UK Government must apologise ‘as a bare minimum’ over Ballymurphy killings

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said that what families need now is justice.

Ballymurphy families' supporters
Ballymurphy families' supporters

The UK Government must apologise “as a bare minimum” to the families of 10 innocent civilians killed in west Belfast in 1971 in shootings involving the Army, Northern Ireland’s deputy First Minister said.

Speaking the day after a coroner ruled that the 10 people killed in Ballymurphy nearly 50 years ago were “entirely innocent”, Michelle O’Neill said Tuesday had been “a day for truth for the Ballymurphy families … but not a day of justice, and that’s what the families now need to see”.

She added: “That’s for everybody – all families are entitled to truth, all families are entitled to justice, all families are entitled to know what happened to their loved ones.

“The British Government had been exposed yesterday for covering up for 50 years the fact that they killed Irish citizens on our streets. The British Government need to now respond.

“There are calls for an apology and I would obviously support that as a bare minimum. But what these families now deserve is access to justice.”

Speaking alongside Ms O’Neill at a joint appearance at Clandeboye Golf Club in Bangor, Co Down, First Minister Arlene Foster recognised the Ballymurphy families’ fight for 50 years to clear their names, adding there are many others who are continuing to fight for justice.

“There are a lot of empty chairs around Northern Ireland and the brutality in the reality of our past is still very much with us,” she said.

“Therefore, I think whatever the Secretary of State announces in relation to legacy must not take away that hope of justice, because the Ballymurphy families had a hope of justice for 50 years, and there are many others across Northern Ireland who will want to have that hope of justice as well, so I think the Secretary of State should listen very carefully to what is being said around all that right across Northern Ireland, because I think that that is really important.”

Mrs Foster emphasised that in terms of legacy in Northern Ireland, there should be a “process where everybody can feel included”.

“The worst thing we could do is that some people are able to get truth around what happened to their loved ones and others are denied that truth and justice so I think we have to be very careful around that. I want to see a process that includes everybody,” she said.

Ballymurphy victims
Victims Joseph Corr, Danny Taggart, Eddie Doherty, Father Hugh Mullan, Frank Quinn, Paddy McCarthy, Joan Connolly, John McKerr, Noel Philips, John Laverty and Joseph Murphy (Ballymurphy Massacre Committee)

“There are many empty chairs right across Northern Ireland as a result of terrorism and I think those people deserve justice and truth just as the Ballymurphy families did.”

Fresh inquests into the deaths involving the Army in Ballymurphy in August 1971 concluded that the victims were “entirely innocent” and soldiers were responsible for nine of the fatal shootings.

Coroner Mrs Justice Keegan found that the use of lethal force by the Army was not justified.

She also criticised the lack of investigation into the 10th death, that of John McKerr, and said she could not definitively rule who had shot him.

Earlier SDLP leader Colum Eastwood and Alliance Party leader Naomi Long urged the Government to “step up and formally apologise for the actions of the Army on the day in question”.

Ulster Unionist MLA Mike Nesbitt said the shootings should not have happened, adding an apology “swims in the shallow end of where we need to be”.

“I would rather we were in the deep end, and that means an acknowledgement not only of what happened, but of the hurt and the ongoing hurt that Ballymurphy caused … acknowledge it in words and in deeds,” he told the BBC’s Stephen Nolan Show.

“Their campaign clearly isn’t over, I think they will be going from truth to a search for justice, and they are totally justified to do that because we believe nobody is above the law, no matter what uniform they choose to wear.”

In 2010, former prime minister David Cameron apologised to the families of 13 civil rights marchers in Londonderry in 1972 who were fatally shot by soldiers after an inquiry found all were innocent.

Ms Long said: “We saw how much a similar apology in relation to Bloody Sunday meant to the families there, and I encourage the Government to acknowledge the courage of the Ballymurphy families with a similar statement.”

Ballymurphy families' supporters
A cavalcade of cars passing through Ballymurphy, thanking the community for its support over the past 50 years (Liam McBurney/PA)

On Tuesday evening, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis acknowledged the hurt to the families of the 10 people killed, which included a mother of eight and a Catholic priest.

“The Government will carefully consider the extensive findings set out by the coroner, but it is clear that those who died were entirely innocent of wrongdoing,” he said.

A solicitor who represents the Ballymurphy families said they have instigated civil proceedings against the Ministry of Defence.

“In light of these findings and the strong criticisms, they will be pushing on with that,” Padraig O Muirigh said.

The shootings in the Ballymurphy area of west Belfast came over three days from August 9-11 following the controversial introduction of internment without trial.

Soldiers were met with violence across Northern Ireland as they detained IRA suspects.

Mrs Justice Keegan acknowledged in her lengthy rulings that the killings took place in a “highly charged and difficult environment”.

However, the presiding coroner said it was “very clear” that “all of the deceased in the series of inquests were entirely innocent of any wrongdoing on the day in question”.

Relatives of those killed applauded in Belfast Coroner’s Court as their loved ones were officially found innocent after 50 years.

Misinformation had been circulated that they had been terrorists.

There were celebrations in west Belfast on Tuesday night.

A cavalcade of cars made its way through the streets beeping horns while white flags with the word “innocent” on them were waved.

Original inquests into the Ballymurphy deaths in 1972 returned open verdicts and the bereaved families subsequently pursued a long campaign for fresh probes to be held.

New inquests began in 2018, with the final oral evidence heard last March.

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