The deaths of 10 people during three days of shootings in west Belfast were the result of “illegitimate, unjustified and indiscriminate use of force by the (British) Army”, a court has heard.
Inquests investigating the 1971 incidents, referred to as the Ballymurphy Massacre by bereaved relatives, began in Belfast on Monday.
In 2011, Northern Ireland’s Attorney General John Larkin directed that new inquests be heard after a long campaign by family members who claimed the original coronial probes were inadequate.
The shootings took place as the Army moved in to republican strongholds to arrest IRA suspects after the introduction by the Stormont administration of the controversial policy of internment without trial.
Soldiers have long been held responsible for killing all 10 in Ballymurphy between August 9 and 11 1971, but the accepted narrative became clouded earlier this year when former members of the UVF came forward to claim their organisation was also involved.
Sean Doran QC, counsel for the Coroner’s Service, outlined some of the evidence that will be examined throughout the inquests.
He said each individual incident and death will require “careful scrutiny”.
In what he described as a “very broad observation” on the core issues, he said: “The narrative of the military is legitimate use of force was used at a time of heightened tension and response to specific threats.”
He said this runs contrary to the Ballymurphy families who say the deaths resulted from “illegitimate, unjustified and indiscriminate use of force by the Army on civilians”.
The families claim the military action resulted in the deaths of 10 “entirely innocent civilians”.
Mr Doran said the original investigations into the deaths were “very limited”, adding that there are multiple examples of failure to get witness accounts and examples that show forensic opportunities were missed.
He added that examination of scenes would not necessarily have been routine given the “legitimate security concerns at the time”.
“It’s important not to lose sight that these were turbulent times,” he added.
At the time of the deaths, officials from the Royal Military Police interviewed soldiers after mass shootings.
Referring to the original inquest, Mr Doran said it did not carry out a rigorous examination of military statements.
“The open verdict did not allow for any finding as to whether use of force was justified,” he added. “This inquest will not be so limited in nature or in scope.”
He added that the investigation carried out by the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) gathered a significant amount of material and contact details for a number of soldiers.
He added that the process of getting evidence is continuing and military and civilian statements are still to be taken.
The inquests are expected to run until March.
The court earlier heard how difficulties surrounding the inquests have been exacerbated by the loss of records and statements from military witnesses given before the original inquest.
Mr Doran described the process into these inquests as “difficult and complicated”.
A Catholic priest was among the 10 killed in the shootings, involving members of the Parachute Regiment.
Another man died of a heart attack following an alleged violent confrontation with the troops in the west Belfast estate.
Mr Doran said the court will examine a period of time in Belfast when there were approximately 12 explosions, 59 shootings, 17 deaths, 25 injuries, 13 rioting incidents, 18 arson attacks and numerous reports of civil disorder.
“When examining the deaths through a forensic lens we ought not to lose sight of the context of when these deaths occurred,” he said.
“That is not to say however that the context provide shield or buffer against scrutiny.”
The families of the 10 gathered outside Laganside Court in Belfast ahead of the inquests, holding pictures of the victims and banners calling for justice.
Political representatives from Sinn Fein, the SDLP, People Before Profit and Alliance also attended.
John Teggart, whose father Daniel was one of those killed, said before the hearing: “It’s mixed emotions going into court today but the determination of the families to get to the truth has brought us to here.”