Soldiers used excessive force in 1971 Ballymurphy killings, finds inquest into the deaths

The army did not properly discharge its obligation to protect life in August 1971 when 10 people — all innocent said the coroner — were killed in Ballymurphy, a major inquest into the killings has found.

Tuesday, 11th May 2021, 1:42 pm
Updated Tuesday, 11th May 2021, 2:34 pm

The coroner, Mrs Justice Keegan, issued her findings into the highly controversial killings, which happened after violence erupted on August 9 when soldiers moved into republican strongholds to arrest IRA suspects.

She said that “all of the deceased were entirely innocent of wrongdoing on the day in question”.

The coroner found that either excessive force was used in many of the killings, or that the state had violated Article Two of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects right to life, or that the killings were not justified — different wording was used in different deaths.

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Families of people who were killed at Ballymurphy in August 1971 arrive the International Convention Centre (ICC) in Belfast where the Nightingale Lagan court is sitting. The inquest was issuing findings after fresh inquests into the fatal shooting of 10 people in disputed circumstances involving the Army in west Belfast 50 years ago. A mother of eight and a Catholic priest were among those who were killed. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

At the Waterfont Hall in Belfast, which was used as a court location for the inquest findings, Mrs Justice Keegan went through the 10 deaths case by case, to explain her conclusions.

As she explained her findings in each case, there was applause from relatives of the dead, who were gathered in the large makeshift inquest court room, which was established in part due to the need for social distancing due to Covid.

In most of the cases, Mrs Justice Keegan said that the killings had not been properly investigated at the time.

She accepted that in some cases the soldiers had felt their lives were at risk but had not justified their response.

In the killings of Francis Quinn and a priest, Father Hugh Mullan, the coroner found that even if there were gunmen in a field where they were shot, “the use of force was disproportionate”.

She said she was satisfied both entered the field to assist an injured man.

While the coroner said there was evidence of a small number of IRA gunmen in the wider area on the day, she said this did not apply to the waste ground when the men were shot.

She said neither man was armed and they were not in the vicinity of someone with a gun.

The state had not discharged its obligation under Article 2, she said.

In the second incident, the case of Mrs Joan Connolly, a mother of eight; Joseph Murphy; Mr Noel Phillips; and Daniel (Danny) Teggart the coroner found that there had been some IRA presence in the area around where the army shots were fired.

But that while others who were armed put soldiers at risk, there had been a “violation of Article 2 given the manner in which the shooting occurred”.

“The Army had a duty to protect lives and minimise harm, and the use of force was clearly disproportionate,” she said.

In regard to Mr Teggart, she rejected an allegation from one military witness that ammunition was found in his pockets.

She said there was no evidence to suggest any of the deceased were linked to the IRA.

The coroner said there were IRA gunmen in the area at the time.

She said there had been a “basic inhumanity” in how long Mrs Connolly had been left to lie injured on the ground. However, she said she could not determine whether the delay in treatment had contributed to her death.

Mrs Justice Keegan said she could not determine who fired the shots, other than they were members of the Parachute Regiment stationed at the Henry Taggart Hall.

In the shooting of Edward Doherty, the coroner accepted that the soldier who fired at him “thought his life was in risk” but that “the use of force was disproportionate”.

She also rejected claims that Mr Doherty had been throwing petrol bombs at the time.

“He was an innocent man who posed no threat,” she said.

The soldier who fired the shot that killed him was in a tractor that was attempting to clear the barricade.

The coroner said she accepted that at least two petrol bombs had been thrown at the tractor and that the soldier inside would have held an honest belief that his life was in danger, and was justified in using some force as a consequence.

But she said his actions went beyond that.

“On any reading he acted in contravention of the Yellow Card (Army’s rules of engagement),” she said.

The coroner added: “The use of force was disproportionate to the risk posed to him.”

Mrs Justice Keegan found that events around the killing of Joseph Corr and John Laverty “cannot possibly justify lethal force”.

She concluded they were shot by the British Army and there was no evidence that they could have been shot by anyone else.

The coroner rejected claims the men were gunmen who had been firing at soldiers.

“There is no evidence that guns were found on or near any of these two men,” she said.

The coroner added: “It was wrong to describe these two men as gunmen and that rumour should be dispelled.”

The coroner also raised concerns about “serious failings” in military testimony provided in respect of the shootings.

Finally, in the case of John McKerr the coroner explained at length why it was a difficult case in which to establish the facts of the death of this “entirely innocent man”.

However, she said there was not enough evidence for her to determine where the shot that killed him came from, or whether it was fired by the military or paramilitaries.

“It is impossible to say where shot may have come from,” she said. “The evidence is not consistent and clear in this case.”

The coroner said he was “shot indiscriminately on the street”.

She noted that Mr McKerr was a “proud military man” and claims he was associated with the IRA had caused great pain for his family in the five decades since.

“It was shocking there was no real investigation into his death at the time,” the coroner said.

There had been a serious failure of the state’s obligation to investigate the death of an innocent civilian.

The Ballymurphy killings came during a turbulent period following the controversial introduction of internment without trial in Northern Ireland at the start of the Troubles.

Original inquests into the Ballymurphy deaths in 1972 returned open verdicts and the bereaved families subsequently pursued a long campaign for fresh probes to be held.

New inquests began in 2018, with the final oral evidence heard last March.

Eye-witnesses, forensic experts, former Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams and more than 60 former soldiers — including former head of the Army General Sir Mike Jackson — gave evidence at Belfast Coroner’s Court.

Relatives took part in a church service on Monday ahead of today;s findings and described their feeling that Tuesday will be a hard and anxious day.

Briege Voyle said the pain of losing her mother, Joan Connolly, was made even harder when misinformation was circulated that she had been a gunwoman.

Ms Voyle told the PA news agency that she is praying Ms Connolly’s name will finally be cleared on the official record five decades later.

Father Hugh Mullan was shot after he had crawled to waste ground where a man had been shot to administer the Last Rites.

His brother, Patsy, described him as simply wanting to help people.

“My brother was not involved in anything other than going out to help somebody,” he said.

“He was a priest and anointed a man; as he left him to go and try and get an ambulance he was shot.”

The findings were issued on the day that the government vowed to end the cycle of legacy investigations in Northern Ireland.

As Parliament was officially reopened on Tuesday, the Queen said measures will also be brought forward to strengthen devolved government in Northern Ireland.

Accompanying government papers to the Queen’s Speech said the new legislation will be set out in the coming weeks.

The papers stated: “The government is fully committed to introducing legislation to address the legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and will confirm further details in the coming weeks.

“It is clear that the current system for dealing with the legacy of the past is not working well for anybody, with criminal investigations increasingly unlikely to deliver successful criminal justice outcomes and failing to obtain answers for the majority of victims and families.

“The government will 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.”

The Times and Daily Telegraph reported last week that a bar on prosecutions would apply to the vast majority of Troubles killings, though an exemption would apply to war crimes, such as torture.

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Alistair Bushe