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Ballymurphy inquests: Use of lethal force by British Army in 1971 shootings 'not justified', coroner rules

The shooting of 10 people over three days in west Belfast in 1971 has become known as the Ballymurphy Massacre.

Families arriving at the the International Convention Centre in Belfast.
Families arriving at the the International Convention Centre in Belfast.
Image: PA Images

Updated May 11th 2021, 2:40 PM

AN INQUEST INTO the shooting dead of 10 people in west Belfast almost 50 years has found that the people killed were “entirely innocent”.

The events over three days in August 1971 have become known as the Ballymurphy Massacre.

Coroner Mrs Justice Siobhan Keegan attributed nine of the ten shootings to the British Army and said the use of lethal force by soldiers was not justified.

A solicitor who represents the Ballymurphy families said they have instigated civil proceedings against the Ministry of Defence.

There were jubilant scenes outside Belfast’s International Convention Centre today after the verdicts were read out. 

“We have fought long and hard for this, for 50 years, to declare my daddy an innocent man,” Eileen McKeown, the daughter of Joseph Carr told reporters.  

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Original inquests into the Ballymurphy deaths in 1972 returned open verdicts and the bereaved families subsequently pursued a long campaign for fresh probes to be held.

Fresh inquests into the deaths began in 2018, with the final oral evidence heard last March.

The verdict was read today by coroner Mrs Justice Siobahn Keegan and focused on five separate incidents with family members applauding at several points during the ruling. 

Incident one

In respect of the first incident, the coroner said Fr Hugh Mullan and Frank Quinn were killed by shots fired by soldiers and that the force used was not justified.

She said she was satisfied both entered the field to assist an injured man.

While the coroner said there was evidence of a small number of IRA gunmen in the wider area on the day, she said this did not apply to the waste ground when the men were shot.

She said neither man was armed and they were not in the vicinity of someone with a gun.

Mrs Justice Keegan said there was evidence that the priest had been waving a white item, either a handkerchief or T-shirt.

She said the use of force used by the Army was disproportionate in the circumstances, further noting the soldiers were firing from protected positions from a long distance away and the fact there were many civilians in the field fleeing from violence that was unfolding elsewhere.

She said the state had failed to demonstrate that its use of force had been justified.

The coroner also rejected a suggestion from the UK’s Ministry of Defence that the men may have been shot by a UVF sniper from the nearby Springmartin area.

Mrs Justice Keegan said she had been unable to identify which soldiers fired the fatal shots.

Incident two

In regard to incident two, Mrs Justice Keegan again found that the killings of Noel Philips, Joseph Murphy, Joan Connolly and Daniel Teggart were not justified.

She said the victims were “innocent” and unarmed.

“The Army had a duty to protect lives and minimise harm, and the use of force was clearly disproportionate,” she said.

In regard to Mr Teggart, she rejected an allegation from one military witness that ammunition was found in his pockets.

She said there was no evidence to suggest any of the deceased were linked to the IRA.

The coroner said there were IRA gunmen in the area at the time.

She said there had been a “basic inhumanity” in how long Mrs Connolly had been left to lie injured on the ground. However, she said she could not determine whether the delay in treatment had contributed to her death.

Mrs Justice Keegan also ruled out a theory that Mr Murphy had been shot again by soldiers when he was taken inside the hall.

The coroner said the four deceased had been killed by British soldiers shooting from the Henry Taggart Hall and she said ballistics evidence disproved that they had been shot by the UVF.

She said she could not determine who fired the shots, other than they were members of the Parachute Regiment stationed at the Henry Taggart Hall.

Third incident

In the third incident, the coroner ruled the use of force in shooting Eddie Doherty was disproportionate.

She also rejected claims that Mr Doherty had been throwing petrol bombs at the time.

“He was an innocent man who posed no threat,” she said.

The soldier who fired the shot that killed him was in a tractor that was attempting to clear the barricade.

The coroner said she accepted that at least two petrol bombs had been thrown at the tractor and that the soldier inside would have held an honest belief that his life was in danger, and was justified in using some force as a consequence.

But she said his actions went beyond that.

“On any reading he acted in contravention of the Yellow Card (Army’s rules of engagement),” she said.

The coroner added: “The use of force was disproportionate to the risk posed to him.”

Incident four

On the fourth incident, the coroner said the military had failed to establish an adequate justification for the use of lethal force in killing Joseph Corr and John Laverty.

She concluded they were shot by the British Army and there was no evidence that they could have been shot by anyone else.

The coroner rejected claims the men were gunmen who had been firing at soldiers.

“There is no evidence that guns were found on or near any of these two men,” she said.

The coroner added: “It was wrong to describe these two men as gunmen and that rumour should be dispelled.”

The coroner also raised concerns about “serious failings” in military testimony provided in respect of the shootings.

Incident five

In the fifth incident, the coroner said John McKerr was an entirely innocent man.

However, she said there was not enough evidence for her to determine where the shot that killed him came from, or whether it was fired by the military or paramilitaries.

“It is impossible to say where shot may have come from,” she said.

“The evidence is not consistent and clear in this case.”

The coroner said it was “shocking” there was no adequate investigation of the killing afterwards.

She added: “I have no hesitation in stating that Mr McKerr was an entirely innocent man.”

The coroner said he was “shot indiscriminately on the street”.

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She noted that Mr McKerr was a “proud military man” and claims he was associated with the IRA had caused great pain for his family in the five decades since.

“I can allay that rumour and suspicion once and for all,” she said.

Internment

The shootings occurred during a period of civil unrest across Belfast and Northern Ireland following the introduction of internment in the early hours of 9 August 1971, which was codenamed by the British Army as Operation Demetrius.

Violence erupted as British soldiers moved into republican areas to detain people they claimed were IRA suspects. 

The families of those killed contend they were innocent, unarmed civilians shot by soldiers without justification, among them were a mother of eight and a Catholic priest.

Families of those killed are due to speaking outside the Waterfront Hall this afternoon. 

Responding to the findings, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney described the ruling as “historic” and said that all bereaved families an must have access to “an effective investigation and to a process of justice”.

“The principal findings have cast a tremendous new light on one of the darkest pages of the history of the conflict, and will come as an immense relief and vindication for the families who have maintained for decades that their loved ones were innocent and their killings unjustified,” he said.  

“Today’s historic developments wouldn’t have been possible without the determined campaign by the families of those killed in Ballymurphy for the truth of what took place in those terrible days in August 1971.”

Every family bereaved in the conflict must have access to an effective investigation and to a process of justice regardless of the perpetrator. All victims’ families deserve support in securing all the information possible about what happened to their loved ones. 

He added: “Only through a collective approach can we hope to deal with these issues comprehensively and fairly, and in a way that responds to the needs of victims and survivors, and society as a whole.”

Tweeting following the verdict, Sinn Fein’s Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said: “The victims and the families of the Ballymurphy Massacre have been vindicated and the truth laid bare. This was British state murder.” 

Alliance Party Justice Minister Naomi Long said: 

“The Ballymurphy families have had battle too hard and too long to finally hear that truth at today’s inquest ruling into their loved ones’ deaths. They have carried themselves with courage and fortitude throughout the last 50 years. This is vindication of their fight.”

- With reporting by Rónán Duffy

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