The Ballymurphy Verdict Exposes the Reality of State Violence

Yesterday, an inquest found that 10 people killed by the British Army in Belfast in 1971 were 'entirely innocent.' The decision exposes one 50-year cover-up of state violence – and raises questions about many others.

Those who don’t believe in coincidences raised more than an eyebrow as the ten Ballymurphy Inquest verdicts were announced in Belfast – shortly before the Queen outlined London’s plans for British military immunity from prosecution at Westminster.

Within a couple of hours, one arm of the state (the judiciary) judged members of a second arm (the British Army) culpable in the taking of ten innocent lives – even as a third arm (the government) promised the perpetrators immunity from prosecution.

Watching this unlovely spectacle are not only the ten families who were finally vindicated through the Ballymurphy inquest, but hundreds of others in the long queue for truth about how and why their loved ones were killed during the conflict.

On one thing, all sides agree: the current ad-hoc, piecemeal process that has grown—mainly in the courts, while London dithers over what mechanism it will implement—is blatantly unfair, and will fail either to lay the past to rest or build reconciliation.

Not a single participant in the conflict—loyalist, republican, political, or military—believes the current mechanisms for investigating the past are balanced or fair. All sides broke human rights principles, now all sides should be held accountable.

No fewer than three hard-won agreements over the past 20 years have been brokered to investigate Northern Ireland’s past. Public consultations have come and gone. On each occasion, London has broken its commitments – further souring community relations.

London’s often expressed wish to ‘look forward’, to quote the Secretary of State Brandon Lewis this week, rather than cast an eye back on its own squalid record, is unsurprising. Possibly, of all sides to the conflict, it has most to hide.

The current government’s self-serving emphasis on reconciliation relegates the equally vital ingredient of a robust investigatory mechanism to the second division. So it cannot work.

There may be an argument for a form of limited immunity from prosecution, provided there is a parallel process of an independent, fully-resourced investigation in which bereaved families can have confidence.

But one thing is sure: without an agreed investigative process, there absolutely no chance of reconciliation.

Avoiding Justice

The Black Lives Matter movement in the US took to the streets last summer with the mantra: ‘No justice, no peace.’ That could be said to apply equally in post-conflict Northern Ireland where the toxic legacy of the past continues to poison the present and the future.

What British audiences and readers rarely see is the suffering being endured by bereaved families in Northern Ireland. They are forced to watch and wait as successive governments in London twist and turn with only one apparent aim in mind – ensuring their armed forces and security apparatus emerge with their reputations intact.

The military wing of the Conservative Party, seemingly in a constant ascendancy, instead chooses to ignore its own egregious failings.

Until 1973, soldiers who shot civilians in Northern Ireland were not interviewed by police but by fellow members of the British Army (the Royal Military Police, or RMP). These ‘tea and sandwich’ interviews were the sole investigation into such killings.

Just this month, a High Court judge in a legal action unrelated to Ballymurphy called this ‘appalling’. It meant families who lost loved ones were not accorded the basic right of a police investigation.

This follows an earlier judgement in the case of a Derry mother of six (shot dead by soldiers in her back garden) which found that the Chief Constable of the RUC had no right to abdicate his responsibility to investigate as he was legally required.

A report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and judgements from the European Court of Human Rights have all also confirmed military killings were not investigated as legally required between 1970 and 1973.

In 1974, declassified documents found in the British National Archives reveal the Attorney General was still assuring senior British Army officers that the Director of Public Prosecutions would be ‘sympathetic’ and ‘understanding’ when deciding whether to prosecute soldiers.

Now, decades later, veterans’ groups and former British Army top brass are claiming families seeking justice are engaged in a ‘witch hunt’. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The families are not, in fact, demanding a re-investigation of cold cases, but seeking what has been denied them for decades – their rights under Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

Although over 300 people were shot dead by the British Army during the Northern Ireland conflict, only four British soldiers have ever been convicted of murder (and one murder conviction was overturned on appeal).

All four were freed after just five years of their life sentences through the use of the ‘Royal Prerogative of Mercy’. All were allowed to re-join the British army. No other member of NATO allows convicted murderers to join, much less re-join, its armed forces.

After Ballymurphy

In the case of the Ballymurphy Massacre, the ten families have been forced to fight for very nearly five decades against a seemingly impenetrable wall of obfuscation, lies, and official indifference.

Those who ‘posed no risk’, were ‘innocent’ and ‘unarmed’, according to the coroner, Siobhan Keegan QC, were:

  • Father Hugh Mullan (38): a Catholic priest shot dead as he went to give the last rites to a critically wounded man. He had phoned the local army unit to inform them of his intention and was waving a white flag.
  • Frances Quinn (19): a window cleaner, married with one daughter. He was the first to be shot over the three days of the massacre in Ballymurphy.
  • Joan Connolly (44): a mother of eight whose eldest daughter married a British soldier. She bled to death after being shot in the head – ‘left to die in a field’, as one of her daughters, Briege Voyle, said.
  • Daniel Teggart (44): a father of 13 chidren. When his daughter went to the local army base to ask for information she was told by soldiers they ‘hadn’t time for arrests… only killing.’
  • Noel Phillips (19): his mother, once a happy-go-lucky woman, ‘went to pieces’ and was never the same after losing her son.
  • Joseph Murphy (41): a father of 12, whose own father had served in the British Army and who worked as a rag and bone man.
  • Eddie Doherty (31): a former member of the Royal Engineers who later joined the Territorial Army. The coroner said the use of force was disproportionate.
  • Joseph Corr (43): a machinist in the Shorts aircraft factory. After the Army said he was an IRA gunman, his family got hate mail from his former colleagues. They were in the process of emigrating to Australia.
  • John Laverty (20): he was named after his uncle, who had fought in World War II. He worked for the Belfast Corporation and was shot in the back and killed.
  • John McKerr (49): a former member of the British Army, injured in World War II. He had a prosthetic hand, which, the coroner said, might have been mistaken for a gun. He was not acting in any suspicious way when he was shot ‘indiscriminately’ on the street. It was shocking there was no real investigation into his death.

The Ballymurphy families, in showing how determined, sustained campaigning can eventually lead to at least some truth and justice, have exposed London’s weakness.

Many promised inquiries have yet to begin, including dozens of inquests already ordered by the Attorney General for Northern Ireland, while others are well down the pipeline, including:

  • A police-led inquiry into police handling of the IRA double agent known as ‘Stakeknife’.
  • A review into the 120+ killings in the Glenanne series of murders involving collusion between state forces and loyalist paramilitaries, which has already been established by The Pat Finucane Centre (the same murders are also the subject of a Police Ombudsman inquiry, now running for five years).
  • An inquest into the IRA killings of 10 Protestant workmen at Kingsmills in County Armagh.
  • A court-ordered independent inquiry into the murder of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane.
  • Police Ombudsman inquiries into murders at Sean Graham’s bookies shop in South Belfast and a series of loyalist murders in north County Derry.
  • PSNI inquiries into murders allegedly carried out by undercover British Army soldiers in the 1970s

It’s clear, therefore, that although the British government appears committed to tying a legal ligature around the necks of bereaved families, they—along with the human rights groups and victims’ campaigners who support them—will fight on through to get to the truth, however long it takes.

London may wriggle and squirm to avoid responsibility for its past role in Northern Ireland, but it cannot deny families and avoid the truth forever.