By Clodagh Kilcoyne
BELFAST (Reuters) – British soldiers unjustifiably shot or used disproportionate force in the deaths of nine of the 10 innocent people killed in an 1971 incident in Belfast that sparked an upsurge of violence during Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’, a judge-led inquiry found.
A Catholic priest and a mother of eight who served soldiers tea during the ‘Troubles’ were among the victims in an event Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney described on Tuesday as “one of the most tragic days” of Northern Ireland’s three decades of bloodshed.
Judge Siobhan Keegan delivered her findings to applause from families of the victims shortly after the British government announced it would introduce legislation to give greater protection to former soldiers who served in Northern Ireland, plans Dublin and many in Belfast fiercely oppose.
“All of the deceased were entirely innocent of any wrongdoing on the day in question,” Keegan, the coroner for the case, concluded.
The deaths over a three-day period of disorder in the Ballymurphy area of Belfast – a sprawling housing estate of Catholics who opposed British rule – occurred in the days after the introduction of internment without trial for suspected militants triggered disorder on the streets.
Father Hugh Mullan, the 38-year-old priest who died, was helping an injured man and waving a white object before he was shot twice in the back, the inquiry found.
“Our brother was killed by the British Army and then they lied about it to cover up their injustice,” Mullan’s brother Patsy told a news conference. “After 50 years the truth we always knew has finally been told.”
There was not enough evidence to say whether the army were responsible for the death of one the victims, John James McKerr, who was indiscriminately shot going to and from work. However Judge Keegan said it was “shocking” that the state did not carry out a proper investigation into the killing.
Questions also remain unanswered about the identity of the soldiers who shot many of the victims, the judge added.
No one has been charged or convicted in connection with any of the killings. The inquest was a fact-finding exercise and not a criminal trial.
“The police have never to this day investigated the deaths of our loved ones,” said John Taggert, the son of one of those killed. “No one should be above the law.”
Some 3,600 people were killed in the sectarian confrontation between Irish nationalist militants, pro-British “loyalist” paramilitaries and British military that largely came to an end after a 1998 peace agreement.
The British government plans to “take the time to review the report and carefully consider the conclusions drawn”, a spokesman said.
(Writing by Padraic Halpin in Dublin, Editing by William Maclean and Giles Elgood)