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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 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 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.
Another three IRA members—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 Ryan and Tony Doris, died in another SAS ambush at Coagh, where their car was riddled with gunfire. Michael Ryan was the same man who according to Ed Moloney had led the mixed flying column which assaulted a British Army checkpoint at Derryard under direct orders of top IRA Army Council member 'Slab' Murphy two years before.
Moloney, who wrote A Secret History of the IRA, and author Brendan O'Brien said 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 20 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 O'Donnell. The two vehicles then fled 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 set on fire by SAS flares. 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. One witness said that some of the IRA men were trying to surrender but were then killed by the SAS.
Internal IRA criticism
A local IRA source pointed-out a number of flaws in the operation that led to the deaths of the volunteers. First of all: 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 tracer rounds were not the best option, 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.
Other republican sources claim that a listening device was found in the roof of O'Farrell's house during repairs in 2008, exposing that the British intelligence had a forehand knowledge of the IRA operation at Coalisland and could have arrested them before the attack or at the churchyard.
During the funeral service for Kevin O'Donnell and Seán O'Farrell in Coalisland, the parish priest criticised the security forces for what happened at Clonoe church, claiming that this wasn't the way to win the hearts and minds of the Irish nationalist community. He was equally critical of the republican leaders, to whom he appealed "to bring violence to an end". Francis Molloy, then a local Sinn Féin councillor, walked out of the church in protest. Leading republicans Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, who also attended the service, 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. The growing tension among local nationalists 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
- O'Brien, pp. 232–235
- Toolis, Kevin (1995). Rebel Hearts: journeys within the IRA's soul. Picador, p. 53. ISBN 0-330-34243-6
- Urban, Mark (1992). Big Boys' Rules. Faber and Faber, p. 242. ISBN 0-571-16809-4
- DUP slams GAA club IRA commemoration Newshound 27 September 2003
- Van Der Bijl, Nick (2009). Operation Banner: The British Army in Northern Ireland 1969 to 2007. Pen & Sword Military, p. 179. ISBN 1-84415-956-6
- Fears of new IRA atrocity after attack on helicopter By Ian Bruce, Herald Scotland, 14 February 1990
- p. 313-314, A Secret History of the IRA, Ed Moloney
- p. 318, A Secret History of the IRA, Ed Moloney
- O'Brien, p. 160
- Moloney, Ed (2002). The Secret History of the IRA. W.W. Norton & co., p. 319. ISBN 0-393-32502-4
- McKittrick, p. 965
- "British try to end the fear in Ulster" by Steven Prokesch
- Clonoe Martyrs, 16 February 2012
- Taylor, Peter (2001). Brits: the war against the IRA . Bloomsbury Publishing, p. 306. ISBN 0-7475-5806-X
- "British Take Paratroopers Off Ulster Security Detail", by Alexander McLeod. The Christian Science Monitor, 28 May 1992
- McKittrick, David (1999). Lost lives. Mainstream. ISBN 1-84018-227-X
- O'Brien, Brendan (1999). The Long War: The IRA and Sinn Féin, Syracuse University Press. ISBN 0-8156-0597-8
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