The Irish Times view on the Ballymurphy killings: a searing indictment

Long-awaited vindication for families bereaved by the 1971 atrocity should give hope to others who seek answers of their own

Joseph Murphy’s family cheer after the inquest found that 10 people killed in west Belfast almost 50 years ago in the wake of an Army operation were “entirely innocent”. Photograph: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

Joseph Murphy’s family cheer after the inquest found that 10 people killed in west Belfast almost 50 years ago in the wake of an Army operation were “entirely innocent”. Photograph: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

 

There could scarcely be a more searing indictment of the actions of the British soldiers who killed at least nine unarmed civilians in Ballymurphy, west Belfast, in 1971 – nor a more eloquent vindication of the long struggle for justice by relatives of the murdered – than the official findings of the inquest that revisited this deplorable atrocity. It should never have taken this long to establish the circumstances of the killings, which occurred amid violent unrest in the chaotic days after the introduction of internment without trial in Northern Ireland. That families had to wait half a century to hear the British state confirm what they had known all along – that the dead were innocent – compounded the hurt. At least now the official record has been corrected, and unambiguously.

The 10 victims posed no threat to soldiers, Mrs Justice Siobhán Keegan of the Northern Ireland High Court concluded, dismissing claims by soldiers that some of the dead had been armed and shooting. She found that nine out of 10 were shot by the British army and the force used was either unjustified or disproportionate. In the 10th case, that of John James McKerr, Mrs Justice Keegan said the “shocking inadequacy” of the original investigation meant the evidence simply did not exist to allow her to determine on the balance of probabilities who was responsible. McKerr was “an entirely innocent man” who was going to or from work when he was shot on the street.

Fr Hugh Mullan, a parish priest, was hit by two bullets as he read the last rites to an injured man. He died alongside 19-year-old Francie Quinn. The only woman among the dead, 44-year-old Joan Connolly, likely lived for “tens of minutes” after being shot but died as a result of blood loss. The other victims – Daniel Teggart (44), Noel Phillips (19), Joseph Murphy (41), Edward Doherty (31), Joseph Corr (43) and John Laverty (20) – were also innocent, the coroner found.

The damning report shows how the authorities had little interest in establishing the truth at the time. In one case no contemporaneous statements were collected. When army witnesses appeared at this inquest, their general testimony was in contrast to the specific and detailed picture given by local eyewitnesses, the coroner noted.

To see the relief and the dignity of the Ballymurphy victims’ loved ones this week is to be reminded that terms such as “legacy investigations” or “historical crimes” do a disservice to families whose sense of loss and injustice is painfully current. Their vindication should give hope to others who seek answers of their own. It should also strengthen the resolve of the Government and the five main parties in the North to resist reported plans by the British government to unilaterally tear up previous agreements and introduce an amnesty for almost all alleged crimes committed as part of the Troubles.

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