Dedicated terrorist who killed 'in order to exist': Terry Kirby and David McKittrick tell how a routine police patrol ended in a fatal confrontation with the IRA

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The Independent Online
When Constable Sandy Kelly and Special Constable Glenn Goodman embarked on a routine patrol of rural North Yorkshire late one Saturday in June last year, they could not have foreseen that hours later they would face one of the IRA's most dedicated gunmen.

Their encounter ended in tragedy when, as one detective put it, the IRA 'killed to exist'. Minutes after their check on two men in a red Sierra on the York to Leeds road, PC Goodman lay dying; his colleague was fighting for his life, saved from death when his radio hand-piece blocked a bullet aimed at his head. Both had been shot by Paul 'Dingus' Magee.

A few miles away, two other officers, trapped in their car under a hail of Kalashnikov rifle fire, were saved by chance: the lights of an approaching vehicle forced either Magee or his fellow terrorist Michael O'Brien to flee.

Magee, 45, an IRA terrorist for more than 20 years, was on active service in England because he had nowhere else to go. In October 1991, while facing extradition from Dublin to Belfast for the 1980 murder of an SAS officer, he went on the run. It is believed he specifically volunteered for the English campaign.

Precisely what Magee and O'Brien were doing near Tadcaster in the early hours of Sunday 7 June has never been established. They had two handguns and a sawn-off Kalashnikov semi-automatic rifle. Detective Chief Superintendent Robin Cooper, head of North Yorkshire CID, said police were unable to establish the men's intentions. 'From the weapons we know they were carrying . . . they could have been a close- quarter assassination team.'

The region is studded with army bases and is the home of a number of retired military people, many with connections to Northern Ireland. The men could also have been on reconnaissance or visiting an arms and explosives cache, buried nearby and not found.

Mr Cooper said Magee shot at police because their questions had become too persistent. 'These two men belong to the most professional terrorist organisation in the world . . . trained to deal with routine police checks. However this routine check turned into a detailed examination. These men belonged to an organisation that exists to kill and in the early hours of Sunday 7 June, Magee killed to exist.'

Police believe the men knew the area well, supporting the arms dump theory. This enabled the pair to find a culvert underneath a main road, where they evaded the massive police hunt. They were captured four days later while buying fresh clothes in Pontefract.

Although no base was discovered, it is believed they were operating from a rented flat in London or the Home Counties and had travelled north during the night. A week before, the Sierra was struck by a vehicle in a west London street while parked and unoccupied; detectives failed to find any further clues in the area. Similarly, detectives could not link either man with bombings or shootings during the mainland campaign.

Magee, a father of four from west Belfast, was well known to the police. First jailed in 1971 for possession of firearms, he later became part of the 'M60 gang' which in 1979-80 attacked the security forces with a heavy American-made machine-gun. They were led by Joe Doherty, last year deported from the United States to the United Kingdom.

In 1980, they killed Captain Herbert Westmacott, an SAS officer working undercover in Belfast. Magee, whose job was to guard hostages at the house commandeered for the killing, was arrested along with the rest.

While on trial, they escaped from Crumlin Road prison, Magee holding a prison officer at gunpoint; two days later, he was sentenced in his absence to 25 years' imprisonment. The following year, Magee was arrested in Tralee in the Irish Republic and sentenced to 10 years for the escape. Shortly before his release in 1989, Magee was served with extradition papers and during the ensuing legal battle, was granted bail. When the extradition fight appeared doomed Magee absconded.

Little is known about O'Brien. Aged 28, he is believed to come from Dublin and was suspected of blowing up a statue of Queen Victoria near Dublin in the early 1980s. The fact he has not been heard of since could suggest he was a 'sleeper' in England for several years, ready to be summoned for the current campaign.

If a number of questions remain unanswered about Magee and O'Brien, one thing is clear: they were the fourth known IRA two-man team to have operated in Britain since 1988. The IRA has an inexhaustible supply of teams; Magee and O'Brien's replacement is inevitable.