‘He pointed his rifle at me and asked me my name’
An ‘Irish Times’ report from 1977 has helped confirm that two trainee teachers were not to blame for the Belfast shootings in which one of them died
Victim: trainee teacher Patrick Magee
The 6pm angelus bell was ringing at St Peter’s Cathedral in west Belfast when the British army fired on Frank McGuinness and his friend Patrick Magee, who died in the attack.
McGuinness, a former head of Trócaire in Northern Ireland, will be on O’Connell Street in Dublin this afternoon for a vigil aimed at pressurising the Irish and British governments to do something about the North’s past, such as implementing the stalled Haass proposals.
Today he’ll particularly recall April 17th, 1972. Two days earlier Joe McCann, an Official IRA leader, had been shot dead in the Markets area of Belfast. On April 16th the Official IRA killed Lieut Nicholas Hull of the Royal Anglian Regiment in revenge.
On the evening of April 17th there were no buses in central Belfast because of rioting and shooting. McGuinness and Magee, 20-year-old trainee teachers at St Joseph’s College, had been in the city centre and were trying to make it back to McGuinness’s home, skirting the danger zones.
The two were on Divis Street, heading towards Falls Road; shooting began as they neared St Comgall’s School. McGuinness and Magee took cover there, not realising the shooting was coming directly at them from a British army post on Percy Street.
They threw themselves on the steps of the school, and almost immediately Magee was hit. McGuinness was wounded a short time later. “The shooting became so frightening that I cried out aloud, ‘Mother of Perpetual Succour, stop this shooting,’ ” McGuinness says “I tried to say prayers for the dying, for both Patrick and myself.”
Eventually, some people came to his aid, and medical assistance was called. Two ambulances arrived, one for him, one for Magee. But the drama wasn’t over. McGuinness recalls a paratrooper opening the back door of his ambulance. (McGuinness suspects the fatal shots may have been fired by a member of the Parachute Regiment, which was also active in the area.)
“He pointed his rifle at me, cocked it and then asked me my name. He told me that I was the unlucky one, that I should have been f***ing shot dead too. I invited the soldier to shoot me too, since he had plenty of practice killing innocent people in Derry [on Bloody Sunday]. He walked away. Only at that point did I realise that it had been the British army who had shot us.”
The army directed that the ambulances be driven across the peaceline into Beverley Street. “A loyalist crowd mobbed the ambulance and tried to overturn it . . . But then when Patrick’s ambulance arrived the crowd, which by now was hysterical, opened the back doors of Patrick’s ambulance as well and pulled Patrick’s remains out on to the street. We could see a clergyman in a dog collar remonstrating and fighting with the crowd. I was terrified.”
But there was humanity, too. McGuinness told another soldier, who identified himself as a sergeant major, that that he was a Catholic and that the crowd would kill him if they got at him. “He assured me that would not happen. He pointed his rifle out of the ambulance at the crowd and said no one would be shot.”
Royal Anglian soldiers, who had lost their colleague the day before, fired 65 shots. Even the cook let off some rounds. Despite McGuinness’s suspicions about the Parachute Regiment, when an inquest into Magee’s killing took place, later that year, the Royal Anglians were put in the frame.
At that inquest 10 soldiers made depositions saying that McGuinness and Magee had fired at them first. The coroner recorded an open verdict, but McGuinness believed a clear implication was that he and Magee were the guilty parties. He and Magee’s family kept trying to change that impression. Five years later, at a 1977 High Court compensation hearing, the Northern Ireland Office admitted McGuinness and Magee were “unarmed and innocent”.
McGuinness, recounting this story in Belfast hotel, breaks down in tears when he describes this. He is still deeply troubled by the experience and wants some form of justice for his friend. He believes the stain of implied guilt is not totally eradicated.
The PSNI’s Historical Enquiries Team (HET) – currently dormant but due to be reactivated – began investigating. Although it could find plenty of records of the 1972 inquest, nothing could be found about the 1977 High Court ruling on the men’s innocence.
McGuinness enlisted the help of the Pat Finucane Centre, in Derry, whose searches uncovered an Irish Times report of the case. The story, headlined “Damages agreed on Army shooting”, said that McGuinness had received £10,000 in compensation and Magee’s family £4,500, and that they were “innocent persons who were not armed and who did not fire at the Army”.
McGuinness is conscious that dealing with the past is a terrible puzzle. But he wants the HET to pursue this case, now it has a report verifying that he and Patrick Magee were victims of an injustice.
In Their Footsteps, a peaceful day of action on O’Connell Street, Dublin, takes place from 2pm to 4pm today for “families and individuals who wish to pursue truth and justice for their loved ones killed and/or injured as a result of the conflict”