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Soldier at scene when Armagh schoolboy was blinded by baton ‘over-zealous’, court told

Gavin McKenna was 13 when he was struck in the face by the round close to the Kilwilkie estate in Lurgan

Gavin McKenna (right) pictured along with solicitor Gavin Booth as they leave Belfast High Court. Picture Matt Mackey / Press Eye.

Alan ErwinBelfast Telegraph

A soldier at the scene when a Co Armagh schoolboy was partially blinded by a baton round 25 years ago had a reckless streak and “teetered close to the brink of unacceptable practice”, the High Court has heard.

His former commanding officer described him as an enigmatic figure whose pursuit of counter-terrorist success was close to that of a zealot.

The assessment was disclosed in a legal action by Gavin McKenna for the injuries inflicted by the plastic bullet said to have been fired by another member of the Royal Irish Regiment patrol in April 1997.

Mr McKenna was aged 13 when he was struck in the face by the round close to the Kilwilkie estate in Lurgan.

He is suing the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for negligence in connection with the incident.

Mr McKenna insists he was an innocent victim, struck while gathering wood for a bonfire with friends in a field near the town’s Antrim Roads

The MoD denies liability, contending instead that reasonable force was used when a military foot patrol came under attack from a crowd of up to 30 youths throwing missiles in the staunchly republican area.

A single, aimed baton round was fired at another identified target in the crowd because of the risk to the soldiers’ lives and wellbeing, according to the defendant.

In court on Monday, the regiment’s commanding officer at the time, Lt Col Michael Clements, described how they operated in a “hostile” area to provide support for the RUC.

“We were inevitably drawn into areas where we could get into a fist fight with the locals extremely quickly,” he said.

His assessment of one of the corporals in the patrol when the baton round was fired was set out during the hearing.

The former army chief described him as professional, operationally superb with an unrivalled knowledge of terrorist suspects, but also an enigma.

“There is however a streak of recklessness about him and on occasions he teeters close to the brink of unacceptable behaviour,” Lt Col Clements stated.

“He must guard against becoming a zealot in his pursuit of counter-terrorist success.”

That assessment was based on how the corporal had acted during other, ultimately successful, incidents to recover weapons, the court heard.

“He was over-zealous. He enjoyed his work,” the ex-commander added.

“He was determined to make a difference, he was a professional soldier and every time he went on patrol he made sure his guys were properly briefed, he had a mission and an objective and he was going to achieve that within the course of his duties.”

Counsel for Mr McKenna, Patrick Lyttle QC, put it to him: “At whatever cost, because he wouldn’t follow the rules?”

But Lt Col Clements replied: “I didn’t say at whatever cost, you said that.”

During the hearing he also suggested that at times the corporal had “pushed the envelope a bit”.

“I mean that perhaps he got a bit too close for comfort, and in doing so he endangered the security of his own troops.”

With the level of potential damages already established, the case centres on the contested claim for liability.

Proceedings were adjourned, however, for further checks to be carried out on instructions provided to soldiers issued with baton guns.

Mr Justice McAlinden explained: “The case has expanded to delve into issues of training, issues of the currency of the training and the actual type of munition used on the day in question.”

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