Coroner declares victims in 1971 Belfast shooting innocent

Published May 12, 2021
Families of the victims react following the verdict into the Ballymurphy inquest at Waterfront Hall in Belfast on May 11. - AFP
Families of the victims react following the verdict into the Ballymurphy inquest at Waterfront Hall in Belfast on May 11. - AFP

BELFAST: British soldiers used “clearly disproportionate” force during violence in Northern Ireland that saw 10 civilians shot dead in 1971, a coroner ruled on Tuesday, finding the victims all innocent of any crimes.

The finding into the deaths in Ballymurphy, west Belfast, over three days in August 1971 were met with applause and tears from family members.

The UK government, however, remains determined to end “vexatious” prosecutions of any army personnel accused of wrongful deaths in past conflicts, and said it would soon introduce new legislation covering the legacy of the Northern Ireland unrest.

The legislation will inflame tensions in Northern Ireland after fresh violence in recent weeks since the UK quit the European Union, a move which left the province in a half-way house between its markets in mainland Britain and in Ireland.

The UK govt, however, remains determined to end ‘vexatious’ prosecutions of army personnel

Mary Lou McDonald, president of the nationalist party Sinn Fein, said the inquest ruling was a “vindication” of a long campaign by the families of the Ballymurphy dead, who included a priest and a mother of eight children.

But she added: “Today will be bittersweet as the British government confirms that they will now attempt to block the families from getting justice, in defiance of an international agreement signed with the Irish government on dealing with the past.” The 10 people were killed at the height of “The Troubles”, a sectarian conflict over British rule in Northern Ireland which raged over three decades until 1998.

The inquest found that all but one were shot by British soldiers, at a time when tensions were acute just after the authorities had introduced internment without trial of suspected paramilitaries.

“All of the deceased in this series of inquests were entirely innocent of any wrongdoing,” the coroner, Judge Siobhan Keegan, told a hearing lasting over three hours.

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

In one case, Keegan said she could not make a “definitive finding” over who fired the fatal shot but described “the inadequacy of the original investigation as shocking”.

The inquest began in November 2018 after original investigations recorded an open verdict and did not apportion blame.

Records from the time that could have identified the soldiers involved were lost, Keegan noted.

She split the 10 deaths into five investigations and delivered various verdicts including that there was “no convincing evidence... to justify the shooting of the deceased” and “no justification provided by the army”.

Dozens of relatives were present at the court, many clutching pictures of their loved ones and wearing T-shirts bearing their portraits.

Published in Dawn, May 12th, 2021

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