Search for witness to schoolboy’s shooting in 1972 ‘proving difficult’

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The search for a teenage witness who could shed new light on the death of a schoolboy shot by a British Army rubber bullet is proving difficult, a lawyer has told an inquest.

Representatives of the family of Francis Rowntree, 11, who was struck by a projectile fired by a Royal Anglian Regiment soldier in west Belfast in 1972, have established the onlooker’s name but the authorities are still trying to trace his whereabouts, a preliminary inquest hearing was told.

Inquiries have been made with Corpus Christi College in west Belfast.

Legal counsel to the coroner, Philip Henry, said: “It is a difficult matter searching for this particular person without any information at all about him.”

Francis was hit by the rubber bullet as he played with friends at the Divis Flats complex close to the Falls Road in April 1972.

He died four days later from injuries including a fractured skull.

Controversy surrounds the shooting, with disputed claims on whether the young boy was fired on directly, or hit by a ricochet, and if the bullet had been doctored to make it potentially cause more injury.

Rowntree family barrister Fiona Doherty outlined plans for a media appeal to help find the witness. At an earlier hearing she said his name had been traced but he may have moved out of the jurisdiction.

Coroner Jim Kitson oversaw Tuesday’s Belfast preliminary hearing of the long-delayed inquest.

“Progress is at snail’s pace and I would like to try and move this case on with much greater expedition,” he said.

Ms Doherty said: “This is a relatively compact case, it should be capable of early listing.”

The coroner concurred that it was a simple but extremely important case.

Lawyer for the police Ken Boyd said: “It does involve research into the 1970s and quite a volume of material was generated.”

The schoolboy’s death was among 14 controversial killings during the Troubles for which Attorney General John Larkin had ordered new inquests.

Proceedings were due to begin last November but were dramatically halted when Northern Ireland’s senior coroner John Leckey questioned whether the Attorney General had exceeded his powers.

The Rowntree family and a number of others launched a legal challenge against the suspension and it was subsequently lifted in February.

Mr Kitson scheduled another preliminary hearing for mid-March.