Inquest into the Ballymurphy Massacre

Matters of the Day – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:00 pm on 17th May 2021.

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Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 12:00 pm, 17th May 2021

Mr Pat Sheehan has been given leave to make a statement on the Ballymurphy inquest, which fulfils the criteria set out in Standing Order 24. If other Members wish to be called, they should do so by rising in their place and continuing to do so. All Members who are called will have up to three minutes to speak on the subject. I remind Members that I will not take points of order on this or any other matter until the item of business has finished.

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I grew up just a few hundred yards from Ballymurphy, where those killings took place. I have worked for the last number of years with relatives of the victims to support them and to try to get to where they got to last week. Going back to 9, 10 and 11 August 1971, strangers came into the Ballymurphy area, supposedly a crack regiment from the British Army. They were there, ostensibly, to take people from their homes and throw them into prison and internment camps without any due process. In fact, most of those people were not, in any way, connected with the IRA.

Over three days, that crack regiment of the British Army systematically swept through the Ballymurphy area and killed 11 citizens. The British Army and British Government set about blaming the victims, claiming that those who were killed were gunmen and a gunwoman. There was no proper investigation carried out: in fact, the coroner, Justice Keegan, said that the lack of investigation in some of the cases was shocking. The British Army took the lives of innocent civilians. They cared nothing for their families and the hardships that they faced afterwards. They took the truth from them, they denigrated the dead, and they offered only lies and deceit. They left the families with nothing — or so they thought.

What they had not factored in was the determination of the families of the victims, their tenacity, stamina and integrity and their unwavering commitment to clear the names of their loved ones. Last Tuesday, the world heard what the families have always known.

Justice Keegan read out the names in court: Father Hugh Mullan; Frank Quinn; Daniel Teggart; Joan Connolly; Noel Phillips; Joseph Murphy; John Laverty; Joseph Corr; Edward Doherty; and John McKerr. She said that they were entirely innocent of any wrongdoing. The British Government now need to resolve that situation and give justice to those families, who have been wronged for 50 years.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I thank the Member for bringing the matter to the House. "Unarmed" and "innocent": that is how, at last week's inquest, Justice Keegan described the Ballymurphy victims gunned down in cold blood 50 years ago. That is despite the barrage of abuse and propaganda that tried to misrepresent and falsify who those people in Ballymurphy were and what they were doing in August 1971 and despite the actions of the British media, Government and state representatives to project those people as gunmen and gunwomen. They were not, and that is what Justice Keegan clearly articulated last week. No ifs, no buts and no whataboutery can alter that fact.

The Ballymurphy families have shown courage, bravery, grit and determination in the face of the huge obstacles and adversity placed in front of them. However, the same cannot be said of Boris Johnson or his ministerial colleagues, who went into hiding last week and treated the families with utter contempt. At first, there was no apology; then one was eventually issued in secret. There was no attempt to empathise or sympathise with the families. Despite his pronouncements, Boris and the Tories do not give a damn about truth, justice or reconciliation. The campaign for an amnesty that he is pursuing is about shutting the door in the face of families who want truth and justice. It is not necessarily about protecting the soldiers who fired the shots on the day in August 1971; Boris Johnson wants to cover for those at the very top who directed soldiers in the North during the Troubles, including people like General Mike Jackson, who was there on the ground directing soldiers in Ballymurphy in 1971 and at Bloody Sunday in Derry six months later.

When the state murders its citizens, it is in the interests of all people and all communities to seek truth and justice. We say that the British state should be on trial for what it did in Ballymurphy and that those who were culpable in that massacre — the soldiers, the generals and the politicians at the very top — should go on trial in court and be locked up for what they did. What happened in Ballymurphy revealed to the eyes of the world the rotten role of British imperialism in Ireland. It was imperialism in the form of internment without trial, torture, state collusion with loyalist paramilitaries, shoot to kill and, ultimately, the murder of innocent people, and that was how the British state responded to basic demands for civil rights and democracy. In that month, the British Army left 54 people in Ballymurphy without a parent. Some were evacuated to the South and put into refugee camps, and others were taunted by the military after having their families brutalised. Those families deserve truth and justice, and, while Boris does not want to see that enacted, we need to press to make sure that it happens.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

The families of Ballymurphy have received the verdict that they wanted to receive: "innocent". The tragedy of what happened to them is something that all of us feel deeply from whatever section of the community we come. The apology has not been well managed at all, and there has, rightly, been criticism of the Prime Minister for that. I hope that that can be put right so that the issue can be put to rest.

Let us not, however, use what happened in Ballymurphy as a platform to attack the British Army for its role during the conflict that took place. It is right that, where criticism is justified and there are findings, people are rightly held to account. When we look back at the conflict that took place, we see that those British soldiers were here to deal with the armed conflict and the terrorist war being raged by the Provisional IRA. The IRA is responsible for the murder and maiming of hundreds and thousands of people. British soldiers did not come here with the intent of killing anybody; they came here to defend basic freedoms and democracy. Where is the apology, the truth and the justice for the hundreds and thousands of victims of terrorist organisations? When will they get that? When will they hear an apology?

As we deal with the legacy and the past, let us all be fully aware of the hurt and the pain that exist on all sides.

Let us not go into the future waging a war based on the past; let us make sure that we never go back to what happened. Let us try to build a better place and a better future for the next generation and all of our people.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

On behalf of the SDLP, first and foremost, I pay tribute to the Ballymurphy families, who have been tireless in their fight for truth and justice and in the face of deliberate attempts to blacken the names of their loved ones, deliberate attempts to deny the truth and deliberate attempts to rewrite the past. The Ballymurphy inquest vindicated the Ballymurphy families and their loved ones. They were innocent — all innocent.

The inquest was clear. The murder of innocent people in Ballymurphy 50 years ago was shrouded in "basic inhumanity". Inhumanity: that is a damning indictment of the British state. It is shameful that the British establishment forced innocent people to fight for truth and justice for so long. It is shameful that the British Government today continue to fail to account publicly for the injustice. It is shameful that the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, cannot even apologise up front and publicly.

Victims across our society have been consistently failed and re-traumatised, and the House should unite today to send an unequivocal message that no victims, whether of state or paramilitary violence, should ever be obstructed in accessing truth and justice. All of us should resolve that the Prime Minister must today come out of hiding, come out from behind closed doors and give a public apology to the families in Ballymurphy. Instead of trying to sweep the truth under the carpet, the Prime Minister's efforts, along with all of us, would be better focused on once and for all dealing with legacy and dealing with our past in an open way.

Like many others, I have been struck and moved by the immense dignity and respect shown by the Ballymurphy families to all victims of our past, and we would all do well to follow their lead so that the deep, painful wounds of all victims are given a chance to heal.

Photo of Doug Beattie Doug Beattie UUP

In 1971,180 of our citizens were murdered as part of the Troubles. The year after that, nearly 500 were murdered, and many more thousands were injured. Northern Ireland was on fire. Sectarianism was taking hold. Three-way gun battles took place virtually every day. We were descending into chaos. Some people will paint themselves into a corner and will never criticise anybody whom they deem to be on their side. Let me be clear: as an ex-soldier, I will criticise anybody when I think that they are wrong. What happened at Ballymurphy over those three days was wrong, and, because of what happened, 10 people — nine men and one woman — who had aspirations for the future and had families to be with and loved ones to share a life with were killed. They were totally and absolutely innocent, and they should not have been killed.

My thoughts today are with their family members as they think back to the times that they could have had with the loved ones who were killed over those three days. I commend them for seeking justice. Everybody deserves truth and justice, even when the truth and justice are hard to hear. For 50 years, that is what the Ballymurphy families strove for. I met them a number of years ago. It is the only time that I met the families. They gave me their testimony, which was harrowing back then and has been confirmed by the coroner.

We must take notice of that. It is a plea to everybody: do not say, "They are on my side, and I can justify what they did", when you cannot. We should look at what is happening and what has happened in our past and work for reconciliation. Part of that is to give a simple impact statement: "What we did on that day was wrong. What happened to those families in Ballymurphy over those three days in 1971 was wrong". I commend the families in seeking justice.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance 12:15 pm, 17th May 2021

On behalf of the Alliance Party, I join others in recognising how the Ballymurphy families pursued their long and tortuous path to seeking justice with immense courage and dignity.

While truth cannot bring back loved ones who were lost, the families have received complete and utter vindication. Not only were the victims completely innocent and the use of force utterly without justification but the families had to put up with the libel that the victims were IRA gunmen. Even in the most challenging of circumstances in 1971, these deaths should never have occurred.

The Ballymurphy massacre had wider repercussions for the UK Government and their predecessors, both in how the massacre was able to take place and how it was handled afterwards. However, in the immediate aftermath of the inquest findings, the UK Government needed to give an unqualified and comprehensive apology to the families. The manner in which that was handled last week was not only clumsy but offensive. In the aftermath of the Bloody Sunday inquiry, there is a clear model in the way in which the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, gave such an apology. It was almost as though the current Prime Minister did not want to be bothered and was just going through the motions.

The Matter of the Day is rightly around the Ballymurphy families. However, in recognising them, we need to recognise the many thousands of other families across Northern Ireland and further afield who still wait for their justice and truth.

There will be other occasions on which to debate what the Government are doing around legacy and what should happen now. However, it is worth noting that what is now in train does not have the support of the Ballymurphy families, other victims' groups, most of the political parties or many veterans.

The approach of the Government appears to be framed through the lens of addressing the false narrative of vexatious investigations and then bolting on whatever else it takes to get there, rather than taking a holistic approach to maximising truth and justice. We already have a legacy process agreed by the UK and Irish Governments and most of the Northern Ireland political parties in the Stormont House Agreement of 2014. Although far from perfect, it has the potential to deliver outcomes in truth and justice. As recently as January 2020, with New Decade, New Approach, there was a commitment from the Government to the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement.

Today, I pay my respects to Patsy, Geraldine and the Mullan family, from Portaferry and beyond, and to all the families, whose names were read out by Mr Sheehan. Those families have been through hell.

Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green

I will not speak for long as much of what needs to be said has been said already. This is rightly about the Ballymurphy families. The verdict of the coroner affirmed what the families of those killed in Ballymurphy in 1971 have always known: their loved ones were entirely innocent. It is shameful that it has taken 50 years for official recognition of the killing of these 10 people. The families have lived through the past 50 years with the heavy toll of injustice that was visited upon them, and they have not given up.

I hope that the coroner's verdict comes as a degree of comfort after decades of distress and compounded grief, but it is nowhere near enough. I pay tribute to the fortitude of the Ballymurphy families and the grace and dignity that they have shown during this very difficult and protracted inquest process.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

The sheer tenacity of the Ballymurphy families brought them to the point at which they had recourse to due process. As a group, they obtained the verdict that their loved ones were innocent. It behoves us all to accept the verdict, and it was a long time in coming. Of course, the manner of their dying will remain a very heavy burden for many.

It would be wrong, however, not to note the very tumultuous circumstances in which all of that happened. Although much has been said of an adverse nature about the security forces, the reality is that, in so many instances, they stood between this community and the horrendous death and destruction that was intended by the terrorists. Bombers who went out to bomb and murderers who went out to murder chose to be terrorists. No one who joined the security forces chose to be a murderer, yet terrible things happened, and, when they happen, they leave a desperate scar on society.

That scar also plays up to what many other innocent victims have never had recourse. They have never had due process. The victims of La Mon, Teebane and Kingsmills never had public inquiries or fulsome inquests. They certainly never had trials. They too need to be remembered, as does the pain and hurt that they continue to bear, with little sign that anyone will bring respite to them.

Undoubtedly, things happened in the past that were wrong in every way, but that is not an excuse for those who brought this Province to that point of uprising and tumult —

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

— to rewrite the history that is the truth of the past.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Thank you. Order, please. That concludes that item of business.