Fresh inquests into the Ballymurphy Massacre of 1971 are ongoing. Journalist Kelly McAllister, who is active in the Ballymurphy Massacre Campaign, gives a report of events so far and explains why justice is just as important today as it was 47 years ago.
It was almost 50 years ago when the original inquests were held into the fatal shooting of ten civilians during a British Army operation in West Belfast in August 1971. Essentially a whitewash, each one was carried out in a single day and resulted in an open verdict. The victims’ families were left to grieve for their loved ones with an added burden of not having the truth about the circumstances surrounding their deaths acknowledged.
Over a three-day massacre, nine men and a woman were shot dead by members of the British army’s 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment – a regiment regarded as one of the most elite units in the world, trained for high intensity warfare and with the motto “Ready for Anything”. In 1971, the paras were let loose in the small West Belfast estate of Ballymurphy and ten civilians were mercilessly gunned down. The victims were defenceless against their killers, yet the dead were labelled as terrorists.
Mike Jackson and the Media
During the massacre, the then army captain Mike Jackson spun the narrative of a fierce gun battle between his men and the IRA in Ballymurphy. In his autobiography Jackson recalls being present in Ballymurphy during the shootings but insists that he was busy “dealing with the press” at the time. The same press were led to believe that the deceased were understood by the army to be gunmen, a gunwoman, petrol bombers or innocents caught in the crossfire of the non-existent raging gun battle between the army and the IRA.
For too long Jackson’s narrative was accepted and in the same way that the murder of the innocent civilians was painted as heroic, Jackson was regarded as such. As the victims’ families struggled to come to terms with the brutal murder of their loved ones, Jackson was celebrated, promoted to general and knighted by the Queen.
Despite witness accounts disproving their story, the parachute regiment were able to escape justice. They travelled up to Derry six months later and killed thirteen innocent people on Bloody Sunday. Once again Mike Jackson was the man in charge on the day.
The media’s story and headlines played a huge role in shaping how the events during those three days were perceived. In Callum McRae’s recent channel 4 documentary on the massacre, Briege Voyle – whose mother was killed during the massacre – admitted that when she later started work, she would tell people that her mother died in a car crash, out of fear that they would think that she was the daughter of an IRA gunwoman.
Nine weeks ago, 46 years since the original investigations, fresh inquests into the Ballymurphy shootings began. In courtroom 12 of the Laganside court, Belfast, a packed public gallery listened as graphic details of the events of the massacre were outlined.
It was clear from that first day that the original inquests were a farce. It was stated by council for the coroner that in today’s terms, it is inconceivable that any of the inquests could be held in a single day. The Royal Military Police who were responsible for investigating British army related incidents, failed at the time to take eye witness statements and missed forensic opportunities.
In the 47 years since the massacre, the victims’ families have faced many obstacles during their pursuit for truth and justice. When their loved ones were killed and labelled terrorists it was accepted, despite no evidence ever being found to support these claims. It was only after decades of campaigning for renewed inquests that their voices were finally heard. They have been given a chance to correct history.
The Painful Pursuit of Justice
Their statements told of the impact the deaths had on the family and how it was worsened when their loved one’s names were blackened in a cruel attempt to cover up the truth.
Eyewitness accounts have also been relayed to the inquest and families have heard how the victims were brutalised and treated “like animals”.
Medical reports were read out that confirmed that despite each victim being swabbed for the presence of lead at the time, none was found that was consistent with firing a weapon.
So far, inquests into the deaths of two of the victims, Eddie Doherty (31) and John Mc Kerr (49) have been completed, but the families still have a long road ahead of them. They fought for decades to get to this point and they understand that this is only the beginning in the new struggle for truth.
They have fought so long and hard, and the resulting inquest is so important because the likes of Briege Voyle should never have had to feel shame about her mother’s death but did because of the lies that Mike Jackson disseminated to the press, and the cover-ups from the British Army hierarchy which have gone on for decades.
It is important, too, for the family of Joseph Corr (43), who received hate mail believed to be from his colleagues, in the aftermath of his death because he was wrongly labelled a gunman.
For my grandfather Joseph Murphy (41), who told his family on his deathbed that he was shot and tortured in the army barracks, but died before any investigation was ever carried out. It wasn’t until 2015 that his body was exhumed and the bullet was found. The bullet that corroborated his claims of being subject to brutality at the hands of the British army.
For Father Hugh Mullan (38) who went to the aid of a wounded man whilst waving a white baby-grow to appeal to the army not to shoot, and who never returned home.
For victims Francis Quinn (19), Joan Connolly (50), Daniel Teggart (44), Noel Phillips (20), Edward Doherty (31), John McKerr (49), John Laverty (20) and Paddy McCarthy (44).
For the 57 children left without a parent, knowing that the killers were being protected by lies, cover-ups and procrastination by the state, and for the victims that were to come after those during the Ballymurphy massacre.
After 47 years the Ballymurphy families have embraced the recent developments in their pursuit of truth. In 1971 their loved ones were depicted as guilty and those who massacred them were regarded heroes. Now it is time for the British government to face up to its responsibilities. The time has come for history to be corrected.
Although reliving the painful memories all over again is difficult, the families are ready for the truth and it is vital that after all this time they finally hear it, and justice is done.