SF's paper says IRA '˜stood their ground' in Ballymurphy Massacre

Sinn Fein's own newspaper contradicts the impression given by a new documentary that IRA gunmen played no role in events which saw 10 people shot dead in west Belfast in 1971, it is claimed.

Saturday, 15th September 2018, 10:00 am
Updated Monday, 17th September 2018, 3:28 pm
How the News Letter reported the first of three nights of violence across NI which left 24 people dead - 11 of them in the Ballymurphy area of Belfast.

The film ‘Massacre at Ballymurphy’, which aired last weekend, contains testimony from relatives of ten people shot dead by soldiers in Ballymurphy during the introduction of internment between 9-11 August in 1971.

A Catholic priest and a mother-of-eight were among those killed during three days of violence, an eleventh man dying later of a heart attack. Twelve others died violently across NI in the same period.

Last week journalist Malachi O’Doherty challenged the documentary director Callum Macrea that leaving out the “significant” IRA activity in Ballymurphy during the massacre left a serious hole.

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Journalist Malachi O'Doherty says the new documentary on the Ballymurphy Massacre wrongly omits IRA involvement. Photo: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press

Mr O’Doherty laid the blame for the ten deaths with “trigger happy” soldiers, but said: “In terms of the events in Ballymurphy, we know there was significant IRA activity in the area on those days.

“Leaving out the whole context of the major gun battles taking place in Ballymurphy at that time was remiss and overlooked an important element of the story.

The absence in the film of a credible account of what the IRA were doing at the time will be seen in retrospect as a hole in it.”

While Mr Macrea acknowledged he had not ruled out the possibility of armed IRA men being present, he found no credible evidence to suggest a gun battle had taken place between soldiers and the IRA, he said.

An Phoblacht cites a republican ballad which commends the role of republicans at the time, and says the IRA "stood their ground".

But now Ulster University politics lecturer Dr Cillian McGrattan has weighed in to say even Sinn Fein’s version of events challenges Mr Macrea’s account.

“The Provos/Shinners have established plaques to honour some of the ‘volunteers’ on duty during that incident,” he said, referring to an article from the Sinn Fein web site ‘An Phoblacht’, dated 18 September 2008 and titled ‘Legendary Volunteers to be honoured’.

The piece opens with several lines from the ballad about Long Kesh; “When [NI PM Brian] Faulkner showed his hand /He thought that by internment /He could break our gallant band /But the boys from Ballymurphy /How they showed the way that night / How they taught those English soldiers /How Irishmen could fight’.

An Phoblacht continued: “British Paras murdered 11 people from the area in an effort to subdue the population. However, the IRA in Ballymurphy stood their ground and the British were forced to retreat to their barracks in the Henry Taggart Memorial Hall, only venturing out in great numbers or under the cover of darkness.”

Families outside Belfast Court in April at a previous preliminary hearing of an inquest into the Ballymurphy killings: Picture: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

The spirit of Ballymurphy was embodied in two IRA fighters who were honoured with plaques; Jim Bryson and Patrick Mulvenna, it added.

Dr McGrattan also noted that the Troubles reference work ‘Lost Lives’ is “a little vague on the details but it’s clear there too that republicans were firing”.

Lost Lives reports there was “an intensive three-way gun battle [which] started around Ballymurphy” involving soldiers, the IRA and UVF.

After shots were fired by soldiers on rooftops in Springmartin, Lost Lives said, the Henry Taggart Memorial Hall which was being used as army barracks “then came under heavy fire from IRA gunmen in Ballymurphy”.

A Sinn Féin spokesperson did not challenge Dr McGrattan’s claims.

They said: “Over the course of three days (9 – 11 August 1971) British paratroopers murdered 11 people from Ballymurphy.

“The families have been campaigning nearly 50 years for an inquest to ensure that they get to the truth of what occurred in the greater Ballymurphy area in August 1971.

“It is unacceptable that the British government have refused to provide the necessary funding requested by the Lord Chief Justice to resolve the backlog of legacy inquests.”

Five months before the Ballymurphy Massacre, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Belfast to press for stiffer security measures in the wake of the IRA’s kidnap and murder of three off duty Scottish soldiers in what became known as ‘the Honey Trap murders’.

The Ballymurphy shootings took place as the government then introduced internment, in the wake of escalating violence; over 100 bomb explosions took place the previous year.

One month before Ballymurphy the IRA set off bombs all along the Orange Order’s July 12 parade route in Belfast, with some 7,000 ‘refugees’ said to have moved south by the following month.

• The NI Political Directory says that 1054 firearms, 203,000 rounds of ammunition and 44,000 kg of explosives were recovered in arms finds and house searches across NI from 1969-1971.