'Unjustified and indiscriminate use of force' caused Ballymurphy Massacre, court hears

The deaths of 10 people during three days of shootings were the result of “illegitimate, unjustified and indiscriminate use of force by the [British] army”, a court has heard.

Inquests investigating the 1971 incidents, referred to as the Ballymurphy Massacre by bereaved relatives, began in Belfast yesterday.

In 2011, Northern Ireland’s attorney general John Larkin directed that new inquests be heard after a long campaign by family members who claimed the original coronial probes were inadequate.

The shootings took place as the British army moved in to republican strongholds to arrest IRA suspects, after the introduction of the controversial policy of internment without trial.

Soldiers have long been held responsible for killing all 10 in Ballymurphy between August 9 and 11, 1971, but the accepted narrative became clouded earlier this year when former members of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force came forward to claim their organisation was also involved.

Sean Doran QC, counsel for the Coroner’s Service, said each incident and death would require “careful scrutiny”.

He said: “The narrative of the military is legitimate use of force was used at a time of heightened tension and response to specific threats.”

He said this runs contrary to the Ballymurphy families who say the deaths resulted from “illegitimate, unjustified and indiscriminate use of force by the army on civilians”.

The families claim the military action resulted in the deaths of 10 “entirely innocent civilians”.

Mr Doran said the original investigations into the deaths were “very limited”, adding that there were multiple examples of failure to get witness accounts and examples that show forensic opportunities were missed. He added that examination of scenes would not necessarily have been routine given the “legitimate security concerns at the time”.

“It’s important not to lose sight that these were turbulent times,” he added.

At the time of the deaths, officials from the Royal Military Police interviewed soldiers after mass shootings.

Referring to the original inquest, Mr Doran said it did not carry out a rigorous examination of military statements.

“The open verdict did not allow for any finding as to whether use of force was justified,” he added. “This inquest will not be so limited in nature or in scope.”

The court earlier heard how difficulties have been exacerbated by the loss of records and statements from military witnesses given before the original inquest.

Mr Doran described the process into these inquests as “difficult and complicated”.

A Catholic priest was among the 10 killed in the shootings, involving members of the Parachute Regiment.

Another man died of a heart attack following an alleged violent confrontation with the troops in the west Belfast estate.

Mr Doran said it was a period of time in Belfast when there were approximately 12 explosions, 59 shootings, 17 deaths, 25 injuries, 13 rioting incidents, 18 arson attacks and numerous reports of civil disorder. The inquests are expected to run until March.

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