Brian Feeney (for the Irish News)
Christopher Quinn was 39 when a British soldier killed him near his home in the Unity Flats complex at the junction of the Shankill Road and Carrick Hill in west Belfast.
He was a member of the St Patrick’s branch of the Catholic Ex-Servicemen’s Association (CESA) which performed unarmed vigilante duty at flashpoints mainly in Belfast.
It was November 1971, a dangerous time in a dangerous place. Unity Flats had been the target of sectarian attacks from the Shankill most notably August 2-4, 1969 when, in the words of the then Mr Justice Scarman, the flats were ‘besieged by a vast crowd’ from the Shankill. Since 1969 local men had guarded barricades at the entrances to the flats. CESA had tried to acquire licensed weapons by virtue of their service records in the British forces but the Unionist regime at Stormont and the RUC refused, though there was no problem with loyalist gun clubs being legally armed to the teeth.
However, while sectarian attacks on Catholic districts tended to be confined to assaults and petrol bombing, the real danger to men guarding the barricades came from the British army whose so-called Military Reaction Force or Military Reconnaissance Force (MRF) set up in summer 1971 killed or injured an unknown number of men at barricades. On each such occasion the Ministry of Defence concocted a cock and bull story about the incident. Christopher Quinn wasn’t killed by the MRF who preferred to drive around in cars and fire sub-machineguns at vigilantes but by a soldier on patrol in the district. While in the case of MRF killings and injuries the MoD usually denied any military involvement, the army did admit a soldier killed Quinn but as usual claimed ‘the army opened fire on a gunman’. Equally as usual there is no evidence there was any gunman.
Now thanks to the Pat Finucane Centre (PFC), it has emerged that the MoD knew perfectly well that Christopher Quinn was completely innocent. It’s difficult to know which is worse: denying as in the MRF cases any army involvement and thereby dramatically reducing the level of compensation to relatives of the deceased, or admitting responsibility as in the Quinn case and then deliberately doing his wife and family out of proper compensation. All of course to ensure as the MoD document admits, that ‘the settlement would reflect well on the MoD from a political viewpoint.’
In the case of Mrs Quinn they did her out of £10,000 and wrecked her family’s prospects. She got £500, spent £300 on the funeral and gave £50 to each of her four children. Paul O’Connor of the PFC told the BBC of a case in Derry when the army killed a woman the same month and the MoD offered £84.70 which her family refused.
Unjust, dishonest, disgusting, disgraceful and stupid. Stupid because ‘from a political viewpoint’ which the genius writing the cynical note thought paramount, it was disastrous. Everyone in nationalist districts in Derry and Belfast knew the army lied, individual soldiers lied, perjured themselves as a matter of course and swore away the lives of men without a qualm. Everyone in those districts knew which people the army killed were innocent, which were reprisals for a soldier being shot and which were IRA men.
We know now the MoD didn’t care. Their stupidity and callousness meant that more men and women joined the IRA, more people helped the IRA, more of their own men got killed or injured in IRA attacks because of the boneheads in the MoD. By how long did the dishonest, sneaky, secretive unjust behaviour of the MoD prolong the conflict? Who knows?
What we do know for certain is that the researchers of the PFC have demonstrated beyond peradventure that local witnesses to many military misdemeanours were telling the truth and that the army and the MoD routinely lied and in the case of soldiers, lied on oath. However, anyone unfortunate enough to have dealing with the British army knew that. What the PFC has done is to prove it.
What we’ve also learnt as a result of recent court cases and video evidence from Afghanistan and Iraq is that they’re still at it.