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British government apologises for Ballymurphy massacre in Northern Ireland

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Families of the 10 victims celebrated on Tuesday as the coroner's verdicts were read out
Families of the 10 victims celebrated on Tuesday as the coroner's verdicts were read out   -   Copyright  Peter Morrison/AP
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The British government has formally apologised for the killing of 10 civilians during unrest in Belfast, Northern Ireland during unrest 25 years ago.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis told the House of Commons, the lower house of the UK parliament, on Thursday that the government “profoundly regrets and is truly sorry’’ for events in the Ballymurphy area of west Belfast in 1971.

A coroner’s court in Northern Ireland had ruled Tuesday that the nine men and one women killed by British troops that August had been innocent victims of "clearly disproportionate" force.

"The events of Ballymurphy should never have happened," Lewis said on Thursday. "The families of those who were killed should never have had to experience the grief and trauma of that loss.

"They should have not had to wait nearly five decades for the judgment this week, nor have been compelled to relive that terrible time in August 1971 again and again."

It came a day after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson apologised to the leaders of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government in a phone call on Wednesday.

Johnson repeated the apology in a letter to the families on Thursday, in which he said: "The duty of the State is to hold itself to the highest standard and that requires us to recognize the hurt and agony caused when we fall short of those standards.''

Coroner's verdict welcomed after 50 years of heartache

The 10 bystanders killed in August 1971 included a priest and a mother-of-eight. The incident occurred at the height of "The Troubles", a bloody sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland that raged for three decades until 1998 and saw 3,000 people killed.

The inquest in Ballymurphy found that all but one of the 10 had been shot by British soldiers, who had been dispatched to the province on a peacekeeping mission in 1969.

In the remaining case, Judge Siobhan Keehan could not make a "definitive finding" over who fired the fatal shot. But she surmised: "All of the deceased in this series of inquests were entirely innocent of any wrongdoing."

In the case of one man, she described the inadequacy of the original investigation as "shocking". The courtroom rang out with applause from families after each of the verdicts were delivered over the course of three hours.

Dozens of relatives had arrived at the court earlier in the day, clutching pictures of their loved ones and wearing T-shirts bearing their portraits.

"It's been 50 years," said a tearful Joan Connolly, the 63-year-old daughter of one of the dead. "It's destroyed our lives, it really has. But we have justice today, we have peace. We have cleared my mummy's name."

Podrig O Muirig, a lawyer for the families of the victims, said it had been a long journey for them all. "We had an inquest in 1972," he said, "which was deeply flawed. We had no police investigation. There was a historical inquiries team review a decade ago, which was equally flawed. So this is the first time that the British government has been held to account in a court of law."

Watch the full report of the judgement in the video player above.