I WAS in Corpus Christi chapel in Springhill last week as the Coroner, Mrs Justice Siobhan Keegan, took almost three hours to read out her judgement from the Ballymurphy Massacre Inquest.
Around me sat some of the relatives, victims and witnesses of those terrible events in August 1971 which left 11 people dead. 10, including a priest and a mother of eight, were shot dead. Nine were victims of the Parachute Regiment. The available forensic and other evidence could not confirm that the tenth, John McKerr, was killed by the British, although it is widely accepted that he was. All were deemed entirely innocent by the Coroner who described the use of violence by the Paras as “unjustifiable” and “disproportionate.” The 11th victim, Paddy McCarthy, died of a heart attack after he was assaulted and threatened by British soldiers. His case was not part of the inquest hearings.
Later the families responded with an emotional mixture of joy and sadness at the outcome of the inquest. I was struck by the similarities between this occasion and that almost exactly 11 years ago when the families of those killed on Bloody Sunday in Derry heard the outcome of the Saville Inquiry.
Martin McGuinness and I were in the Guildhall Square that day in June 2010 as the families of the 14 victims of the Parachute Regiment expressed their delight at the conclusion of the Saville Report.
That same day the British Prime Minister David Cameron, addressing the British Parliament, apologised for the actions of the Paras. However, he then sought to defend the record of the British Army in the North by claiming that “Bloody Sunday is not the defining story of the service the British Army gave in Northern Ireland from 1969-2007.”
The response of An Taoiseach Micheál Martin following his meeting last week with Boris Johnson underlines this. Mr Martin couldn’t bring himself to speak about the murder of civilians by the British forces but waffled his way around what he described as “the Ballymurphy situation”.
The Ballymurphy Massacre which took place six months earlier than Bloody Sunday and the Springhill Massacre in which six people died proves that Cameron was wrong. Bloody Sunday, like Ballymurphy and other killings, are exactly the defining story of the British Army’s involvement in Ireland. Over 360 men, women and children were killed directly by the British Army and RUC and many hundreds more were killed as a result of collusion between those forces and unionist paramilitaries.
The response of the Tory government of Boris Johnson, like that of Cameron and of every British and Unionist government for 50 years, has been to cover up the culpability of their forces in the killing and wounding of citizens. On the day that a Coroner found that nine innocent citizens were murdered by the Paras. Downing Street issued a statement in which it said that the British Government intends introducing “a legacy package that delivers better outcomes for victims, survivors and veterans, focuses on information recovery and reconciliation, and ends the cycle of investigations. This package will deliver on the commitments to Northern Ireland veterans, giving them the protections they deserve as part of a wider package to address legacy issues in Northern Ireland.” This is effectively an amnesty.
This is a unilateral breach of commitments made by the British government in the Stormont House Agreement. It is in part the pandering to the right-wing English nationalist sentiment that created Brexit and still thinks it has an Empire. It is also the inevitable consequence of a political and military strategy that has its roots in Britain’s counter-insurgency strategies in colonial wars through the 1940s to the late 1960s. It should never be forgotten that British policy in the North was dictated in large part out of this experience and by the policies advocated by British General Frank Kitson.
In 1969, the year before he was sent to the North to take command of the 39th Brigade, which covered the Belfast area, Kitson published Low Intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency. To defend British national interests Kitson wrote: “Everything done by a government and its agents in combating insurgency must be legitimate. But this does not mean that the government must work within exactly the same set of laws during an emergency as existed beforehand. The law should be used as just another weapon in the government’s arsenal, in which case it becomes little more than a propaganda cover for the disposal of unwanted members of the public.”
The subsequent decades of conflict must be seen in this context. Understand this and you begin to understand the rationale behind British state collusion with unionist paramilitaries: their use of sectarian killings; the torture of citizens and of prisoners; the use of the shoot-to-kill policy; plastic bullet deaths; the extensive human rights abuses inflicted by the state and its agencies; the imposition of emergency powers that stripped away people’s fundamental human rights; and the mass killing of civilians on Bloody Sunday, the Ballymurphy Massacre, the Springhill Killings, and much else.
The reality is that the Coroner’s conclusions in the Ballymurphy case will not have surprised the security mandarins that run the British system. Every government, Conservative and Labour, has known the truth of these events since they first occurred. That’s why they have stalled and prevaricated, rejected and obstructed every effort by the families to get to the truth and to ensure accountability.
IRISH GOVERNMENT NOT MUCH BETTER
Regrettably the Irish Government was not much better. In November 2008 the families and I met Dermot Ahern, who was then the Irish Minister of Foreign Affairs. In May 2010 I facilitated a meeting between the families and the then Minister of Justice, Micheál Martin. We visited the sites of the murders and the families told Mr. Martin of the circumstances of the deaths of their loved ones.
After I was elected to the Oireachtas the Ballymurphy Massacre families visited Leinster House on several occasions to lobby for support in their dealings with the British Government. In November 2011 I read the names of those killed into the record of the Dáil for the first time. “I would like, if I may, to read into the record the names of those killed in Ballymurphy: Fr. Hugh Mullan, who was 38 years old; Frank Quinn, 19, a father of two; Joan Connolly, 50, a mother of eight; Daniel Teggart, 44, a father of 13; Joseph Murphy, 41, a father of 12; Noel Phillips, who was 18; Eddie Doherty, 28, a father of four; John Laverty, who was 20; Joe Corr, 43, a father of six; John McKerr, 49, a father of two; and Paddy McCarthy, who was 44 years old. I once again implore the Government to assist and support the families' campaign and their demand for a full independent investigation.”
Boris Johnson starts this by naming those murdered in Ballymurphy he then continues to apologise to the families… for how the investigation was handled. Not for their actually murders. “Apology” has rightly been rejected by the families pic.twitter.com/kcu5w9Bypi— Ciara McShane (@Ciara87C) May 19, 2021
In March 2015 the Taoiseach Enda Kenny met the families and in July an all-party motion in support of the families was passed. The motion also supported the Stormont House Agreement on legacy issues.
Regrettably, the Irish Government never adopted a strategic approach to challenging the British government on the Ballymurphy case. As in so many other instances, these issues were generally viewed as an irritant in the government’s discussions with the British.
The response of An Taoiseach Micheál Martin following his meeting last week with Boris Johnson underlines this. Mr Martin couldn’t bring himself to speak about the murder of civilians by the British forces but waffled his way around what he described as “the Ballymurphy situation”. It was he said a “good discussion” with Johnson and this after the families had been contemptuous of Johnson’s response.
I outline these meetings as evidence of the enormous courage and tenacity of the Ballymurphy families. For decades, but especially in the last 15 years they have never wavered in their determination to prove their loved ones innocent of any wrongdoing and the victims of state murder. I am in awe of their courage.
Finally we should not forget that their journey for truth and accountability is not over. There are more steps ahead as they seek to overcome British Government efforts to protect those responsible for the murder of the innocent victims of the Ballymurphy Massacre. We must walk each new step with them on the way forward.
Poots faces a big challenge
EDWIN Poots (above) has been elected as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. I want to wish him well. It’s going to be an interesting time as he faces up to the challenges of leadership in these changing times.
I remember when we were negotiating, just before I stood down as Uachtarán Shinn Féin, that in the course of those efforts Edwin was very constructive and positive and I came to like him.
We got to know each other better. This is what happens when you are locked away for long periods in negotiations with each other.
More recently Edwin led the charge to get rid of Arlene Foster and now he will face exactly the same challenges that confronted her. It’s all about positive societal change. Change is coming, including on constitutional matters. Edwin must know by now that the best way to deal with the change is to manage it with others. Standing aside may slow progress down but that will only serve to deepen difficulties and will ultimately fail.
I hope the Edwin who I came to like faces up to this. He may not. If so he will end up like Arlene.
But let’s see what happens.
I especially want to wish Michelle O’Neill well as she leads our team in the time ahead.
DUP support has slumped, with Edwin Poots’s personal rating among the party's voters also lowhttps://t.co/Im1CdRGXKF— The National (@ScotNational) May 22, 2021