Report into killing of Irish soldier in Lebanon finds litany of conflicting accounts

When Private Caomhán Seoige was sent out to observation post 6.22 Delta in the so-called ‘Iron Triangle’ in South Lebanon, the Aran Islander was just days away from returning home after his six months’ UN tour of duty.

Private Hugh Doherty who accompanied him at that isolated spot, was just five days into his first overseas posting with the Defence Forces, part of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil).

The observation post was referred to as 6.22D and described as an “unfortified cairn of rocks without any protection”.

It had been set up on April 10th 1981, just over a fortnight before the fatal attack on the post on April 27th, 1981, in which Pte Doherty was shot dead by unknown attackers and Pte Seoige was abducted, his body never recovered, but it is believed he was murdered shortly afterwards.

The lookout was established at the request of Unifil headquarters and followed concerns expressed by the Dutch battalion about the Iron Triangle to the west of the Irish battalion area of operation, “which could be a route for armed elements and their supplies going closer to the Israeli border”.

On the day of the fatal attack the battalion, company and platoon commanders and the medical director visited the lookout post the two soldiers were manning in mid afternoon.

Two young hunters with shotguns were seen standing on rocks at the east side of the post. The hunters were known to Pte Seoige. Two young Lebanese boys from the local village of Dyar Ntar went to the post while the officers were there and were allowed to use binoculars.

It was shortly after the officers left that the attack is believed to have occurred, but the visiting party heard no shots.

When the visitors left that was the last contact with the two soldiers and it was almost three hours later before the alarm was raised.

Private Doherty was shot three times with a Kalashnikov. The soldier who found his body fired up to 15 shots from his FN rifle as a warning and in the hope that Pte Seoige might have been hiding nearby and would respond to his shouts or the shots.

Then minister for defence Simon Coveney commissioned retired High Court Judge Roderick Murphy in December 2014 to conduct a review after Pte Doherty’s family and a number of soldiers who served with him in 49th battalion raised concerns.

The judge reported back to the Minister in 2015. He interviewed more than 50 people and did extensive archival research.

Minister of State for Defence Paul Kehoe received the final report earlier this year and published it on Friday following consultation with the Attorney General.

The judge’s review into the lead-up to the fatal attack and the subsequent investigations, details a litany of conflicting accounts about the aftermath of the incident and about procedures, training and communications.

The judge made 77 findings and nine recommendations. On observation post 6.22D, the scene of the fatal attack, he concluded that there was “a casual approach to the posting and supervision of the post”. He also noted a “persistent inadequate assessment of risk in the prevailing circumstances” in setting up the post. It was inadequately manned and there was an absence of reports of incidents, including the sighting of the two armed hunters on the day of the attack.

The Minister acknowledged that the two soldiers should never have been deployed in such an isolated location.

The judge was satisfied however that after the attack “the actions by the commanders were commendable and correct” and the focus was on the location and rescue of Pte Seoige.

In the review the judge cited as a serious issue for the Defence Forces the fact that neither the original report nor copies of the investigation by Col Vincent Savino were in the military archives and only an “incomplete and poorly copied” version supplied by a former soldier was available.

He said the absence of the report and copies from the archives “has not been explained and constitutes a serious breach of custody of the findings of a critical investigation”.

Mr Justice Murphy found that former soldiers who became “tenacious critics” of what they regarded as a cover-up provided a catalyst for the review, particularly in relation to the Savino investigations.

However, he found “no specific evidence or particulars of a cover-up by either the UN or Savino investigations”.

The judge said the report was inadequate in involving colleagues in the subsequent investigation but that the colonel made important recommendations about observation posts.

He said there was no evidence of partiality in the Savino report but he noted that the non-disclosure of the results of the report “increased concern and the agitation” of the former servicemen.

Mr Justice Murphy also pointed to the unfounded rumour that Pte Seoige shot Pte Doherty. The Doherty family said they had been led to believe this.

And the rumour was never “assuaged” until the family had a meeting with the Secretary General of the Department of Defence in 2014.

The reviewer was satisfied the concerns arose “from the non-communication by the Defence Forces” about the finding of the investigation “as was the practice at the time”.