The Ballymurphy and Loughlinisland Massacres have both recently been the subject of critically acclaimed documentaries. Here, Aódhan Donnelly takes a look at the role of the state in both massacres and what light that sheds on why the state continues to deny justice to victims.
Last month, the PSNI arrested two award winning Belfast journalists—Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey— who were involved in the making of the documentary No Stone Unturned, which examined claims of state collusion in the Loughinisland massacre in 1994. The film detailed brazen collusion between the British state and loyalist paramilitary death squads in the murder and subsequent cover-up of six innocent men in the Heights Bar of Loughinisland.
One of the victim’s family members recounted having been told by an RUC officer that no stone would be left unturned in the Loughinisland investigation but the reality was much to the contrary, as the Fine Point Films documentary showed. Material uncovered by journalists such as Birney and McCaffery showed clear aiding and abetting between the state and loyalist terrorist organisations. Had the state had been a true impartial actor and indeed left “no stone unturned”, the men who carried out the killings could have been apprehended, convicted and jailed. In fact, the RUC destroyed incriminating documents pertaining to the investigation, including transcripts of interviews with suspects, and the getaway car that had been found completely intact.
The journalists’ arrests would appear to have been sent as a message: expose state complicity in historical crimes, or contradict official narratives, and there will be consequences.
The establishment narrative in question selectively ignores and denies the role played by the state during the Troubles. It promotes a version of events whereby the violence was the result of a religious conflict between two communities. It is well known and documented, not only in No Stone Unturned, but also civilian witness accounts of key events of the Troubles and the work of local historians, that this is some way from the truth, and that the state played a much more nefarious role.
Some of the forces deployed to the North in the early stages of the conflict were the very same that had been inflicted on insurgencies in Kenya and Malaya, namely the Parachute Regiment. The lasting impact of British tactics are still felt, as recent home grown Kenyan parachute regiments trained by British forces are reported to have an approach to counter-insurgency which is “strikingly reminiscent of the British in their brutal suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s”. Accusations of abuse and torture in that particular British ‘counter-insurgency campaign’ were widely publicised during the 1950s. Then, just years before similar troops were deployed to the North, the British establishment response to torture claims was “to issue official denials, and when prosecutions arose, the perpetrators were blanket characterised as pathological, and their behaviour was presented as isolated”.
Immediately following the introduction of internment without trial in the North in 1971, the Parachute Regiment, known commonly as the “paras”, were deployed into the largely Catholic area of Ballymurphy in Belfast. They claim to have been shot upon and went on to leave 11 dead on the streets of Ballymurphy, all purported by the soldiers present to be Republican gunmen. General Michael Jackson, who later become the head of the British Army and was adorned by all manor of accolades, from GCB to CBE, gave the official state account of events but it was and remains vehemently disputed by the Ballymurphy Families Campaign and civilian eyewitness accounts. The campaign has called for an inquest into the killing spree but has been denied by the state and in particular, a recent decision by Arlene Foster to defer funding for historical inquiries, in a move condemned by Amnesty International and dubbed ‘unlawful and procedurally flawed’ by the High Court. An inquest date was finally announced for September 2018 but is yet to begin.
The Role of the Paras
The recent Channel 4 documentary, Massacre at Ballymurphy, showed not only the cover up of the massacre, but the manner in which it was eerily similar to what happened in Derry only months later on Bloody Sunday, when 14 died at the hands of the same Parachute Regiment, with the same Michael Jackson present on the day. This clearly exposes a contradiction with the state’s official narrative that was given by the Saville Enquiry, which was similar in nature to that fed by the state in the aftermath of the Mau Mau rebellion —that those responsible for Bloody Sunday were a few bad eggs and that the “United Kingdom and Northern Ireland governments and the army neither tolerated nor encouraged the use of unjustified lethal force.” The state’s involvement and handling of Ballymurphy very much indicates a culture of accepting unjustified force. Westminster was already well aware of the consequences of sending the British Army’s most elite killers to police civilians when they set them on the civil rights march of 30 January 1972 in the Bogside area of Derry.
The soldiers from that very same unit (the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment) went on to shoot dead two Protestant civilians from the Shankill Road in September 1972. There had been riots on the Shankill that day but all the civilian evidence was that calm had been restored by the time the Paras moved in, yet Ritchie McKinney and Robert Johnston were murdered. Ritchie was killed driving down Matchett street and Robert while walking home near the Berlin-Weir Street junction. Locals described Robert as ‘a totally harmless man’ and witnesses heard him shout, “The meek shall inherit the Earth” before a single gunshot silenced him forever.
Once again, in the inquest that followed which ruled the killings unjustified, the victims of the Paras extrajudicial violence were labelled violent gunmen by the army, though here they defended the soldiers by claiming their acts were in self-defence.
Lack of Investigation
The state has also refused to ever carry out a full investigation into the Kingsmill massacre. The sole survivor, Alan Black, recounted how on occasion after occasion, he would ask about the investigation, only to be told that “there was a fire, and files were lost. Then there was flooding, and files were lost. Then there was asbestos contamination, and files were lost.” At least one of the men who carried out the shootings was an informer for the state. As such, the state has the names of the perpetrators. As, according to his own accounts, does Alan Black who claims they were “people known within the local community”. The state has refused to disclose the information, hindering those like Alan who continue to seek justice.
And so it’s clear that when looking at the collusive role of the state, that we cannot only focus on collusion with Loyalist paramilitaries, thought undoubtedly that is where the majority of collusion took place. Moreover, the state cannot be relied upon to impartially judge crimes that it is complicit in.
What is clear, too, is that we need an alternative to the right-wing DUP/Tory alliance which has been an adversary to justice. That alternative has to be one which paves the way for the kind of society which fights for justice, but also relegates imperial interests and the deaths that incurs, in the gutter of history. Earlier this year, workers from the Falls and Shankill Roads marched together in solidarity to protect their jobs in the local leisure centre; it is in this vein—in the spirit of the United Workers Belfast strikes in 1932, when Catholics and Protestants marched together—that we can really challenge the system that creates victims. Through this kind of working-class unity, we have the opportunity to enact genuine social change.