‘It should not have taken 50 years to have an inquest’

Failure to deal with legacy continues to bedevil the present as well as the past

Victims shot in August 1971: (left to right top row) Joseph Corr, Danny Teggart, Eddie Doherty, Fr Hugh Mullan, Frank Quinn,  (left to right, bottom row) Joan Connolly, John McKerr, Noel Philips, John Laverty and Joseph Murphy. Photograph: Ballymurphy Massacre Committee/PA Wire

Victims shot in August 1971: (left to right top row) Joseph Corr, Danny Teggart, Eddie Doherty, Fr Hugh Mullan, Frank Quinn, (left to right, bottom row) Joan Connolly, John McKerr, Noel Philips, John Laverty and Joseph Murphy. Photograph: Ballymurphy Massacre Committee/PA Wire

 

While Tuesday’s inquests’ verdicts were the public vindication the Ballymurphy families had hoped for, they should never have been necessary.

“It should not have taken 50 years to have an inquest which asked questions that should have been asked back in 1971,” said Carmel Quinn.

Her brother, John Laverty, was one of 10 people shot and fatally injured in this part of west Belfast in the violence which followed the introduction of internment on August 9th, 1971.

The coroner ruled that all were “entirely innocent” and at least nine out of the 10 were killed by British soldiers; of the 10th, the “abject failure” to investigate at the time meant there was no simply no evidence on which to base a finding.

The inquests themselves were the result of a campaign begun by the families in 1998 with the aim of clearing their loved ones’ names. At the time, they were branded gunmen and women by the British army; now, at least, that wrong has been righted.

In this alone, it was a highly significant finding, not just for the Ballymurphy families but also for the local people who supported them and who came forward to the inquest as eyewitnesses in such numbers.

With time, there will be the opportunity for them to reflect on other findings – including the damning criticisms by the coroner in regard to the failure to properly investigate the killings at the time, and the reluctance of military witnesses to come forward or to offer credible explanations for their actions.

The verdicts will also offer hope for many other families who continue to seek answers about loved ones’ deaths, either through similar legacy inquests or through investigations by either the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) or as part of the Operation Kenova inquiries led by former police chief Jon Boutcher.

As the families’ solicitor, Pádraig Ó Muirigh, put it, “What it does show is that an article 2 [of the European Convention on Human Rights] compliant inquest... can achieve a measure of truth and, very importantly, it narrows the permissible lies the state can tell.

“The Lord Chief Justice’s outstanding inquests should proceed and should proceed to the standard we’ve seen during this inquest, and I think that can help some families.”

Legacy issues

Yet, the fact that these inquests are still outstanding after so long – and the fact that families have had to resort to lengthy court proceedings to find answers about what happened to their loved ones – is illustrative of the extent to which so-called legacy issues remain unsolved in the North.

This is thrown into sharp relief by the juxtaposition of the day’s developments in Belfast with those in London, where the UK government in the Queen’s speech committed to legislation on legacy which it has been reported will involve a statute of limitations for Troubles-era crimes.

Given that this is opposed by the Government and by the North’s five main parties – though for differing reasons – and by victims’ groups, including the Ballymurphy families, it is difficult to see how it might be implemented; nevertheless, the fallout over the proposals is indicative of the extent to which the failure to deal with legacy continues to bedevil the present as well as the past.

The Ballymurphy findings show up the UK government’s claim that it will end the “cycle of reinvestigations” as based on a false premise, for how can you reinvestigate cases that were never properly investigated, as the coroner has made clear?

Moreover, she has demonstrated that – contrary to UK government claims – investigation can bring new information to light even after 50 years.

How much more light can be shed remains to be seen. For the Ballymurphy families at least, it has brought relief, albeit bittersweet; for other families, a measure of hope.