|Part of the Troubles and Operation Banner|
St Patrick's Roman Catholic Church, Dernagh, near Clonoe, where the ambush took place
|Provisional IRA||British Army (SAS)|
|6 IRA members||unknown|
|Casualties and losses|
|4 killed||1 wounded|
The Clonoe ambush happened on 16 February 1992 in the village of Clonoe, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. A local Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) unit was ambushed by the Special Air Service and 14 Intelligence Company at a graveyard after launching a heavy machine gun attack on the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) base in Coalisland. IRA members Peter Clancy, Kevin Barry O'Donnell, Seán O'Farrell, and Patrick Vincent were killed, while two others escaped. An SAS soldier was wounded in the operation.
From 1985 onwards, the IRA in East Tyrone had been at the forefront of a wide IRA campaign against British military facilities. In 1987, an East Tyrone IRA unit was ambushed and eight of its members killed by the SAS while bombing an RUC base at Loughgall, County Armagh. This was the IRA's greatest loss of life in a single incident during the Troubles. Despite these losses, the IRA campaign continued unabated; 33 British bases were destroyed and nearly 100 damaged during the next five years. The SAS ambush had no noticeable long-term effect on the level of IRA activity in East Tyrone. In the two years before the Loughgall ambush the IRA killed seven people in East Tyrone and North Armagh, and eleven in the two years following the ambush.
Three other IRA volunteers — Gerard Harte, Martin Harte and Brian Mullin — had been ambushed and killed by the SAS as they tried to kill an off-duty Ulster Defence Regiment soldier near Carrickmore, County Tyrone. British intelligence identified them as the perpetrators of the Ballygawley bus bombing, which killed eight British soldiers. After that bombing, all troops on leave or returning from leave were ferried in and out of East Tyrone by helicopter. Another high-profile attack of the East Tyrone Brigade was carried out on 11 January 1990 near Augher, where a Gazelle helicopter was shot down.
On 3 June 1991, three IRA men, Lawrence McNally, Michael "Pete" Ryan and Tony Doris, died in another SAS ambush at Coagh, where their car was riddled with gunfire. Ryan was the same man who according to Irish journalist and author Ed Moloney had led the mixed flying column in the attack on Derryard checkpoint on the orders of IRA Army Council member 'Slab' Murphy two years before. Moloney, who wrote A Secret History of the IRA, reported that the IRA East Tyrone Brigade lost 53 members during the Troubles — the highest of any "Brigade area". Of these, 28 were killed between 1987 and 1992.
On 16 February 1992 at 22:30, a car and a truck carrying a number of IRA members drove into the centre of Coalisland and stopped at the fortified RUC/British Army base. The unit opened fire on the base at point-blank with armour-piercing tracer ammunition. They had mounted a heavy DShK machine-gun on the back of the lorry. The machine-gun was manned by Kevin Barry O'Donnell. The two vehicles then drove up the Annagher hill and drove past the house of Tony Doris, an IRA member killed the previous year. There they spent the last rounds of ammunition firing in the air and shouting, "Up the 'RA, that's for Tony Doris!". The IRA unit was intercepted by the SAS at the car park of St Patrick's Roman Catholic church in Clonoe. The unit was trying to dump the truck and escape in cars. The roof of the church was accidentally set on fire after a stray round hit a fuel storage tank. Three of the dead were found around the truck, while the fourth was caught in a fence outside the church grounds. The machine-gun had been partially dismantled. At least two IRA men got away from the scene, but the four named above were killed. One SAS soldier was wounded, as was Aidan McKeever, the IRA getaway driver. Several witnesses claimed some of the IRA volunteers were trying to surrender but were summarily executed by the SAS. McKeever was awarded ₤75,000 in damages in 2012 by Mr Justice Treacy of Northern Ireland's High Court. It is unclear if this decision was appealed or if the damages were ever paid.
Internal IRA criticism
A local IRA source pointed out a number of flaws in the operation that led to the deaths of the volunteers:
- The use of a long-range weapon for a point-blank shooting. The DShK could be used up to 2,000 meters from the target, and its armour-piercing capabilities at 1,500 meters are still considerable.
- The use of tracer rounds, since the firing location, if not executed from a well-hidden position, is easily spotted.
- The escape route was chosen at random, with the machine-gun in full sight and the support vehicle flashing its hazard lights.
- The gathering of so many men at the same place after such an attack was another factor in the getaway's failure.
During the funeral services for O'Donnell and O'Farrell in Coalisland, the parish priest criticised the security forces for what happened at Clonoe church, which led to the deaths of the four men. The priest, Father MacLarnon, then appealed to republicans to replace "the politics of confrontation" with "the politics of cooperation". While Francis Molloy, a local Sinn Féin councillor, walked out of the church in protest, leading republicans Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness remained in their seats. There were many armed RUC officers outside the church during the funeral, the RUC having changed its policy after the Milltown Cemetery attack. This show of force was criticised as it "ensured new young recruits to the IRA".
This was the last time that IRA members were killed by the SAS in Northern Ireland, although growing tension between local nationalists and the British military led to an open confrontation with soldiers of the Parachute Regiment in Coalisland three months later.
- Chronology of Provisional Irish Republican Army actions (1990-1999)
- Coagh ambush
- 1997 Coalisland attack
- East Tyrone Brigade
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- Toolis, Kevin (1995). Rebel Hearts: journeys within the IRA's soul. Picador, p. 53; ISBN 0-330-34243-6
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- Alexander McLeod. "British Take Paratroopers Off Ulster Security Detail", The Christian Science Monitor, 28 May 1992.