Springhill – ‘the forgotten massacre’

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By Paul Maskey (for Tribune magazine)

On 9 July 1972, a team of British army snipers took up positions in Corry’s timber yard, which overlooks the largely nationalist Springhill and Westrock estates, in my constituency of West Belfast, in the north of Ireland.

It was a warm, calm summer’s night in the district. It had been quiet for many days, on account of a ceasefire to allow for negotiations between the British army and the leadership of the Republican movement. But the British Army would break this ceasefire without warning.

Just 11 months before, they had murdered 11 civilians in the adjacent Ballymurphy district. Five months after Ballymurphy, they would murder 14 more civilians in Derry, in a massacre that became known as Bloody Sunday.

On that Sunday evening, their murder spree would continue.

At 9.50pm, they opened fire on the area. In less than an hour, five civilians lay dead and two were critically wounded.

The first shots were fired at passengers in two cars. 19-year-old Martin Dudley was shot in the back of the head as he exited the vehicle. Other passengers were pinned down as the soldiers continued to fire at anyone who moved. 17-year-old John Dougal was shot dead, and his companion Brian Pettigrew was seriously injured by a second British army sniper as they went to Dudley’s assistance.

13-year-old Margaret Gargan was shot dead in a hail of bullets fired by a third British army marksman. She had been returning home from a day spent helping out at the local community centre.

Father Noel Fitzpatrick was killed as he went to administer the Last Rites to the dead and dying. This was the second Catholic priest to be shot dead by the British army in West Belfast in just 11 months. 38-year-old father of six Paddy Butler died after he was hit by the same bullet that killed Fr Fitzpatrick. 15-year-old David McCaffery was shot dead as he attempted to pull Fr Fitzpatrick and Paddy Butler out of the line of fire.

They continued firing for the next 90 minutes, bringing murder and mayhem to the streets of Springhill and Westrock, and unleashing terror into the homes of dozens of trapped families. One eyewitness described residents as being ‘pinned down everywhere. If there was a target, they [British snipers] shot at it; if not, they just shot into the houses.’

Springhill is often regarded as the ‘forgotten massacre’, having received very little coverage in the mainstream media. The people of West Belfast, however, have never forgotten, and throughout the nearly 50 years since, they have stood by the side of the families affected by the massacre.

In 2019, the families relaunched their campaign for truth and justice. There has never been a proper investigation into the deaths of their loved ones, as the institutionally sectarian police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), refused to investigate the deaths. The families deserve the comprehensive facts to be released by the British government, and for the deaths to be properly investigated. David McCaffery’s father, Davey, is now 92 years of age and the oldest surviving relative of all the families. He deserves to know the truth about what happened to his son.

No one is above the law – especially not when it includes state-sanctioned murder, which the very same state has spent the subsequent 50 years covering up.

The British Army’s accounts of the massacre do not hold up under even the slightest degree of scrutiny. The original ‘official’ account of the shootings—that those shot were ‘gunmen’—was almost immediately discredited, and was changed shortly after; the claim then became that those murdered were simply caught in the crossfire. Clearly, there had been a concerted effort from the top of the British armed forces to cover up the destructive deeds of their murderous marauders in Ireland.

The fact that the murders at Springhill and Westrock have never been investigated is in itself an injustice, and flies in the face of the much lauded but seldom seen ‘British values’ of justice and fairness. These families deserve an inquest; they deserve to have the truth heard. Yet the British government, as it has time and time again, continues to create obstacles for them. Indeed, one tactic of the British establishment is to offer an ‘amnesty’ to their killers.

This cannot be allowed to happen. It flies in the face of justice. It relegates the pain and hardship of nearly 50 years to the mere stroke of a pen and the washing of hands. The Springhill and Westrock families will not accept this; nor will the people of West Belfast; and nor will Sinn Féin.

The British government must honour the commitments made in the 2014 Stormont House Agreement. These are the means through which the troubled legacy of our past can be addressed. Any attempt to ride roughshod over these agreed mechanisms should be rightly rejected by all of those who want truth and justice.

The truth costs nothing. It is the very minimum that the Springhill and Westrock families can campaign and work towards. They deserve to know what happened to their loved ones. Britain’s callous murder of Irish citizens cannot be relegated to the dustbin of history: the British state must face up to their crimes in public, at an inquest, and the slander of those killed that day must be struck from the record. Like the Ballymurphy massacre and Bloody Sunday, those killed were innocent. They were fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, and sisters.

We call on all progressive voices and friends of Ireland based in Britain to join us in our efforts for truth and justice. In the words of Nelson Mandela, ‘Honour belongs to those who never forsake the truth.’

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