Declassified files: Official’s private alarm at paratroopers’ role in 1992 Coalisland riots

Locals and paratroopers clashing in Coalisland in May 1992
Locals and paratroopers clashing in Coalisland in May 1992

Six days before paratroopers were involved in serious rioting in Coalisland, a civil servant had raised serious concerns about the unit’s activities in the area, declassified files reveal.

On May 12, 1992 an IRA booby-trap bomb blew off one leg of 19-year-old Paratrooper Alistair Hodgson and so mangled his other leg that it had to be amputated.

Paratroopers sealed off Coalisland in May 1992 after a booby trap bomb blew off both legs of a soldier

Paratroopers sealed off Coalisland in May 1992 after a booby trap bomb blew off both legs of a soldier

The young soldier was in such agony that he begged his colleagues to shoot him – but now in his 40s he is a champion skydiver.

The bombing near Coalisland led to the Parachute Regiment sealing off the Co Tyrone town and allegations that subsequent behaviour by the soldiers prompted serious rioting in which soldiers were injured and civilians injured by shots.

A file declassified at the Public Record Office in Belfast under the 20-Year-Rule reveals that government officials were deeply alarmed at both the actions and the honesty of some paratroopers involved in the trouble.

On May 6 – six days before the riots began – Christine Collins in the NIO’s Security Policy and Operations Division wrote to an RUC chief superintendent to express concerns about the regiment.

IRA members posing outside Coalisland after the SAS killed four of their members

IRA members posing outside Coalisland after the SAS killed four of their members

She said that the Irish government had raised the issue with the NIO and that there had also been concerns from Fr Denis Faul and others in the nationalist community.

She went on: “I would also be grateful for your advice on the steps which the RUC have either taken already, or may be in the process of taking, to help deal with this difficult situation.”

She accepted that “particular regiments do have reputations which can make them a target for allegations” but added: “I think that the present situation in Tyrone is not solely attributable to an orchestrated campaign, and it disturbs me to see relationships deteriorate, to the direct benefit of terrorism.”

One of the allegations which Ms Collins put forward was a claim that a paratrooper had taken a photo of an individual (whose name has been redacted) and told them “the UVF will have these before tonight”.

It is not clear what, if any response came back prior to the riots erupting six days later.

The day after the rioting, a confidential memo from Ms Collins to NIO minister Michael Mates informed him that the Army’s account of what had happened “does not correspond (in any depth) with that given by the local representatives, as set out in Mr Lindsay’s minute of today’s date, or even with those given informally by the police”.

She said: “The RUC are (and have been for some time) concerned about the behaviour of 3 PARA. They have already taken steps – such as diversion of police resources into increased accompaniment – to try and minimise the potential hazard, and I understand that further measures (or ‘other developments’) may be in train.

“Similarly, I understand that over recent weeks Brigadier and CLF have endeavoured to stress to the unit the importance of exercising ‘professional indifference’ in the face of any provocation, and of treating members of the public courteously and correctly at all times.

“Against this background, even given the tragic circumstances of yesterday evening when a member of 3 PARA lost both legs in an explosion [several words redacted] the incident in Coalisland seems to have been something of an over-reaction and could easily have led to a major riot.

“Had it been the only incident involving 3 PARA, it could have been more easily dealt with; but in the current atmosphere ... and given the almost unprecedented level of concern by reputable people about the regiment’s recent behaviour, pressure for decisive action will certainly increase.”

The memo added that even Ken Maginnis, the MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone and a former officer in the UDR, was “understood to be concerned about this issue – to the point of suggesting that 3 PARA should be replaced by the KOSB [King’s Own Scottish Borderers]”.

Eventually, the brigadier in charge of the area was relieved of his command.

A magistrate dismissed assault charges against five soldiers but said they were not entirely innocent.