A British Army unit responsible for the murders of five unarmed Catholic civilians, including a 13-year-old schoolgirl, handed a loyalist gunman over to the UDA, according to a report published last weekend in the Sunday World.
Ministry of Defence (MoD) documents have revealed how a day after the Springhill massacre in July 1972, soldiers from the 1st Battalion Kings Regiment (1 Kings) arrested a 17-year-old found walking the streets of west Belfast with a pistol and 11 rounds of ammunition.
But instead of criminally charging the young gunman, he was released into the hands of a loyalist paramilitary boss who told soldiers the UDA ‘will sort him out’.
The revelations emerged in secret British military logs which were found by a legacy research group. Paper Trail described the incident as an example of “casual collusion” between members of the Crown forces and loyalist paramilitaries during the conflict.
Five people, including a 13-year-old girl and a priest, were killed when soldiers opened fire on the Springhill estate on July 9, 1972. Margaret Gargan (13), David McCafferty (15), John Dougal (16), Patrick Butler (39) and Father Noel Fitzpatrick (40) were all shot dead in a hail of gun fire that lasted 90 minutes.
Eyewitness reports from the time say Patrick Butler and Fr Fitzpatrick had been attempting to reach Margaret, the massacre’s youngest victim, who was shot in the head as she chatted to friends.
The killings took place less than a year after the Ballymurphy massacre and just six months after Bloody Sunday.
Copies of the military logs showed that on July l0, 1972, just over 24 hours on from the Springhill killings, the Kings Regiment reported it had arrested a gunman in the loyalist Springmartin Road area.
The 17-year-old was questioned, photographed and “documented”. The logs stated he was due to be handed over to the RUC. However, another log a few minutes later by the commanding officer stated the gunman “will now be released by British Military on advice of RUC”.
The 39 Brigade reported to British Army HQ: “Ref Protestant Gunman, 17 year old boy Stupid Boy - UDA Company Commander requested to deal with it - Did not have firearms certificate. Being released to the UDA on the advice of the RUC”.
The UDA ‘A’ Company Commander over Highfield/Springmartin at the time was Andy Tyrie, who went on to become the supreme commander of the loyalist death squad. It is not known who the teenage gunman is and whether he went on to carry out violence or killings on behalf of the UDA.
Ciaran Mac Airt, Project Manager with Paper Trail, who compiled the research, said: “These two incidents involved the same British Army regiment - just over 24 hours apart and just a couple of hundred yards away from each other.
In one incident, 1 Kings committed mass murder, killing unarmed teenagers, a family man and the local priest; in the other, 1 Kings colluded with the RUC and UDA and released a loyalist gunman it had caught in the act.
“The difference, of course, was that Springhill was an Irish Catholic estate and Springmartin was a British Protestant estate.”
He added: “The Springhill and Westrock families have been fighting for truth and justice for their loved ones for over 47 years. But what happened to the loyalist gunman, who was released by the British Army and RUC?
“Was he involved in loyalist violence after his release? Did he hurt other people? And did the British Army and police call in a favour after that night and use him as an agent - he certainly owed them?
Harry Gargan, whose 13-year-old sister was shot dead by the same British troops, said: “It’s very unnerving to know that, around the same time our loved ones were killed they were letting loyalist gunmen go. In fact, it is horrific.”
The grandfather from west Belfast, who was 12 when his sister was killed in the street, said it was yet again more proof that a new inquest is needed into the atrocity.
In 2014, the North’s Attorney General John Larkin directed that new inquests into the deaths should be opened. However, to date that has not happened.
Mr Gargan, speaking to the Sunday World, said: “My family’s aim is to get this inquest and that was always our aim. Just what Ba1lymurphy got, just what Bloody Sunday got.
“You would think it wouldn’t be too much to ask. It’s always been fight, fight, fight. We’ve tried to get our campaign off the ground like Ballymurphy but we get so far and it falls away.
He added: “Margaret’s killing was cold-blooded. I don’t believe it was an ordinary soldier that killed her. She was shot dead with one bullet wound to the temple from a distance - it was a target kill.
“The thing that my mother and father could not get over was, during the inquest at the time, someone from the MoD stood up and read out a statement saying a soldier identified a 20-year-old gunman. They were trying to say they thought she was a 20-year-old gunman and it was a mistake.
“But no one challenged them on this. They were allowed to stand up and say whatever they wanted and walked out. My mother and father came back to our house that day destroyed.”
Describing the impact the loss of his older sister had on his family, Mr Gargan said: “I could never accept it for a long time.
“I don’t remember the funeral or anything. Sometimes you wonder how you’ve come through all of it - it’s hard. My mother didn’t exist for a long time after Margaret died. She couldn’t even get out of bed.
“Myself and Bernadette, Margaret’s twin sister, would go to the shop for her.
“When I was a bit older and out drinking, when I was coming home and saw the living room light on I wouldn’t go in to the house.
“I would have went walking for two hours around my place because I couldn’t bear to see my mother sitting there crying. She just couldn’t get over it. She died at 57 of a heart attack.
“Eventually she came around a good bit, but she never got over it.”