I just want justice, widow of 1971 Army shooting victim tells inquest

Father-of-six Harry Thornton was struck on the scalp by a high-velocity bullet in August 1971
Father-of-six Harry Thornton was struck on the scalp by a high-velocity bullet in August 1971

The widow of a man shot dead by the Army more than 40 years ago has given an emotional account of her heartbreak.

Mary Thornton was the first person on the witness stand in Belfast Laganside Court complex as a lengthy inquest into the father-of-six’s death began on Tuesday.

Henry Gerard Brendan Thornton – known more commonly as ‘Harry’ – was a 29-year-old lorry driver from south Armagh who died after the Army opened fire as his van drove close to a police station in the Springfield Road area of republican west Belfast.

Before the inquest began it had been thought the shooting was prompted by the van backfiring, which was mistaken for gunfire.

The shooting happened on the morning of August 7, 1971, and the court was shown news footage of serious disorder flaring that year, in a bid to remind those present of the context in which security forces were operating at the time.

The inquest is scheduled for up to five days, and includes the testimony of 28 witnesses – 15 of them with security force backgrounds.

Of the 28 witnesses, four are now dead; their evidence is to be given in the form of a statement.

The court also heard that Mrs Thornton had received an official apology from the Government for his death.

In a letter – dated June 20, 2012 – the then-minister of state for the Armed Forces described his death as a “tragedy”.

Mrs Thornton was offered the condolences of the court as she took to the stand and confirmed some of her Dundalk-born husband’s details.

She said that although he lived with her in Crossmaglen, he stayed in Belfast during much of the week as he worked on a Carryduff building project, returning at the weekends and Wednesdays.

She was asked about the difficulties of travelling around in 1971, and said: “It was hard to get in and out of places, but he’d go the long way around to avoid trouble. He wouldn’t drive into trouble.”

She said repeatedly that he was “not involved” in anything political, and did not attend protests.

He did not go out drinking, because he never had any money, she said, adding that he just liked to play with his children (the eldest of whom was 10).

“That’s all he was – a big soft child himself,” she said.

She heard on the news that there had been a shooting on the Springfield Road, but said: “I just carried on.”

When she saw a group approaching her house, including the parish priest, she said: “I got this awful feeling there was something wrong.”

She then began to break down on the stand, and the coroner offered her a glass of water.

“I just didn’t believe it. I couldn’t understand it,” she said.

“I was just want justice for him. He was innocent and they shot him ... I suffered, and my six children suffered.”

She was given his belongings back, which amounted to a coat, a lunchbox, and a handful of small items including a hair clip from one of the children, which he had kept in his pocket.

She said she had been left with £5 in her purse “to feed six children”.

As well as newsreel footage from the era, the court was also read details from security force logs which included details of bombings, shootings and general disorder in the area in the run up to, and after, Mr Thornton’s killing.

One of them included an account of five “shots” having been heard, which could have been mistaken for gunfire.

On the day after Mr Thornton’s death, a security force log recorded that at 7.44am “what appeared to be two shots were heard as a van passed”.

It said a sentry called on the two occupants to stop, but the van kept going, adding that the sentry then fired.

After Mr Thornton was found in the van (with an autopsy recording that he suffered a wound to the scalp and one to the body, with the head wound being the primary one), another man in the van was questioned by police and then released.

Barrister for the family, Neil Fox, voiced “concern” about the presentation of the logs and newsreel footage, telling coroner Brian Sherrard there was “no reference” to shootings carried out by the British Army at the time.

The coroner said he was open to suggestions on the matter from the lawyer.

The case continues.