The Mutual Exclusivity of the Right to Life and the British Counter-Intersurgency in Northern Ireland; A Case Study of the Human Rights Implications of the Use of the 'Set Piece' Killing Tactic by the SAS in East Tyrone

Author:Kevin Hearty
Position:PhD Candidate at the Transitional Justice Institute (TJI), University of Ulster
Pages:212-241
© 2014 Kevin Hearty and Dublin University Law Society
THE MUTUAL EXCLUSIVITY OF THE RIGHT TO
LIFE AND BRITISH COUNTER-INSURGENCY IN
NORTHERN IRELAND; A CASE STUDY OF THE
HUMAN RIGHTS IMPLICATIONS OF THE USE OF
THE SET PIECE KILLING TACTIC BY THE SAS IN
EAST TYRONE
KEVIN HEARTY*
Introduction
The taking of life by a state is contentious. This aphorism applies equally
to life taken in a domestic context, a public emergency context or in the
context of internal armed conflict. The taking of life in the above
circumstances has monumental implications for the right to life, a right
enshrined in international human rights law.
1The human rights
implications of the taking of life by the state become magnified when the
state uses the guise of ‘public emergency’ to systematically take the lives
of those deemed a subversive threat to the state. The use of the ‘set piece’
killing tactic by the Special Air Service (SAS) in East Tyrone to contain
*PhD Candidate at the Transitional Justice Institute (TJI), University of Ulster. This article is
based on the legal analysis of the authors unpublished LLM dissertation that was awarded the
Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission Prize for Best Dissertation at the TJI in 2011.
The author wishes to thank Jim McVeigh Coiste Belfast, Jane Winter British Irish Rights
Watch, Fearghal Shields Madden Finnucane Belfast and the staff of the Northern Irish
Political Collection at the Linenhall Library for all their help during the research process. The
author wishes to thank Dr Kris Brown, TJI for all his guidance and advice on the initial
research on which this article is based and Professor Fionnuala Ni Aolain (TJI) for her
helpful and insightful comments on the same piece of research. The author can be contacted
via Hearty-K2@email.ulster.ac.uk
1 Article 2 (1) European Convention on Human Rights reads “[E]veryone’s right to life shall
be protected by law. No one shall be deprived of his life intentionally save in the execution of
a sentence of a court following his conviction of a crime for which this penalty is provided by
law” See also International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, December 19,1966,
article 2(1), GA Resolution 2200 A (XXI), GAOR, 21st Session, Supp No 16 UN Doc A/6316
(1966), 999 UNTS 171, 172 (entered into force March 23, 1976) reads “every human being
has the inherent right to life.... no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.”
2014] British Counter-Insurgency in Northern Ireland 213
the insurgent activity of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) is a case par
excellence of a state using counter-insurgency measures under a ‘public
emergency’ guise to systematically curtail the right to life of suspected
insurgents. This article, via a focused sub-geographical case study, offers
an in-depth investigation of the human rights implications of states
embarking on this route.
Before commencing such an examination it is necessary to first
define the term ‘set piece killing’ in order to briefly contextualise the tactic
within the wider context of the Northern Ireland conflict. Fionnuala Ni
Aolain defines the ‘set piece’ tactic as security force operations conducted
against insurgents that entail the deployment of specialist military units,
prior operational planning predicated on informer intelligence, an absence
of any attempt to arrest suspects and the exertion of a considerable degree
of firepower.
2 The human rights implications of a tactic that by its very
nature is orientated towards the extra-judicial taking of life on a
premeditated basis becomes magnified in a context where those
conducting such operations were not made answerable for their actions in
court nor investigated with the same rigour as non-state actors involved in
the taking of life.3This becomes particularly problematic where the use of
the tactic met a political and military need of the state in a wider context
during the Northern Ireland conflict.4 Controversy around this mirrors the
more general controversy around the fact that state actors to all intents and
purposes were able to take life without the consequence of being tried or
convicted for so doing. The systematic use of the tactic in this wider
political context then has implications for both the substantive (I) the right
not to have life taken, and the procedural (I) the right to a fair, prompt and
independent investigation where life is taken, rights that underpin the
Article 2 right to life.5This issue remains problematic in post-conflict
Northern Ireland, with many inquests relating to the ‘set piece’ tactic still
to be convened.6
2 Fionnuala Ni Aoláin, The Politics of Force: Conflict Management and State Violence in
Northern Ireland (Blackstaff Press, Belfast, 2000), at 73.
3 Patricia Lundy, “Paradoxes and challenges of transitional justice at the ‘local’ level:
Historical enquiries in Northern Ireland”, 6 (1) (2011) 89-106 Contemporary Social Science:
Journal of the Academy of Social Sciences.
4 Kevin Hearty, “The political and military value of the ‘set piece’ killing tactic in East
Tyrone 1983-1992” State Crime 3 (1) (2014).
5 Jordan v UK (2003) 37 EHRR 2.
6 Committee on the Administration of Justice ‘CAJ’s submission no S421 ‘Submission to the
Committee of Ministers from the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) in
relation to the supervision of cases concerning the action of the security forces in Northern
Ireland’ (Belfast, November 2013).

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