Ballymurphy families: Were same soldiers involved on Bloody Sunday?

The scene after the Ballymurphy Massacre in 1971
The scene after the Ballymurphy Massacre in 1971

Families of those shot dead by soldiers during a controversial Army operation in west Belfast in 1971 have urged the Army to reveal if any of the paratroopers were also involved in the Bloody Sunday killings six months later.

Lawyers representing bereaved relatives in a new inquest into the deaths of 10 people shot over a three-day period in Ballymurphy have asked for a cross-referencing exercise to be carried out by the Ministry of Defence to establish if soldiers on the ground had a role in other lethal force incidents.

The most notorious of which is the fatal shootings of 14 civilians during a civil rights protest on the streets of Londonderry on Bloody Sunday in January 1972.

At a preliminary hearing in Belfast’s Laganside courts ahead of the fresh inquest commencing, coroner Jim Kitson requested that an expert review all the original pathology evidence from the Ballymurphy victims - which included a Catholic priest and mother of eight - to see if scientific advances could shed further light on the circumstances of their deaths.

While soldiers from the Parachute Regiment were involved in both Ballymurphy and Bloody Sunday, different battalions were deployed in each city.

But relatives believe there was still a significant possibility of overlap.

Barrister Fiona Doherty, who is representing the majority of the families, told Mr Kitson they wanted the MoD to disclose personal files of soldiers involved to establish details about their service records - including any potential issues around conduct.

She added: “We had also raised the issue of cross referencing in relation to the events of Bloody Sunday, which occurred some months later and involved the same regiment.”

Barrister for the Coroners Service, Sean Doran, told Mr Kitson there had been an “expectation” in other inquests for the MoD to perform similar cross-referencing exercises.

Mr Kitson replied: “There will be in the context of this one also.”

A lawyer for the MoD did not outline details on how the request would be progressed during this afternoon’s hearing.

In 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron apologised for the actions of the paratroopers on Bloody Sunday after a long-running public inquiry by Lord Saville found the shootings had been unjustified, as the victims posed no threat.

But last month, the Government rejected calls for a probe - on a smaller scale - into the events in Ballymurphy, insisting it was not in the public interest.

The new inquest into an episode the families refer to as the Ballymurphy Massacre was ordered by Northern Ireland’s Attorney General John Larkin in 2011. That move came after a cold case review of the deaths by the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s Historical Enquiries Team (HET).

As well as those shot dead in Ballymurphy, another man died of a heart attack following an alleged violent confrontation with soldiers.

The new inquest covers the deaths caused by gunfire.

After today’s hearing, John Teggart - whose father Danny was killed in Ballymurphy - said the families had long suspected some soldiers fired weapons in both incidents.

“It has always been said and we are confident that the soldiers involved in Ballymurphy are involved in Bloody Sunday,” he said.

“It goes without saying that there were 600 paratroopers involved in Ballymurphy over those three days, so I would be very surprised if some of the shooters would not have been involved in Ballymurphy and in Bloody Sunday as well.”

The shootings took place as the British Army moved into republican strongholds in west Belfast to arrest IRA suspects in the wake of the introduction by the Stormont administration of the controversial policy of internment without trial.

Soldiers claimed they had come under attack and had returned fire.

Relatives have long campaigned for an acknowledgement that their loved ones were wrongfully killed.

During the lengthy hearing, which also saw lawyers discuss progress on disclosing police and military files to the next of kin, Mr Kitson accepted a request from the families’ lawyers for a review of the pathology evidence.

He asked Mr Doran to contact the State Pathologist’s office about a review.

“It’s 2014 and I believe it is certainly worthwhile for a pathologist to review all the pathology evidence,” said the coroner.

“There have clearly been advances in the last years in regard to pathology and a fresh eye being cast over this evidence can do no harm.”

Mr Kitson also indicated that fresh statements may need to be taken from those who had witnessed the shootings, but he said before such an exercise could be conducted it was important to collate a definitive list of both civilian and army witnesses.

Peter Coll, representing the MoD, said the Army was trying to establish if the guns used in Ballymurphy were still in existence.

But he added: “Tracing the weapons will not be a straightforward process.”

The next preliminary hearing was set for June 27.