Ballymurphy and the continuing search for a level playing field

‘You have to work out why they would point a gun at a priest or a young mother’

Pádraig Ó Muirigh was certain that his rugby days were finished on the morning that the Sunday World carried a front page story about the death threat. Beneath the headline was a close-up of his face framed by the sightlines of a gun. He was down in the clubhouse in St Gall's for a slow Sunday noontime pint when he saw the paper. It was disconcerting rather than upsetting. He imagined his family seeing it. And his friends. And then he thought of the rugby crowd at Cooke. He knew he would never be able to go back.

“I was sitting there feeling sorry for myself because of the rugby,” he tells you from his office on a rare morning of calm, laughing gently at the memory.

Ó Muirigh came to rugby when his Gaelic football career was winding down, for pure escapism. The elsewhere-element of the game had always fascinated him when he was a kid watching the Five Nations, as it was then, with his granddad in the living room in Bombay Street.

Cooke rugby club was a bastion of old Belfast; Ormeau Road, founded 1910, first-team players lost in both World Wars. When Ó Muirigh was a teenager he’d never have dreamt of walking into a world like that. But by the age of 30, he was ready to try it. “Rugby was a middle class, Protestant game but in professional life, you get this confidence,” he explains.


The club was predominantly Protestant and the culture steadfastly unionist. The first time he had ever had a constructive conversation with a Northern Ireland police officer was on his first day in the court room. The bailiff advised him to ask an arresting officer about his attitude to bail for a client. Ó Muirigh looked over to where the bailiff indicated and saw only the uniform, the aura.

“I can’t speak to him,” he protested. The bailiff looked at him in bafflement. What? You can’t speak to him? “He’s a cop!” Ó Muirigh hissed. The older man looked hard at him and said: “And you want to be a lawyer?”

Now here he was, years later, playing Saturday rugby with police officers and army guys and committed unionists. Nothing glamorous but the game mattered to them. In fact, it was all that mattered.

“I’m a GAA mon,” he’d announced in broad west Belfast vowels on that first night when he turned up unannounced after Googling training times. Shaw’s Bridge – he had trained a few times there with the Antrim footballers. And they told him that was no problem. Maybe it helped that he was handy because of the Gaelic – good hands and he could kick a penalty. But there was never any acrimony. They’d made him captain before he even fully understood the rules.

“The ref would ask, scrum or penalty, captain? And I’d sort of say, what do yez think boys?” The night of the first club dinner he attended, they’d printed a fancy itinerary and he saw the ceremonials included a toast to the Queen. Ó Muirigh had an out-of-body experience, seeing himself holding aloft the champagne glass, to Her Majesty. Who was he? How could he do this? Equally, who was he to object to something that had probably gone on for a hundred years?

Quietly, he took the president aside and said that when the toast took place, he would nip outside the room. He told one or two of the team of his plan, out of manners. A minute or two before the toast was held, Ó Muirigh made a subtle exit to the adjoining balcony. A few seconds later one of his team-mates appeared. Then another. Before the toast had started, more of the team stood with him on the balcony than in the room. “I didn’t ask for that or expect it. But they just said: we shouldn’t be doing this stuff. If we want to make people comfortable, we don’t need it. And the next year, they quietly dropped it.”

The rugby boys never asked him too many questions. They knew he was a solicitor. And when your name is Pádraig or Paddy, you don’t need to explain your background. But here was his life story, on all the news stands in the city. Death threat to Belfast solicitor representing loyalist families in a UVF/UDA feud.

The youngest son of Seán 'Spike' Murray, senior IRA strategist and former Long Kesh prisoner. Close relative of Dan McCann, one of the three republicans killed in Gibraltar in 1988. It was all out there. He accepted that he couldn't go back to the club. Why would they want him?

Witness stand

When General Sir Mike Jackson took the stand at the Ballymurphy inquest, he declined the anonymity of screening. It's a day that will always stand out for Ó Muirigh in the decade-long laborious quest to establish the innocence of those shot dead. Jackson walked in to the court room through a side door rather than the normal entrance which leads one past the area where the families sit. Ó Muirigh had immersed himself in Jackson's life, poring over his biography, military books and every article he could find. He prepared a file for Michael Mansfield QC, the crusading human rights barrister whom he had persuaded to work on the case.

“I had said to him I wanted him to take Jackson. And Michael was so relaxed that morning that I wondered for a second if he had actually read this file. When Jackson took the stand, you could sense the deference in the court room. You know, General Jackson is probably the most well-known British Army figure since the second World War. And Michael Mansfield did this thing where he stood up and turned to the families so he was facing them when he was speaking and not Jackson. The body language of that just amazed me. He made it clear that he was there to ask questions and not go softly. And my fears about his preparation quickly . . . evaporated.

“Unknown to me, Michael had got into court early that day. And he had placed Jackson’s biography in the witness stand as a prop he could use. So he asked opening questions – would you say the paratroopers went in hot and heavy or were aggressive? And he said, okay you’ll find a book in the stand. And you could see Jackson’s face and he sort of knew he was got. And Mansfield asked him to read from it. So all of these things he wasn’t sure about in the court he had said in the book. He was rattled. You could see the veins in his neck.

“And, for me, moments like that were very important for the Ballymurphy families. Because this was a level playing field, in a court of law. After years of feeling downtrodden. And you had Michael Mansfield, who himself comes from a military background . . . you have this man in a posh English voice delivering the way that he had for them. And it felt: yeah, we can hold people to account in a court of law. You are held accountable. You have to deal with the facts.”

‘While he’s in jail, I am your Da’

You could say that Pádraig Ó Muirigh's journey to that court room began long before he was born. His grandmother, Mary Fegan, was from Ballymurphy. She was a friend of Joan Connolly, one of 10 people shot dead by the paratroopers over the three numbing August days in 1971 that have travelled through the decades. An 11th person, Paddy McCarthy, a local community worker from England, also died after suffering a heart attack on the street when confronted by soldiers who allegedly performed a mock execution. He heard the stories as a child. But in Belfast, in the North, there were so many other stories that Ballymurphy became obscured for years.

Ó Muirigh was born in 1977; one of the generation of Belfast kids born into a city locked into an already hopelessly byzantine pattern of sectarian violence. His grandparents Molly and Paddy Murray lived on Kashmir Road, adjoining Bombay Street that was burnt in 1969. His father, hyper bright, was the first of the family to attend college: Queen's.

“But that didn’t last long because he got involved in the conflict and got arrested. My grandmother often talks about the lecturers coming to the house to plead with her to keep him in college.”

For six years Pádraig and his brother Seán visited their father in Long Kesh. In those times, Dan McCann, his father’s cousin, was the stand-in patriarch in the house. The boys spent a lot of time with their grandparents when their mother was working. Then, one day in March of 1988, Dan McCann’s name and photograph was all over the news: one of three Republicans killed in Gibraltar by the SAS.

“I had just turned 11,” Ó Muirigh says.

“And believe it or not, I was shocked he was in the IRA. Now, when I thought back it was quite obvious. For instance, we used to play football in Clonard monastery car park. If you know the geography you come down Clonard gardens from my grandmother’s to the butchers and as he came to the monastery he would come inside the wall. And obviously he was doing that to avoid being seen. I pieced all this together afterwards. My older brother was 10 months older than me and was a bit of an imp. And he once said to Dan: “You’re not my Da. And Dan said: ‘while he’s in jail, I am your Da’. He was just an uncle to us. But yeah that was a big moment in my life.”

By then, his father had been released. The boys pleaded with their parents to be allowed to go to the funerals in Milltown. At first, they were given a flat no. At the last minute, their parents relented. So they were at Milltown cemetery when a loyalist paramilitary, Michael Stone, attacked the mourners, killing three people and injuring over 60.

“There was an eerie silence that day. No police around. And I do remember adults saying, ‘there’s something not right’. ‘It doesn’t feel right’. There is a picture of my father carrying Dan’s coffin and Michael Stone is right next to it on the path. So unknown to us he was within a few feet of us at a few different times. And they were putting the other coffins down when the explosions went off. My father ran in the direction of it.”

They lost him in the confusion. By bleak coincidence one of the victims was named John Murray. Word got back to the house that their father had been killed so for a short while they feared the worst. Then, a few days later came the barbaric reprisal killings of two British corporals who had accidentally driven into the funeral procession of the Milltown victims.

“What happened then with the corporals . . . that was probably the worst time. Those few weeks felt different. It felt like the place was on the brink of something.”

Pure St Gall's

That’s a flavour of his childhood in Belfast. The city centre was out of bounds except for an occasional shopping trip. It would be wrong to say there was no fun or mischief. Just: it was a strange lens through which to view the world. He can’t remember ever speaking to a Protestant except the taunts thrown over the peace wall from outside his grandparents’ house on Bombay Street.

“But that was about curiosity more than anything else. Like where I grew up in Clonard there was nothing: no amenities. No parks or playgrounds. And there was one public phone box. So what we’d do is free-phone the police so you could throw stones when they’d come. But that wasn’t done out of hatred. It was for a bit of crack: for a chase.”

To keep them off the streets, Ó Muirigh and his friends were sent to play Gaelic games. His mother's uncle, Jim Phelan, had hurled for Antrim. His grandfather was pure St Gall's. He found himself on a mini-bus headed for football training. And through it all, something his grandmother had said lodged in his mind.

Molly Murray had a thing about the law and lawyers. All of those days visiting her son and attending court, of travelling to Long Kesh had made her realise something. These dull court rooms and legal offices was where progress and consequence happened. The lawyers had been good to her, asking after the family, offering her lifts to save her taking the bus. A lawyer seemed like a thing to become. She would sew little seeds to her grandson. ‘You should be a lawyer. Do law. You can help your community.’ It was nothing heavy. Just an idea.

“I was seven. I didn’t even really know what it meant.” But it stuck and years later after Ó Muirigh left school and was working and had started a family with Pauline, he decided to enrol in Open University, studying law at night and sitting the Institute exams at the end. He gathered experience with other firms before setting up his own practice on the Springfield Road.

The Ballymurphy families started their campaign for justice in 1998. It was 10 years later when Ó Muirigh began to represent them. “The campaign was calling for a public enquiry, which I felt wasn’t achievable because it was at the whim of the British Secretary of State. I felt the inquest route was the way to go. But even that was pie in the sky.”

‘One less mouth to feed’

They became akin to cold case investigators: studying old inquest papers, acquiring ballistics experts, mapping out the topography of the Ballymurphy estate as it had been that summer and, most of all, knocking on doors to gather, for the first time, eye-witness accounts of what people had seen. For Ó Muirigh the big task lay in convincing the families that the justice system had changed. This event had defined their lives. His office was like a drop-in centre: these were clients but family friends also. The kettle worked overtime. Five separate inquests had been held in 1972, a strategy, Ó Muirigh feels, designed to fragment the killings and present the illusion of unassociated events. At one of those original inquests, Bella Teggart, a mother of 13 children, whose husband Daniel was killed at Ballymurphy was told by the judge that now, she had "one less mouth to feed".

“You are better off,” he informed her.

Ó Muirigh can’t pretend he was shocked by what they discovered over the past decade.

“Well, the extent of the cover-up was quite damning. Was I surprised that the paratroopers could shoot innocent people and get away with it? I wasn’t. I have to be honest. I just felt my job was to try and prove that. What was different in this case was that you had a mother of eight, Joan Connolly, who was out looking for her daughter. You had the local priest shot dead. This was the big difference.

“What I wanted to try and do was understand how to young soldiers coming from working-class areas in Scotland, in Wales and England come into Belfast . . . and they don’t have horns on their heads, you know? You have to work out why they would point a gun at a priest or a young mother from the community – who they knew, by the way. And feel it was okay to do that. It came out in the inquest. And what I found and where the evidence took me was to the demonisation and vilification of that community. What people don’t realise is that you had dozens of others shot, including children. You had probably hundreds who were brutalised – their houses ransacked, beaten in the street, interned. So the physical violence was obvious. The other part of that triangle is structural violence.”

The coroner's verdict from the inquest, announced on May 11th, established the innocence of the victims and found that their deaths without justification. The initial relief of the families was tempered by the qualified apology offered by prime minister Boris Johnson. As a news story, Ballymurphy will fade. For Ó Muirigh the work goes on.

“In parallel with the inquest we had initiated civil proceedings against the Department of Defence. The other matter is the matter of prosecutions. The reality is that 50 years on, that is difficult. But it shouldn’t be in the purview of Boris Johnson and the Tory government to decide on that. It should be an independent prosecutor. There is an injustice if you don’t allow the process to play itself out.”

Royal Kerry boot

Somehow, through the nights of studying and the struggle to establish himself as a solicitor, Ó Muirigh persisted with sport. In Belfast's fiercely localised GAA community he had acquired the name of a sharp goalkeeper. PJ O'Hare had called him into the Antrim seniors when he was a teenager but he wasn't ready. Then, in 2002, Brian White phoned him just before the start of the league to invite him into the panel. Oh, and be ready to play on Sunday because Seán McGreevy might be sick and that they might need him for Kerry.

That was his debut. Kerry were GAA royalty in his mind. Watching Dublin-Kerry in 1984 with his grandfather was like an awakening. “My grandfather was the most pleasant man you could meet and the only time he shouted at me was when I wanted to support Kerry instead of Tyrone in 1986.”

Now, in February 2002, he was in Austin Stack Park in Tralee, watching the gods in their baggy jerseys warming up: Ó Cinnéide, Ó Sé, Moynihan, Crowley. Mike Frank Russell, the forward with the accountant's haircut and a rock god's soul, was a kind of idol. It finished 0-14 to 0-7. Ó Muirigh kept a clean sheet. At one stage he dived on a ball even as Russell went to fly-kick it home and discovered the acute pain of a royal Kerry boot meeting his tailbone. "You're a brave lad," Russell assured him as they left the field. "My arse was in that much pain I had to stand on the coach for the seven hours back to Belfast. But I'll take a kick from Mike Frank."

He played three seasons with Antrim and over a decade with St Gall’s, where he now coaches. He knows the potential for Gaelic games in Belfast is immense.

“There’s been an acknowledgement that Belfast was neglected that it was seen as the poor cousin. Clubs lose so many players from the age of 16 to 18. Some of the best I ever played with never played a senior game. Like, the greatest kid I played with in Gall’s ended up being knee-capped. For anti-social activities. And I know when we were going well in Gall’s, it was always club first. I don’t think it’s like that in Tyrone or Donegal.”

Heavy-duty work

Law and sport aren’t separate planets. Both involve people. The patterns are clear in his mind. Ó Muirigh is in his 40s now. The office hours are long and he often goes straight to the pitch to coach the under-15s. His legal life is always going to take him through intense cul de sacs of sorrow and violence. It can be heavy-duty work.

He has already spent years working on the 1975 death of Stephen Geddis, the 10-year-old who was the first and youngest person killed by a plastic bullet. You don't leave a story like this behind you in the office. Stephen was just weeks back home after a dream summer in South Dakota as part of summer programme. It was late August. His parents rarely allowed him out late but it was a gorgeous summer evening so they gave him a few minutes after nine. A riot flared. Shots were fired. At the original inquest, the Geddises were told: Your son should not have been out after nine.

“I could see the weight his parents carried when they walked in here. But the experience now for families going through an inquest is a world apart. Under Mrs Justice Keegan, everything is family centred.”

That inquest verdict is expected in late summer – too late for Mr Geddis.

He presses on. He did go back to Cooke Rugby Club. His fears in the St Gall’s clubhouse that day were misplaced. Before he had finished reading the article, his phone rang. It was one of his rugby team-mates. Everyone had seen the article. They were horrified that his life had been threatened. And they wanted him to know that they were with him. They’d see him at training. It was a call that meant a lot.

Pádraig Ó Muirigh is too clear-eyed and mature to ever be anything but realistic. But if his city and if Northern Ireland is to integrate in future generations, then he knows that sport is a good place to find common ground. And he is passionate in his belief that the courtroom offers the best opportunity for understanding, for both Catholics and Protestants, as to what was happening during those furious 30 years.

Pádraig and Pauline’s son Daniel is a law graduate currently working in the family practice. Their daughter Maria has just completed her law degree. Ó Muirigh gets emails from kids from both communities aspiring to do the same. And an unexpected thing has started to happen since the Ballymurphy verdict was announced.

“I’ve had emails from the strangest places,” he says. From people on the Shankill Road and other unionist quarters of the city.

“Just saying: thanks. That they always thought that Ballymurphy victims story was just propaganda but now they can see what really happened. Because the courtroom is neutral. It is evidence based. So maybe it can have a healing role. Maybe there will be other cases where RUC widows are outside a court saying: I want people to understand my loss. And that people in my community can then say, yeah: that is the same hurt. You were let down like we are. People think that if you draw a line on the past, then you get reconciliation. No. You need to go back and tell the truth. We live in a small place. And there are going to be painful days. But I don’t think we have an alternative.”

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times