Ten people shot dead in Ballymurphy, west Belfast, in 1971 were "all entirely innocent of any wrongdoing on the day in question", a coroner has found.
Delivering her findings in Belfast on Tuesday, after the longest-running inquests in Northern Ireland’s history, Mrs Justice Siobhán Keegan said she hoped the findings may deliver some peace for the families.
She found that nine out of 10 were shot by the British army, and in the majority of cases the force used was disproportionate.
In the 10th case, that of John James McKerr, she said she was not satisfied she could make a determination on the balance of probabilities as to who was responsible for his death.
She said she had been “severely hampered by the inadequacy of evidence at the time” and there had been “abject failure” by the authorities to investigate his death at the time.
Relatives of the deceased, who were present for the findings, applauded as each verdict was read out.
The 10 killed were Francis Quinn, Fr Hugh Mullan, Noel Phillips, Joan Connolly, Daniel Teggart, Joseph Murphy, Edward Doherty, John Laverty, Joseph Corr and John James McKerr. An 11th victim, Pat McCarthy, died of a heart attack. Their deaths took place amid serious violence which took place following the introduction of internment without trial on the morning of August 9th.
The coroner was broadly critical of the military evidence provided to the inquests, and contrasted the general nature of the evidence provided by British army witnesses and statements with the specific picture painted by local eyewitnesses.
She was also critical of the limited investigations carried out at the time. In one case no contemporaneous evidence statements were collected, and she said the “failure to investigate at the time made my task extremely difficult”.
In regard to the deaths of Mr Quinn and Fr Mullan on August 9th, the coroner found that both were “innocent men, not armed or acting in any untoward manner” and who had instead gone to help a wounded man.
She said that on the balance of probabilities both were shot by the British army, and their use of force was “clearly disproportionate”.
Of Fr Mullan, Mrs Justice Keegan said she was “quite convinced he was a peacemaker” who was waving a white object when he was shot in the back.
On the deaths of Noel Phillips (19), Ms Connolly and Mr Teggart on August 9th and Mr Murphy, who was shot that evening but died of his wounds on August 22nd, the coroner said there was “no real doubt” in her mind that each of them had been shot by members of the British army’s Parachute Regiment who were situated in the Henry Taggart hall.
She found the use of force was “clearly disproportionate” and the deceased were unarmed and posing no threat.
“They were innocent people”, she said, and this was a “tragedy” for all their families.
In regard to the death of Mr Doherty on August 10th, the coroner found he had been killed by a soldier known to the inquest as M3 who had fired around the area of a barricade using a Sterling submachine gun after petrol bombs were thrown at the barricade, hitting Mr Doherty.
The coroner said Mr Doherty had been “an innocent man who posed no threat” and who was on the street when he “came across all of this on his way home”.
While the coroner said she was satisfied M3 did hold an “honest and reasonable belief his life was in danger” due to the presence of the petrol bomber, his actions went beyond that and his use of force was “disproportionate” to the risk posed to him.
Of Mr Laverty, who was shot and killed on August 11th and Mr Corr, who was shot on the same morning but died on August 27th, the coroner found that there was “no suggestion” they had been shot by anyone other than members of the Parachute Regiment.
Both were “shot in the back while either crouching, crawling or prone”, she found. It was “wrong”, she said, that these men had been described as gunmen and “these rumours should be dispelled”.
She said the investigation into their deaths at the time had been “failed and inadequate” and highlighted a “serious failing”. Because they had not been properly investigated at the time, she said, “valuable contemporaneous evidence” was lost.
Considering Mr McKerr, who was shot on August 11th and died of his wounds on August 20th, the coroner had “no hesitation in stating Mr McKerr was an entirely innocent man who was going to or from work when he was indiscriminately shot on the street.
“There is no evidence to say he was armed or behaving in anything other than a normal way,” she said.
Mrs Justice Keegan delivered her findings from the inquests at the temporary “Nightingale” Lagan Coroner’s Court based in the International Convention Centre in Belfast on Tuesday.
After the verdict relatives of the victims described their joy and relief that their loved ones names had been cleared, but said they should never have had to go to court to establish their innocence.
“I can’t believe that after campaigning for 22 years we finally had someone that actually looked at the evidence and came to the conclusion she [the coroner] did, said Carmel Quinn, the sister of John Laverty.
“We always knew the truth, now someone’s actually acknowledged it.”
“It’s one thing our families giving our side and insisting that these people were not gunmen and gunmen but whenever the official record is saying it, it’s vindication,” said Ms Quinn’s daughter Mary Kate.
“It puts a smile on your face, because yes, we were telling the truth, and now it’s been proved.”
“There is a sense of relief,” said Maura McGee, the daughter of Joan Connolly, “but we were expecting her to be declared innocent. We always knew she was innocent – we always knew they were all innocent.”
“The coroner couldn’t have been any clearer, but for 50 years we had to wait to hear a judge say that, it could have been said years and years ago,” said her sister Breidge Voyle.
For her, there are also unanswered questions: “They are now declared innocent, they were no threat to anybody, they used undue force, but why did they murder them in the first place, why?”
“We’ve waited a long time, 50 years is a long time to wait,” said Alice Harper, the daughter of Danny Teggart.
“We always knew they were innocent, but now it has been proven, and for what our family has been through, not just our family but all the families, I’m overwhelmed today.
“It’s just a relief now that we can shout from the rooftops that our daddy was innocent. They [the British army] branded them gunmen and gunwomen ... and for what they did to my daddy, they shot him 14 times, may God forgive them.”
The families’ solicitor, Pádraig Ó Muirigh, said they would take some time to reflect on the findings and to decide on the next steps. He said that while the coroner had not addressed the issue of prosecutions, she had the power to forward a file to prosecutors, and the families would also consider whether this was an avenue they wished to pursue.
Some of the families of those killed have said they intend to seek accountability for their loved ones’ deaths, while others are satisfied that they have been declared innocent. Some still have questions for which they are seeking answers, while others point out that the inquests were unable to uncover the identities of many soldiers, who therefore could not face prosecution. However, Mr Ó Muirigh said that the coroner had severely criticised the British army’s conduct in Ballymurphy on August 9-11th, “and that’s a matter the families may pursue. “We have also commenced civil proceedings against the Ministry of Defence and will be pursuing that in the coming weeks and months,” he said.
The original inquests, in 1972, returned “open” verdicts. Following a campaign by the victims’ families, the North’s attorney general granted a request for fresh inquests in 2011.
The new inquests opened in November 2018 and concluded in March 2020 after hearing more than 100 days of evidence.
Eyewitnesses, forensic experts, the former Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams and more than 60 former soldiers – including the former head of the British army General Sir Mike Jackson – were among those who gave evidence.