A former British soldier, who has written about his experiences in the Parachute Regiment, has said the skull of one of their victims was used as an ashtray by members of the regiment after he was shot dead.
Former Para Henry Gow said that a ‘sweepstake’ was also run within the regiment to reward soldiers who “got a kill”. He said the winner who “got the pot” would use the money to “go for a piss-up”.
Gow was giving evidence to the Ballymurphy inquest in Belfast. Ten people, nine men and a woman, were shot dead by the British Army’s Parachute Regiment in west Belfast over the course of 36 hours in 1971.
The inquest, which began in November, has already heard shocking details of the manner in which the victims were killed. But the former Para claimed that “the people of west Belfast should be thankful for the discipline of the British army” as the Paras only shot people who were armed.
He insisted “there were no idle bystanders”. He added: “The death toll would have been much higher if it had been a different army. They were all proud of what they did.”
There were shouts of anger from the public gallery. Outside the court, Briege Voyle, whose mother Joan Connolly was one of those killed in Ballymurphy, hit out at the evidence about a sweepstake, saying it was “like our loved ones were bits of meat”.
Gow went on to tell the coroner’s court how a colleague recovered part of the skull of Henry Thornton (pictured, left), who was killed near the site of the Ballymurphy massacre, and used it as an ashtray.
Mr Thornton died almost instantly when British soldier Allan McVittie fired twice at the van he was driving close to the former Springfield Road RUC station.
Family lawyer Pádraig Ó Muirigh said afterwards the Thorntons were deeply distressed by Gow’s evidence.
“The allegation that the remains of their loved one was treated in such an undignified manner is a source of great distress to them,” he said.
“This revelation and others such as a sweepstake being organised for soldiers who ‘got a kill’ are deeply disturbing but nonetheless indicative of the culture that prevailed in the Parachute Regiment.”
Former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams was also called to give evidence to the inquest this week.
Shortly before he was to provide testimony, Mr Adams issued a statement stating that he had not witnessed any of the killings.
“However, I did witness aspects of the events in that area following internment; including the courageous rescue by local people of one young boy who had been shot by a British soldier,” he said. “My family home, from which my mother was evicted by the Paras, was also damaged beyond repair by them.”
Mr Adams commended the “enormous courage” of all of the families who have “campaigned for decades for truth and justice for their loved ones”.
“In recent months they have had to listen to the evidence of many witnesses, including former British soldiers responsible for some of the deaths, who have described in chilling detail the killing of their loved ones,” said Mr Adams.
“It has been a traumatic experience for the families.”
Mr Adams was harangued by the barrister for the British Minister of Defence regarding allegations that he was a former IRA Volunteer. The barrister claimed that it was to establish Mr Adams’s integrity as a witness, before he was finally ordered to desist by coroner Siobhan Keegan.
He received a single question from barrister Michael Mansfield QC, who represents the families of three of the victims. He asked Mr Adams if, given his close involvement with the area, he had any information or evidence that those who died were members of the IRA or connected to it.
Mr Adams replied there had never been any association between those killed at Ballymurphy and the IRA, noting that previously “the IRA have claimed Volunteers who were killed”.
The inquest continues.