Around 5.00pm on Monday the 23rd of October 1972, thirty-one-year-old Michael Naan drove into his isolated farm in the townland of Aughnahinch, near the quiet village of Newtownbutler in County Fermanagh, accompanied by his new employee and neighbour, twenty-four-year-old Andrew Murray. The pair had just delivered firewood to Andrew’s home in the nearby townland of Derrykenny and were returning on a tractor with a trailer carrying bales of hay for the cattle being housed in the farmyard. A short while later, as the pair were unloading the cargo, they were confronted by several members of a British Army patrol which had been loitering in the vicinity for some time. Michael was briefly interrogated in a cowshed before being stabbed seventeen times in the upper torso with a six-inch Bowie knife, his throat slit in a final and savage coup de grâce. Minutes later, Andrew was pinned to the ground and then rolled over as the troops stabbed him thirteen times in the chest and the back, his mutilated body dragged to an area of swampland a short distance away.
The incident was not discovered until about 6.00pm on Tuesday the 24th of October, when a visiting oil salesman, John Patrick Hanna, found the lane to the Naan farm blocked with a tractor and trailer. Walking around the obstruction, he encountered patches of blood on the ground leading to a corpse lying partly submerged but face-up in a boggy pool, a hand emerging upright from the dark water. Shocked and frightened, he immediately drove to Newtownbutler and the local station of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), the United Kingdom’s counterinsurgency police force in the north-east of Ireland. Heavily armed officers from the base, which also contained a garrison of troops, followed Hanna’s car back to the Naan farmhouse where they found the deceased men, Michael covered in blood and lying prostrate beside a cow and her calf in the byre. Shortly later, a significant number of soldiers arrived at the location and began removing bales of hay from the trailer, muddying the trails on the ground with their boots and generally disturbing the murder scene.
Almost immediately, the army press office in Lisburn, the regional military HQ for the British Armed Forces, began circulating lurid tales to the news media claiming that both men had been killed by pro-UK or loyalist terrorists, describing the deaths as the “Pitchfork Murders”. The description and account was quickly taken up by gullible journalists in Ireland and Britain, eventually becoming the official explanation for the killings. Added weight was given to the allegation when news broke that Michael Naan was a leading member of the Civil Rights Association, an organisation loathed by the reactionary unionist leadership in the north-eastern Six Counties.
Several years later, an ex-soldier approached the police in Britain to share his account of the murders in Ireland, mistakenly believing that they could be related to the mutilations being carried out by a knife-wielding serial killer in the north of England from 1975 to 1980. Nicknamed the Yorkshire Ripper, the highly publicised activities of the roving murderer Peter Sutcliffe evoked terrible memories for the veteran of his former colleagues in 13 Platoon, Delta Company and the man feared that some of them may have been associated with the killing spree in the British midlands. Despite their obvious reluctance to act, but under immense pressure from the representatives of the northern nationalist community in the Six Counties and the government in Dublin, the authorities in London eventually agreed to charge and try four military personnel for the murders near Newtownbutler. After a short but harrowing trial, in January 1981 Staff Sergeant Stanley Alexander Hathaway and Sergeant John McFadyen Byrne of the 1st Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were jailed for life for the slaying of the young Irish men. Two others, Lance Corporal Iain Fletcher Chestnut and Captain Andrew Malcolm Burlton Snowball, pleaded guilty to lesser roles in the deaths and largely escaped censure.
In many ways the murders of Michael Naan and Andrew Murray were both typical and atypical of the killings carried out by the British Army in the UK’s embattled legacy colony on the island of Ireland. Typically, the soldiers successfully covered up their actions, aided by their military superiors, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and the government and press in Britain. Atypically, their crimes were brought to light and investigated years later, the soldiers charged and tried in a counterinsurgency Diplock court, convicted and imprisoned. For all but a handful of killings by the British Forces during the course of the so-called Troubles, which overwhelmingly involved the slaying of innocent Irish civilians, no legal sanctions were ever levied against the culprits. And on those rare occasions where domestic and international attention made criminal charges unavoidable, the UK ensured that the convicted men served no more than token sentences. In the well-known murder case brought against Ian Thain, the private who gunned down twenty-two-year-old Thomas Reilly in 1983 as he walked along the Springfield Road in Belfast, a high-profile campaign in Britain, backed by politicians and journalists, ensured his early release and a welcome back into the British Army. Where, with no irony at all, he was tasked with training new recruits for operational service.
The chauvinistic assumption that Irish lives are of lesser value than British lives continues to influence the policies of the United Kingdom in relation to the historical aftereffects of its Dirty War in Ireland. This is entirely evident in the news that the governing Conservative Party in London is split over the issue of granting a de facto general amnesty to serving and former members of the country’s military and paramilitary forces and intelligence services for their actions between 1966 and 2005. This has led to a fractious disagreement in the cabinet of the UK premier, Theresa May, with several ultra-nationalist ministers lining up to support a statue of limitations for all crimes committed during the counterinsurgency campaign. Among them are the Brexit-supporting cabal of Boris Johnson, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, and David Davis, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union and an ex-trooper of the Special Air Service (Reserve), a commando-style unit implicated in a number of assassinations and summary executions during the course of the conflict.
If the United Kingdom implements a formal retroactive amnesty for its Armed Forces, or an official ban on any further police investigations into past war crimes by its personnel during the country’s failed struggle with the Irish Republican Army, another pillar of the now two decades-old peace process will have been thrown to the ground. And London will discover the impossibility of finding anyone among its neighbours willing to trust its political pledges or promises again.