After almost 50 years, an inquest has opened into the deaths of eleven civilians killed by British soldiers in Ballymurphy in west Belfast. The inquest is expected to last up up to six months.
Scores of relatives walked together behind their campaign banner to the Laganside Court Complex to the applause of members of other justice campaigns who were present to lend their support, as well as political representatives and national and international media.
It was “a step closer to the truth”, said John Teggart, whose father Daniel was one of those killed. Speaking before the session began, he said: “It’s mixed emotions going into court today but the determination of the families to get to the truth has brought us to here.”
Lawyer Padraig O’Muirigh, who represents some of the families, added: “Today, 47 years after these families lost their loved ones, 46 years after the original inquest, seven years after the direction for a new inquest, we are finally here.
“It’s a tribute to the adversity and resilience of these brave families, so I want to commend them through all the difficult days. Hopefully this is a new start of a process to find out what happened to their loved ones.
“Over the next few months the court will examine the evidence and we are very confident that their loved ones’ innocence will be clear and their names will be cleared, finally.”
But hopes for justice had to be immediately tempered when barrister Sean Doran, representing the Coroner’s Service, told them the inquest would be “complicated and difficult”.
He said the complications were a result of the time which has elapsed since the alleged war crimes took place. In legal proceedings up to this point, delays have also been linked to British tricks and deceptions. Counsel for the inquiry said records into the deaths originally held by the British Ministry of Defence were “missing”. Some witnesses could also not be traced or were now deceased, he noted.
The massacre followed the introduction of internment without trial as the British government struggled to gain control in the Six Counties in August 1971.
The inquest heard the British Prime Minister Ted Heath ordered “military support” for Operation Demetrius, the codename for internment, to quell “widespread civil disorder and rioting across Belfast and Northern Ireland”.
Ten deaths took place during five separate shooting incidents over a 36 hour period. The dead included Joan Connolly, a mother of eight shot in the face, and Father Hugh Mullan, a Catholic priest shot while giving the last rites to a wounded man. An eleventh victim died later of a heart attack, apparently after a ‘mock execution’ by soldiers.
The original inquest was held into the ten deaths in 1972, but was widely dismissed a whitewash. At the time the British Army claimed those killed were either “members of the IRA” or “caught in the crossfire”, claims debunked as military propaganda.
“My daddy was a good, loving, family man. He was labelled a terrorist and a gunman. That was a stigma that the family had to endure,” said Mr Teggart.
The families have had to battle decades of official obstruction and deceit, starting with the original military investigation.
“It’s been hard taking on the British establishment because everything was put in the way to block it,” said Mr Teggart.
For example, a week before the inquest was originally due to begin in September, the Ministry of Defence handed the coroner a spreadsheet with 4,773 entries of individuals from the Parachute Regiment, the Queen’s Regiment and the Queen’s Division who had been serving at the time of the killings. This was a cynical attempt to “swamp” and delay the inquiry, Mr Teggart said.
Mr O Muirigh said missing paperwork from the “deeply inadequate” original investigations had helped veil shooters’ identities. “The big difficulty has been in tracing soldiers,” he said.
Even so, the families were happy to finally have an inquest that should supply an official, credible narrative of the killings, he added.
“It’s been a long, long road for them. They would argue that it is a basic human right to find out what happened to their loved ones.”