Ballymurphy massacre: ‘You could say it’s an open sore that has never healed’

Families campaigned for inquest into shooting dead of 10 people in 1971 Belfast atrocity

One of the victims, John Laverty, was the uncle of Mary Kate Quinn (right) pictured with her young daughter, Blaithin, her mother, Carmel, sister Mairead and aunt, Rita Bonner at the mural  depicting the Ballymurphy massacre. Photograph:  Stephen Davison

One of the victims, John Laverty, was the uncle of Mary Kate Quinn (right) pictured with her young daughter, Blaithin, her mother, Carmel, sister Mairead and aunt, Rita Bonner at the mural depicting the Ballymurphy massacre. Photograph: Stephen Davison

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Bláithín Ní Fhiaich is only 1½, but she knows who her great-uncle John is.

She can recognise his photograph; the snapshot originally taken for his driving licence is now in a frame in her family’s sitting room and her granny’s, and on a wall in Ballymurphy, west Belfast. “Ballymurphy Massacre August 1971: We Demand the Truth”, it reads.

Twenty-year-old John Laverty was one of 10 civilians shot dead by the British army in the Ballymurphy area in the days immediately following the introduction of internment without trial on August 9th, 1971.

The findings of the inquests into their deaths will be published in Belfast on Tuesday.

The inquests, which were ordered in 2011 by the North’s attorney general, were the result of a campaign by the families of those killed in Ballymurphy, including Laverty’s sisters Rita Bonner and Carmel Quinn, and her daughters Mary Kate and Mairéad Quinn.

Their hope is for a verdict of unjustifiable killing. “We never met him but we grew up with him and we feel like we did know him. We love him,” says Mairéad.

John Laverty, image courtesy the Laverty/Quinn families.
John Laverty. Photograph: Laverty/Quinn families

“Bláithín was born 22 years after the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement. I want my child to enjoy peace,” says Mary Kate. “I don’t want her to have to continue on this fight for answers, for accountability, for acknowledgement, for truth and justice.”

Her mother Carmel was only a child when John was killed, eight years-old and the youngest of 11. Rita, who was 14, recalls an “easy-going, laid-back big lad” who came in every payday with “a wee cake” for their mother and who saved up to buy all his siblings Christmas presents.

He used to carry Carmel on his back; her final memory of her brother is of him carrying her to be evacuated to a refugee camp in Co Kildare to escape the violence that erupted with the introduction of internment. “That was the last time I ever saw him.”

Early on the morning of August 11th, 1971 the bin lids were rattling in Ballymurphy; John and his brother Terry had gone out to “see what was going on... John never returned home,” say Rita.

The Ballymurphy community went through hell on earth. There’s not a family hasn’t got a story to tell

To this day, the sisters do not know exactly what happened to their brother; from what they have pieced together, says Carmel, they believe he was shot shortly after he left the house.

“People said there was a crowd gathered ... when the army came down firing they said, ‘they’re firing live bullets’, so everybody dispersed. That would make sense, because John was shot in the back.”

A second bullet, in his leg, killed him. “He wasn’t any threat to anyone. He was on the ground.”

Their mother had spent the previous night comforting the mother of another of the victims, Noel Philips (19), who lived across the street. “Mrs Philips was broken-hearted, and my poor wee mummy didn’t realise that she was going to be exactly the same way within 24 hours,” says Rita.

“The Ballymurphy community went through hell on earth. There’s not a family hasn’t got a story to tell, or hasn’t been affected in some shape or form.

Most, if not all, of the victims are believed to have been shot by the elite Parachute Regiment. “They were sent in to shock and stun a community,” says Rita, “to put them in their place, and when they left they left 11 families devastated, they left a community that was broken but resilient.”

This was an attack on the community by the army, and the impact has lasted to this day

Today, the scars left by the Troubles are everywhere in Ballymurphy. Plaques commemorating the dead hang from gable walls; the estate’s memorial garden lists the names of more than 70 civilians and more than 40 IRA members.

In Springhill Community House, lanterns bearing the pictures of the Ballymurphy victims and five people killed in the Springhill/Westrock massacre in 1972 – which are lit for an annual vigil in their memory – sit on a shelf above co-ordinator and community worker Ciaran Cahill.

He describes an area where the community spirit is strong but which continues to suffer from high levels of mental health problems and Troubles-related trauma, in addition to the challenges typical of areas of social deprivation such as drug use and lack of employment.

He is clear: “This was an attack on the community by the army, and the impact has lasted to this day.

“It wasn’t just the 11 people who died over those three days, it was the injured, it was the people who were arrested, it was the people who were tortured, and the brutality which was inflicted on a community ... you could say it’s an open sore that has never healed, and it never will heal until there’s truth and justice for what happened.”

At the time, the British army claimed the victims had either been gunmen, or had been killed in crossfire during a gun battle; since 1998 the Ballymurphy families have been campaigning to have their loved ones’ names publicly cleared, and to have those responsible held to account.

“It would mean that after 50 years justice has been served, that there’s an acknowledgement that the British state were the perpetrators and the people who were shot were civilians,” says Carmel.

Truth and justice are huge issues for people my age, for people who are Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement babies

“All this has to come out on Tuesday and it all has to be documented, that the first version of events is untrue and unsafe,” she emphasises. “We are not rewriting history, we are correcting history,” adds Rita.

“The families and the community have always known, but now the world will know what happened in Ballymurphy,” says Cahill.

The tragedy, says Rita, is that “if it had been dealt with right we shouldn’t be going to a court on the 11th. We shouldn’t have had to campaign for 22 years, but we did it.”

She is mindful of the family members who “started this journey with us” but who have since passed away; on Tuesday she will carry with her a heart-shaped memento made from her mother’s cardigan.

“I often say our lives would have been so different if John hadn’t been murdered, for each and every one of us children, because my mummy would have been different and my daddy wouldn’t have died at 61.”

They are still seeking answers, which they know they may never get, about John’s death; they would also like accountability, and an apology, but emphasise that as to what happens next, “we’ll take it from the 11th,” says Rita.

For all her wish that the next generation will not inherit the unresolved legacies of the past, Mary Kate acknowledges that “there are so many families like us. This whole idea of time passing and people dying off, that’s not going to happen.”

Reports that the UK government plans to introduce a statute of limitations to block future Troubles-related prosecutions will be resisted by families, she says. “The British state has fought us every step of the way, and now when they can no longer fight us within the law, and when we are going to get answers on Tuesday, they change the law to ensure we don’t see justice and to get away with murder.”

She cites the example of a letter sent by victims group Relatives for Justice to Taoiseach Micheál Martin and UK prime minister Boris Johnson on behalf of those bereaved by the Troubles. “There were over 3,500 signatures and a large percentage of them were nephews and nieces, grandkids, so you have an entire generation connected to conflict because it goes unresolved.

“Truth and justice are huge issues for people my age, for people who are Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement babies.

“I think it’s been instilled in us, that fight for justice... my mummy and Rita, they’re two very, very strong women, and I look at them in admiration. They have inspired me, and I have to do this, not only for John but for them.”

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