by killing Phelim McNally (brother of local councillor Francie McNally) on 24 November 1988. The IRA revenge took the form of a shooting at Leslie Dallas's garage on 7 March 1989. Dallas, a former UDR soldier and alleged senior UVF member, was killed along with two elderly pensioners.
The tit-for-tat rampage in and around Coagh continued on 29 November 1989, when UVF gunmen broke into a pub owned by IRA member Liam Ryan; Ryan and a customer were shot dead. On 8 March 1990, UDR soldier and construction worker Thomas Jamison was killed when the IRA, using guns and a grenade, ambushed the truck he was driving near Donaghmore. Jamison was returning from delivering concrete to a UDR base. He was an employee of Henry brothers, a construction company that had rebuilt and refurnished a number of security bases across Northern Ireland since 1985. One of the owners of this company, Harold Henry, had been killed by the IRA in 1987 in The Loup, County Londonderry.
The UVF renewed the bloodshed on 3 March 1991, when four men were shot dead in the republican stronghold of Cappagh. Three of the victims were IRA members. Republican sources claim that the attack in the remote village could have been carried out only with the help of the security forces. The IRA retaliated on 9 April 1991, when alleged UVF member Derek Ferguson (a cousin of local Member of Parliament Reverend William McCrea) was shot dead in Coagh by the East Tyrone Brigade. His family denied any paramilitary links.
Kevin Toolis includes as part of this cycle of violence the destruction of Glenanne UDR barracks in nearby County Armagh, where three soldiers were killed and 10 injured by an IRA truck bomb on 30 May. The IRA would later claim that the death of its men in Coagh was an SAS retaliation for the Glenanne bombing.
At about 7.30 am on 3 June 1991, three IRA volunteers—Tony Doris from Coalisland, Peter Ryan from Ardboe, and Lawrence McNally from County Monaghan—drove from Moneymore (in County Londonderry) to the village of Coagh in a hijacked Vauxhall Cavalier, crossing the bridge between counties Londonderry and Tyrone. The IRA said that the trio was on an operation to assassinate a part-time UDR soldier, who was also a contractor to the security forces. The plan, however, was betrayed either by an informer inside the IRA, or by technical surveillance. The SAS unit was waiting for the car on both sides of Coagh's main street and in a disguised lorry. According to witnesses, they were wearing boiler suits and gas masks. The car was driven by Tony Doris toward the center of the village. The IRA unit's journey from Moneymore had been tracked on the ground and even from the air. The undercover team set up a "decoy" for the IRA, played by an SAS soldier who behaved like the intended victim, sitting in a car while waiting for a friend on his way to work.
When the car reached a pre-established spot, eight SAS members opened-fire from close range, riddling the Vauxhall with over 200 rounds of high-velocity automatic fire. Tony Doris was immediately hit, and the out-of-control Vauxhall crashed into two parked cars. The shooting continued for about ten minutes, until the car exploded in flames and set one of the parked vehicles (a Volkswagen Golf) alight. According to an eyewitness, one of the volunteers returned fire on the SAS after the car crashed. Some reports state that at least two of the IRA unit managed to flee the blazing car and that two of them were found lying half out of the vehicle. Some of their relatives believe that the two men had escaped but were then shot and dragged back into the car by SAS members. A crime-scene report stated that a balaclava of one of the men was found some distance away. The bodies were so badly burnt that they had to be identified using dental records. Two rifles were recovered from the charred car. Forensics later found that the weapons had been used in the killings at Leslie Dallas's garage in 1989.
Local Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) politician William McCrea—cousin of Derek Ferguson, killed by the IRA on 9 April—declared that "They have fallen into the pit they planned for others.... Justice has now been done". Ian Paisley, leader of the DUP, welcomed the ambush and said "The time has come for a full war". Sinn Féin councillor Francie McNally—brother of Lawrence McNally—said that the three men were "good soldiers ... executed by the British Crown forces". Republican sources criticised both the RUC and Gardaí for "delaying and harassing" the funerals of the three men, who were buried with full military honours. These sources also slammed initial RUC claims that the IRA unit was in the process of shooting Protestant workmen. Social Democratic and Labour Party MP Seamus Mallon warned that an "ethic of violence is eating into the soul of this community" and that he "hoped that every effort at arrest had been made".
Later East Tyrone Brigade operations
IRA recruiting in Tyrone continued unabated despite the ambush. Just two months later it shot dead a former UDR soldier driving a truck on Altmore road, near Cappagh. In January 1992 an IRA landmine at Teebane killed eight construction workmen (one of them a Royal Irish Rangers soldier) who were working on a British Army base. Another SAS ambush killed four IRA volunteers in Coalisland in February 1992, but a month later a bomb attack maimed a soldier at Cappagh and prompted a series of clashes between nationalist residents and British troops in Coalisland. By 1993 there were allegations about an IRA campaign of assassinations to drive Protestants land-owners out of Tyrone and Fermanagh, especially after a bomb attached to his car killed former UDR soldier and land-owner David Martin in Kildress.
- Clonoe Ambush
- 1992 Coalisland riots
- 1997 Coalisland attack
- Provisional IRA East Tyrone Brigade
- Chronology of Provisional Irish Republican Army actions (1990-1999)
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