The Ballymurphy families fought for 50 years for the truth. Justice should now swiftly follow

Yesterday, a cavalcade of cars made their way around Ballymurphy in West Belfast. The small streets were crowded as a whole community celebrated a vital, historical ruling. Photographers captured the jubilant, delighted faces: neighbours hugging each other in the bright sunshine, relief and joy and tears and smiles from the families who had waited so long for this day.

White doves were released on the green. Scores of white flags were waved, each one with a photo of a victim of the Ballymurphy massacre and the word ‘Innocent’ . Francis Quinn, Fr Hugh Mullan, Daniel Teggart , Joan Connolly, Noel Phillips, Joseph Murphy, John Laverty, Joseph Corr, Edward Doherty, John McKerr. They also remembered an 11th victim, Patrick McCarthy, who died of a heart attack.

All innocent, all “entirely innocent of any wrongdoing” , in the words of the Coroner who presided over an inquest that was five decades overdue, and that lasted 110 days, the longest in the history of Northern Ireland.

All shot dead by the Parachute Regiment of the British Army in 1971, when an unimaginable, horrifying, spree of terror and murder was foisted upon the people in Ballymurphy over three days.

Ballymurphy is a small Catholic enclave, and was at the time one of the poorest areas of Belfast, mostly because Catholics in the city at the time were often denied employment or opportunity. Tensions were boiling over in the north since 1969, and the British government had just introduced internment.

The British Army poured into Ballymurphy, setting up in the Henry Taggart Memorial hall. News reports from the time record the residents saying they were subjected to intimidation and violence from the soldiers, smashing in doors and firing indiscriminately. It wasn’t long before the shooting started.

Joan Connolly was a loving wife and mother to eight children. Her daughter was married to a British soldier, and she had just become a grandmother.  She told her children that the “Army wouldn’t shoot you”. She was shot repeatedly as she stood opposite the Taggart Hall. Her husband, Denis, was at first unable to identify her afterwards because her face was half-blown away. A former paratrooper told the inquest that finding Joan Connolly’s body was “one of the most horrific” things he had ever seen.

Worst of all, witnesses said that she was left crying and dying of severe injuries for several hours. No one could approach her for fear of being shot. Perhaps she could have been saved.

Her daughter, also Joan, spoke about the searing pain of the loss and sorrow the family endured after their mother was ruthlessly gunned down.

She says she never got to go to her mother’s funeral because her father, no doubt terrified that his children might be next, had sent them to a refugee camp in Cork. It’s obvious the people in Ballymurphy were living in abject terror at the time. If the army could shoot you dead for no reason, how could anyone be safe?

Fr Hugh Mullan saw a local man Bobby Clarke being shot in the back as he crossed the Manse field. He telephoned the barracks to tell them that he was going to the aid of his parishioner before approaching the stricken man whilst waving a white handkerchief. He was shot twice and he bled to death.  Young Frank Quinn, a 19-year old window cleaner, ran to help Fr Mullan and was shot in the head.

The soldiers must have known who Fr Mullan was – he had visited the station they had set up in the Taggart Hall to inquire after the safety of those who had been arrested from his community. He was described as a “peacemaker” by the Coroner, Mrs Justice Keegan. They shot him anyway. In a conflict where the soldiers were supposedly brought in to keep the peace between Catholics and Protestants, they shot the priest.

As one resident told the documentary The Ballymurphy Precedent: “The people who were to protect us, were in fact, taking sides against us.”

“They turned their guns on us,” John Teggart, the son of victim Daniel Teggart, said. He recounted how his father was repeatedly shot as he lay lying on the ground. “My Daddy was lying there and his body bounced with every bullet that went through him. 14 times,” he told the deeply upsetting, shocking film.

Who shoots at a prone body over and over again like that? It sounds like the actions of a psychopath.

Likewise, the accounts of witnesses read like something from a terrifying, dystopian novel. The army – the supposed protectors of the people against terrorism – were murdering people in cold blood.  One former paratrooper told the inquest that the soldiers ‘were out of control’.

He broke down in tears as he said “rogue soldiers” had “shot innocent people”. Some of the paratroopers “revelled” in what had happened: they were ‘on a high, excited, and had clearly enjoyed what they had done”, he said. In the aftermath of the killings, Justice Keegan reported, some British soldiers behaved “triumphantly and abusively” towards the relatives of the victims.

In his evidence at the inquest, the paratrooper said the soldiers believed the Army would give them cover for whatever they had done. They were correct in that assessment.

After the massacre, the mighty British Army employed its well-established tactic of blaming the victims, forcing their families to fight for 50 long, hard, traumatising years just to have the plain truth of what had happened acknowledged.

As Fr Paddy McCaffrey so movingly said this week: “Half a century of heartbreak, for the families of ten people ruthlessly gunned down by the British Army.”

“Their sorrow and distress compounded by the despicable lies about the innocent victims, told by the British Establishment, seeking to justify what today has been clearly revealed as unjustifiable. Today, before the whole world, the light of truth was at last shone upon their lies about and slandering of innocent and decent people.”

Justice delayed is justice denied, because trauma becomes unresolved and corrosive and deeply, deeply wounding when closure is impeded by denials and lies. Those dignified, heroic families have borne their trauma and the denial of justice with tremendous courage and fortitude. They never gave up. They are a beacon of light to everyone who seeks justice.

Joan Connolly’s family said they fought long and hard because they knew she was being accused of being a paramilitary in order to try and justify her killing.

Imagine that. Imagine knowing your lovely, kind, red-haired mother, innocent of any wrongdoing, died an agonising death at the hands of the British Army, and then having whispers raised up against her. “She was a gunrunner”, “she wasn’t innocent” – another way of intimating, of course, that “she deserved it”.

It must have felt a lonely and overwhelming struggle at times. Certainly, they received very little real help or support from the establishment in the Republic. The former MP, Gerry Fitt, once spoke of the sense of abandonment and indifference communities in the north felt as Dublin ignored their plight. “If our watching brethren in the South don’t come to our aid, then let us, in God’s name, prepare for the end,” he once desperately said.

How many of the people in Ballymurphy must have felt like that? That nobody cared? In the face of such indifference, their fortitude was astounding. But after 50 years they now have achieved a victory on the long, long road to justice.

“We’ve waited a long time, 50 years is a long time to wait,” Alice Harper, daughter of Danny Teggart, told the Irish Times yesterday. “We always knew they were innocent, but now it has been proven, and for what our family has been through, not just our family but all the families, I’m overwhelmed today. It’s just a relief now that we can shout from the rooftops that our daddy was innocent. They [the British army] branded them gunmen and gunwomen … and for what they did to my daddy, they shot him 14 times, may God forgive them.”

The hard struggle has also brought forth some brave allies. Alan McBride, who lost his wife Sharon, and father-in-law Desmond Frizzell, in an IRA bomb in the Shankill Road in 1993, was standing with the Ballymurphy families yesterday.

Baltasar Gracian once wrote that “Truth always lags last, limping along on the arm of time.” It took 50 years of suffering and relieved trauma to finally have the inquest which found all the victims innocent established. But now, as the families say, their efforts have “corrected history”.

With history corrected, the families now also urgently need justice. That should be delivered without delay. An apology from the British government, while welcome, is the least these families need. Justice in the courts should be delivered. Those responsible should be held to account. Those who lied should be made to answer. And this time, it should not take 50 years.

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