After decades, Northern Ireland inquest recognizes victims of Ballymurphy Massacre

Relatives of those killed during the Ballymurphy massacre demonstrate in Dublin, Ireland, Jan. 30, 2014. Credit: Sinn Féin via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) Relatives of those killed during the Ballymurphy massacre demonstrate in Dublin, Ireland, Jan. 30, 2014. Credit: Sinn Féin via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

A Catholic priest, a mother of eight, and at least seven other civilians were wrongly killed by British soldiers in Northern Ireland in a three-day 1971 incident known as the Ballymurphy Massacre, a new inquiry has ruled. The official finding places the incident as a possible forerunner to Bloody Sunday, another massacre of Catholic demonstrators by British paratroopers.


“All of the deceased were entirely innocent of any wrongdoing on the day in question,” said Judge Siobhan Keegan, a Northern Irish high court judge who is the presiding coroner investigating the case, Reuters reports.


Brandon Lewis, the British government’s minister for Northern Ireland, acknowledged the victims’ innocence and said he would carefully consider the findings. The victims’ grief has been “compounded by the long and difficult process of waiting for answers for so many years,” he said.


The Aug. 9-11, 1971 deaths came in the Ballymurphy neighborhood of west Belfast during The Troubles. There was unrest and disorder in the streets of the Catholic neighborhood after the introduction of internment without trial of hundreds of people from Catholic and nationalist backgrounds who were allegedly members of the Irish Republican Army. The internment was introduced by the unionist Northern Ireland government and drew criticism for many reasons, including its reliance on false intelligence about those interned.


In the first fatal incident, soldiers shot and killed Father Mullan at the age of 38. He was waving a white object as a truce sign while helping another man, 19-year-old Francis Quinn, who also died. The inquiry found the priest was shot twice in the back in a “clearly disproportionate” use of force.


“Our brother was killed by the British Army and then they lied about it to cover up their injustice,” the priest’s brother Patsy Mullan said at a news conference. “After 50 years the truth we always knew has finally been told.”


Joan Connolly, 44, was the only woman killed. The coroner’s report could not answer whether a delay in giving her medical treatment contributed to her death. After her death, soldiers claimed she had been an IRA gunman.


“Her name has been cleared. We have got justice after 50 years. My daddy died a broken man,” one of Connolly’s daughters, also named Joan, told The Guardian.


Other victims were Daniel Teggart, 44, Noel Phillips, 19, Joseph Murphy, 41, Edward Doherty, 31, Joseph Corr, 43, and John Laverty, 20.

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John Teggart, one victim’s son, objected that there has never been a criminal investigation. “No one should be above the law,” he said.


Lawyers for the accused British soldiers said the troops perceived themselves to be under threat. The British army had claimed the soldiers of the Parachute Regiment had been shooting at terrorists. They claimed in their defense that the dead were either gunmen or civilians caught in the crossfire, the Irish Times reports.


Keegan, the coroner, said the soldiers faced a difficult environment and had come under fire from gunmen during some incidents, but still faulted their response.


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“Even if there were gunmen in that area, the use of force was clearly disproportionate given the number of civilians around, the fact that Father Mullan was waving a white item and the fact that soldiers were in a protected position, shooting from long range,” the report said, acknowledging that gunmen in the area also “clearly put civilians at risk of danger and potential death.”


In the case of one the alleged victims, John James McKerr, there was not enough evidence to prove that the army was responsible for his death. Keegan said it was “shocking” that there was no proper investigation into his killing.


Keegan’s inquest began in November 2018 after decades of advocacy from victims’ families and their supporters. It was a fact-finding effort and not a criminal trial. There are questions about the identity of the soldiers who shot many of the victims, and no one has been charged or convicted in the killings.


Witnesses for the inquest included ballistics experts and over 60 soldiers including former British Army head and chief of the general staff Gen. Sir Mike Jackson. Another witness was former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, who is from Ballymurphy. Adams told the inquest that two masked IRA members were in the area during the violence.


British Prime Minister Boris Johnson sent a letter to the families of the victims “to express personally how sorry I am for the terrible hurt that has been caused to you and all of the other families who lost loved ones in Ballymurphy in August 1971,” the Irish Times reports.


However, some family members objected that no mention was made of a massacre or of the Parachute Regiment specifically.


A U.K. government briefing said that the government aimed to “introduce a legacy package that delivers better outcomes for victims, survivors and veterans, focuses on information recovery and reconciliation, and ends the cycle of investigations.”


Lewis apologized for the way in which “investigations after these terrible events were handled, and for the additional pain that the families have had to endure in their fight to clear the names of their loved ones since they began their campaign almost five decades ago.”


He also noted the U.K. government’s efforts for a statute of limitations on Troubles-era prosecutions, saying the past could be addressed by seeking information and providing answers.


“With each passing year, the integrity of evidence and the prospects of prosecution do diminish,” he said.


Mary Kate Quinn, a niece of one of the victims, said the statement from Lewis was an “insult” and “more concerned about laying the groundwork for amnesty legislation.”


“He spoke of answers and reconciliation, but not accountability or justice,” she said, the Irish Times reports.


Lewis’ statements were challenged by various MPs and by leaders in the Irish government.


Simon Coveney, the Republic of Ireland’s foreign minister, said, “Every family bereaved in the conflict must have access to an effective investigation and to a process of justice regardless of the perpetrator.”


On Tuesday Britain announced plans for legislation to strengthen legal protections for former soldiers who served in Northern Ireland—plans opposed by the Irish government.


Prime Minister Micheál Martin told the Irish parliament that the “deep wound” of crimes in Northern Ireland should be addressed under the 2014 Stormont House Agreement and its independent Historical Investigations Unit. The agreement was reached between the British and Irish governments and the major parties of Northern Ireland, according to Reuters.


Tensions over Brexit and claims that pro-British actors in Northern Ireland are being unfairly targeted by law enforcement helped drive Loyalist riots in the region in recent weeks. Demonstrations in support of British soldiers have taken place elsewhere in the U.K.


The Bloody Sunday killings in Derry in 1972 became notorious. In that incident, 28 civilians protesting internment were shot by soldiers of the Parachute Regiment, 13 of them fatally. While an initial government report exonerated the soldiers, a 2010 report rejected the soldiers’ claims they had fired in response to attacks by firebombs or stone throwing. Many of the soldiers lied about their actions, the report found.


The Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish-American Catholic group, has long supported families of the Ballymurphy victims.


Ancient Order of Hibernians national president Daniel O’Connell suggested that a just response to Ballymurphy could have helped limit the extent of the Troubles.


“To the families of the Ballymurphy victims, we salute your strength, faithfulness, and resilience as you fought a fight for justice for your relatives, a justice that should have been theirs as a birthright without the need of a half-century campaign,” said O’Connell, who also questioned plans for an amnesty.


“Morally, the United States cannot ignore human rights violations and the creation of a class above the law by Britain when similar acts have brought condemnation and sanction when perpetrated by an African or Asian state,” he added.


During the internment operation of the 1970s, thousands of people were displaced from their homes. Many fled across the border with Ireland, where the Irish government set up five camps for refugees and their families. Backlash against internment helped strengthen nationalism and the Irish Republican Army. Some 2,000 people would be interned, including about 100 loyalists.  


European Court on Human Rights initially ruled that 14 of the internees were subject to interrogation methods that amounted to torture, a decision it modified on appeal to say the internees faced inhuman and degrading treatment.


In the 1960s, Catholics in Northern Ireland began to push strongly for civil rights, voting rights, police reform, and an end to discrimination. Tensions turned violent in 1968 and lasted through the 1998 Good Friday agreement.


Some 3,600 people died in the conflict known as The Troubles, with combatants including Irish nationalist militants, pro-British unionist paramilitaries and the British military. The nationalist-unionist divide was largely along religious lines, with the nationalists overwhelmingly Catholic and the unionists heavily Protestant.

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