Families outside court at the inquest today. Cate McCurry/PA Images
Ballymurphy Massacre

Inquest opens into the deaths of 10 people shot by British soldiers in August 1971

A fresh inquest into the deaths was ordered in 2011.

THE INQUEST HAS opened in Belfast into the deaths of 10 people shot dead by British soldiers almost five decades ago.

Scores of relatives packed into the public gallery of court 12 at Laganside Court Complex to hear the opening into the case which has become known as the Ballymurphy Massacre.

Those who died over three days in west Belfast between 9-11 August 1971, were: Francis Quinn, 19, Father Hugh Mullan, 38, Noel Phillips, 20, Joan Connolly, 50, Daniel Teggart, 44, Joseph Murphy, 41, Edward Doherty, 28, John Laverty, 20, Joseph Corr, 43 and John McKerr, 49.

Barrister Sean Doran QC, representing the Coroner’s Service, told the inquest: “By any standards, the task facing this inquest is complicated and difficult.”

He told Coroner Mrs Justice Keegan that the deaths followed 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 Operation Demetrius.

The inquest heard that the then Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Brian Faulkner, met with the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Ted Heath and a number of his ministers, on 5 August 1971 to inform him that he was introducing internment under the Special Powers Act of 1922.

During the meeting, Heath is said to have told Faulkner that he would provide the appropriate “military support” for Operation Demetrius which was to arrest paramilitary suspects and detain them without trial.

“The operation commenced at 4am on 9 August 1971 and involved large numbers of British soldiers going directly to the homes of those targeted and to carry out arrests,” said Doran.

Those arrested were subsequently taken to a holding centre in Girdwood Barracks across the city in north Belfast.

The QC said that following the large-scale arrests, there was “widespread civil disorder and rioting across Belfast and Northern Ireland”.

Doran referred to records kept by the Royal Ulster Constabulary which showed the extent of the violence on 9 August 1971: 12 explosions; 59 shooting incidents; 17 reported deaths; 25 reported injuries; 13 incidents of rioting; and 18 reported incidents of arson.

The senior counsel told Mrs Justice Keegan that the 10 deaths took place during five separate shooting incidents over a three-day period in west Belfast.

At the time the Army said those killed were either IRA gunmen, or caught in the crossfire between soldiers and gunmen.

In statements, soldiers who were members of the 1st Battalion, C Company of the Parachute Regiment, claimed that at least one of those firing shots at them was a woman.

The inquest heard that in the case of Fr Hugh Mullan, he was shot dead while carrying out his “spiritual duties”.

The court was told he went to tend to a man, Robert Clark, who was found shot and injured on waste ground.

Doran said that as Fr Mullan moved across the waste ground he was waving a “white handkerchief above his head” before he was “fatally wounded”.

A post-mortem carried out on Fr Mullan revealed that he died from “multiple lacerations to the chest and abdomen”.

The original inquest was held into the ten deaths in 1972 but in 2011, the Attorney General for Northern Ireland John Larkin QC ordered a fresh inquest following a campaign by the families.

Mr Doran QC said today that some witnesses, both civilian and military, would be called to give evidence in court, but other witnesses could not be traced or were now deceased.

“The difficulties facing the coroner have also been exacerbated by the loss of records,” he added.

He told Mrs Justice Keegan, who is sitting alone without a jury, that this referred to missing records originally held by the Ministry of Defence into the deaths.

The inquest is expected to last up up to six months.