By Freya McClements (for the Irish Times)
Ambrose Hardy had to get home. Trapped in a bar in the New Lodge area of north Belfast by the shooting that was going on outside, he was afraid his mother would be worried and come looking for him.
“He thought, ‘I want to get home to assure her I’m okay,’” says his great-nephew, Gary Duffy. “He stuck his head out the door with a white petticoat, or a white slip, and he was shot then.
“At that point [the British army] had just got night sights, and we always maintained they must have seen him quite clearly – he had a white flag, essentially.”
The 26-year-old was one of six men shot dead in the same part of the New Lodge on the night of February 3rd/4th 1973, a Saturday. They had either been out socialising or had gone to help the injured when they were killed.
Jim Sloan and Jim McCann were the first to die, hit by shots fired from a car at about 11pm. Shortly afterwards, soldiers are believed to have opened fire from the top of a nearby block of flats, killing Hardy and three others – Tony Campbell, Brendan Maguire and John Loughran.
In the 50 years since their deaths, there has never been a proper investigation into the killings. Now, as their relatives and neighbours prepare to mark the anniversary with a candlelight procession tonight and other events this weekend, their fear is that there never will be.
A fresh inquest granted in 2021 raised hopes which have been dashed by the UK government’s controversial legacy legislation, which aims to “draw a line” under the Troubles by ending all civil and criminal cases and inquests and offering a conditional amnesty for perpetrators.
The case of the New Lodge Six is one of 23 such inquests, involving 34 deaths, which are now unlikely to proceed given the Bill, which is currently making its way through the House of Lords; there are also as unknown number of cases which have not yet reached this stage, plus hundreds of civil cases.
“We felt like we’d finally got our breakthrough a year or two ago with the granting of the fresh inquest, but now the families feel it’s been taken away from them with this Bill,” says Duffy, who is also a solicitor with Belfast-based firm KRW Law and represents some of the New Lodge families, including his own.
“It’s been retraumatising, it’s almost worse in some ways that they got some hope… that finally, for the first time in nearly 50 years, that someone was going to look at it, someone was actually going to investigate it, they were actually going to get their day in court to challenge the narrative that had existed.
“To then have that taken away from them, their one chance, has obviously been very emotional and very hurtful.”
The New Lodge is a working-class Catholic, nationalist area of Belfast. It was disproportionately affected by the Troubles; in a booklet produced to mark the 50th anniversary of the killings, victims and survivors group Relatives for Justice (RFJ) records “several hundred killed” in a one-mile radius.
There have been, it noted, “too many killings, Requiem Masses to St Patrick’s Chapel, funeral corteges and graveyard processions to mention for one small area”.
On the Monday morning after the New Lodge shootings, the front page of The Irish Times described it as “one of Belfast’s bloodiest weekends ever”; it also reflected the already-disputed accounts of what happened, writing that the British Army claimed “they had killed all six men because they were gunmen who opened fire at troops”, while local witnesses and the IRA said “the first two men to died were hit from a passing car as they stood outside a bar and that the other four were innocent, unarmed civilians”.
Three of the victims were members of the IRA – Sloan, McCann and Campbell – but none was on “active service” on the night of their deaths.
“In terms of just understanding what happened during the conflict,” says Mike Ritchie, casework manager with RFJ who works with the families of the New Lodge Six, “you have a small community in north Belfast and over one night six of them are shot dead, it’s believed by the British army, undercover and regular.
“We need to get to the bottom of it and the families need to know precisely what happened and what the thinking was.”
The new legislation – expected to become law later this year despite widespread opposition – will replace current means of investigation with a new truth recovery body, the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR).
Announcing minor amendments last month, the Northern Secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, said the changes reflected the “extensive engagement that has taken place” and said the UK government remained “absolutely committed to delivering better outcomes for those most impacted by the Troubles”.
Gary Duffy says: “They [the British government] have talked about this new body they’re going to set up, but anybody I’ve spoken to, not just the New Lodge Six but any of my clients, have no faith in it.”
“What they do trust, as much as they can trust any part of this process, is things like inquests.
“An inquest is actually having legal representatives and a judge and your day in court. This body that’s being set up, it just feels like it’s the state investigating itself, and it’ll achieve nothing.”
Two years ago, an inquest – the longest-running in the North’s history – officially acknowledged the innocence of the 11 victims of the Ballymurphy massacre in west Belfast in 1971; under this new law, it simply could not have taken place.
The expectation is that there will be further legal battles ahead. “What will happen with this case, and many others, is if the Bill comes in and blocks it, there’s just going to be litigation for years to try and overturn aspects of the legislation,” says Ritchie.
RFJ is calling for the Irish government to intervene. “Everybody’s opposed to it on the island, the international human rights community is opposed to it, saying it’s illegal and against international obligations.
“The Irish Government has to step up to the mark and take an interstate case to Europe,” he says.
Duffy’s worry is that “once the legislation is passed, the damage is done – it’s the end of civil actions, the end of inquests”.
“Obviously I never met my great-uncle, but I saw the impact, particularly on my granny, Ambrose’s sister, losing him, and then the empty chair at Christmas tables or family parties.
“Every year, when it comes to February, you would see the emotional impact, the hurt and the anger not just at what happened, but also the lies put out afterwards, that he was a gunman and it was a gun battle.”
The time to challenge the change in the law, he says, is time ageing relatives simply do not have. “It would be another couple of years of family members passing away, of information disappearing, of witnesses, of perpetrators passing away, and even if further down the road something is put in place it will be too late.
“At the bare minimum, if you have been granted an inquest, your inquest should continue. If you’ve launched civil proceedings, they should be allowed to continue. Don’t take that away.”