Ballymurphy shootings: 36 hours in Belfast that left 10 dead

Posted By: June 27, 2014

More than 40 years after the shootings in a west Belfast neighbourhood, the Guardian has reconstructed the events surrounding what appears to be a killing spree by soldiers of the Parachute Regiment, just months before Bloody Sunday
Interactive: map of Ballymurphy showing where the victims were shot
A mural commemorating the 1971 shootings in Ballymurphy, west Belfast, Northern Ireland.

A mural commemorating the 1971 shootings in Ballymurphy, west Belfast, Northern Ireland. Photograph: Paul McErlane for the Guardian. Ian Cobain. Thursday 26 June 2014


One of the most tragic and controversial episodes of the conflict in Northern Ireland will be relived in a Belfast courtroom on Friday when a preliminary hearing is held into the deaths of 10 people shot dead more than four decades ago.

All 10 were killed in one small neighbourhood of westBelfast over little more than 36 hours in August 1971 during the disturbances that were triggered by the introduction of internment without trial.

Drawing upon hundreds of pages of contemporary witness statements, police reports and pathologists’ records gathered for the inquest, the Guardian has reconstructed the events surrounding the killings.

What emerges is a picture that is complex and confused, but which points to a prolonged killing spree by soldiers of the Parachute Regiment, several months before troops from the same regiment massacred protesters at Derry on Bloody Sunday.

Among the nine men and one woman fatally wounded in the streets around Ballymurphy between the evening of 9 August and the morning of 11 August were a local priest, shot twice while giving the last rites to a man who had also been shot, and a 44-year-old mother of eight, shot in the face.

At least eight of those who died appear to have been shot by soldiers of the Parachute Regiment. A ninth was shot by a soldier from a different regiment, while the 10th was shot by an unidentified sniper, possibly a soldier. Another man died of heart failure, allegedly after being subjected to a mock execution by soldiers.

Unlike on Bloody Sunday, however, no journalists were present, no camera crews captured the events, and there was no international condemnation of the killings.

The police investigation appears to have been a perfunctory affair, and only members of the Royal Militarypolice were permitted to interview the troops involved. The soldiers maintained that they had been shooting at terrorists, and that some of the dead were themselves gunmen and others caught in crossfire.

The original inquests were brief, resulting in open verdicts. Before long the killings, known locally as the Ballymurphy massacre, became half-forgotten.

The families of the dead have never forgotten, however. They have persuaded the attorney general for Northern Ireland to order fresh inquests which they believe will not only bring the truth about those 36 hours to the surface, but will lead to an official acknowledgement that all those who died were unarmed and innocent.

“The official version is that my daddy was a gunman, and that all these people were gunmen,” says John Teggart. His father Daniel, 44, was shot while attempting to cross open ground in front of an army base, and then shot several more times as he lay on the ground. “That isn’t true. My daddy wasn’t a gunman; none of them were gunmen. We all know the truth. But I want an official acknowledgement of the truth.”

A British soldier aims his rifle on a suspect in the republican Ballymurphy estate in west Belfast. A British soldier aims his rifle on a suspect in the republican Ballymurphy estate in west Belfast. Photograph: Alex Bowie
In the early hours of Monday 9 August, soldiers from 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment, based at a commandeered community centre in Ballymurphy known as the Henry Taggart memorial hall, were among thousands of troops across the province to round up republicans who were to be interned without trial. The swoops, codenamed Operation Demetrius, triggered some of the most intense violence of the conflict: 24 people were killed in Northern Ireland over the next four days, hundreds of homes were destroyed and thousands fled across the border to refugee camps set up by the Irish army.

In Ballymurphy, 18 people were taken from their homes and brought to the hall, where they say they were beaten before they were moved to another location.

The arrests triggered panic-buying in the local shops, barricades were erected across the roads and Irish tricolours hung from the lamp-posts. In an article published in the pacifist magazine Peace Newslater that month, Steve Pittam, an English student spending the summer as a youth worker in Ballymurphy, described how “aggressive and abusive” soldiers turned back people who attempted to leave the area. Today, Pittam recalls that local people were clearly preparing for a riot – teenage boys could be seen making petrol bombs – but they were not preparing for a gun battle.

Local people converged on the memorial hall, the most obvious focus for their anger. Cine camera footage shot by a local resident later that dayshows the hall coming under attack from young peoplethrowing stones and petrol bombs.

The troops inside say in their statements that they also came under fire. This version of events is angrily rejected by the relatives of those who died: they insist that the killings were utterly unprovoked.

Missiles were also exchanged between young Catholics from Ballymurphy and young Protestants in neighbouring Springmartin. In the summer of 1971, Springmartin was divided from the predominantly-Catholic Springfield Park only by six-foot railings. Today an 18ft barrier – a so-called peace wall – separates the two communities. Shortly after 4pm there was a brief lull when Father Hugh Mullan, a 40-year-old priest who lived in Springfield Park, remonstrated with the crowds.

During the late afternoon, according to the eyewitness evidence, a large number of people who had been demonstrating outside the hall surged toward the railings. A small number of shots appeared to have been fired.

A 16-year-old Protestant boy was wounded. Soldiers arrested a man with a shotgun and 10 rounds. One company commander, given the cypher “Soldier D”, described in his statement how a large Protestant crowd surrounded troops who arrested a Catholic man armed with a shotgun. “I considered this man to be in certain danger of lynching and I therefore fired three warning shots into the air to disperse them.”

Another officer, “Soldier K”, described a Protestant resident offering him armed assistance. “I told him I would shoot any person I saw that night armed with any weapon.” He shot one Protestant gunman in the leg.

Catholics close to Springmartin began to flee their homes. They picked up their children and fled across a piece of open ground, returning to pick up more children. “I was the last one to leave the house with my three-year-old daughter. I was struck on the back with shotgun pellets,” one of the residents, Gerald McCaffrey, told the police in a statement taken after the killings.

Soldiers on the roof of a half-built block of flats in Springmartin began to shoot into the Catholic housing, later claiming they were aiming at gunmen. At this stage it was still daylight, although dusk would soon fall.

Several residents gave statements in which they described being pinned down on a patch of open ground when the soldiers opened fire as they fled their homes. When one man, Robert Clarke, was shot in the back, one of his neighbours took two baby’s white nappies from a woman taking cover nearby and waved them in the air.

 Ballymurphy shootings: who was killed and where – interactive guide
Father Mullan, who lived opposite the open land, telephoned the army to warn them that soldiers were shooting at people fleeing their homes. He then ventured out to help Clarke, waving a white handkerchief above his head as he dashed across the road.

Sean Daly, who was lying beside Clarke, described in his statement how Mullan lay down to give Clarke the last rites. The wounded man told him: “I’m not ready for that yet.” Kevin Moore, a seaman on leave who was sheltering nearby, saw the priest then being shot twice: “He screamed and drew his knees up in front of his stomach and seemed to curl up in a ball.” Terence McIlharvey said in his statement that Mullan prayed in English and Latin for about 10 minutes, and then went quiet. “During this 10 minutes shots were still coming in very fast especially when anybody moved.”

At Mullan’s home, another priest, Father Felix McGuckin, telephoned the army again and said he planned to go out and look for Mullan. “I was told that in the circumstances I could be shot if seen moving.”

As Mullan lay dying, another man, Frank Quinn, 19, who was also attempting to help Clarke, was shot in the head and killed.

Statements taken from members of the Parachute Regiment were withheld from Quinn’s inquest held the following year. More significantly, a sergeant from the special investigation branch of the Royal Military police signed a statement in which he said that during his inquiries he had “ascertained that Military Personnel had fired from Springmartin Road”. By the time of Quinn’s inquest, he had signed a new statement in which the word “no” had appeared, so that it read: “I ascertained that no Military Personnel had fired from Springmartin Road …”

A few minutes after the deaths of Mullan and Quinn, another group of people, gathered opposite the Henry Taggart memorial hall, 250 yards to the south, also came under fire.

Joan Connolly, who had been loudly protesting about the internment operation, was shot dead, along with Noel Phillips, 20. Five men were wounded and were brought into the hall by soldiers. Two of them – Joseph Murphy, 41, and John Teggart’s father – died of their wounds.

One who survived, David Callaghan, lodged a complaint with the army about his treatment inside the hall. He gave a statement in which he said he had been kicked and clubbed with rifles, and that the wounded men were treated only when an army padre insisted upon it.

One soldier at the hall, known as “Soldier E” when he gave his statement, said he had shot three people, including Connolly. He said she had been “armed with what I thought to be a pistol”. Swabs of the dead woman’s hands suggested she had not fired a weapon, however. And when the bodies were recovered, no pistol was found.

In fact, soldiers recovered no weapons from any of the 10 shot dead in Ballymurphy over those 36 hours.

Victims of the Ballymurphy shootings: (clockwise from top left) Father Hugh Mullan, Noel Phillips, Joan Connolly, Eddie Doherty, Joseph Corr, Frank Quinn, John McKerr, Joseph Murphy, John Laverty and Danny Teggart.
 Victims of the Ballymurphy shootings: (clockwise from top left) Father Hugh Mullan, Noel Phillips, Joan Connolly, Eddie Doherty, Joseph Corr, Frank Quinn, John McKerr, Joseph Murphy, John Laverty and Danny Teggart. Photograph: Guardian
Desmond Crone, who had been standing with Connolly, Murphy and Teggart, said in his statement: “There was no shooting or stone throwing from the group of which I was a member.” When soldiers came out of the hall in an armoured car, to recover the dead and wounded, he said, “they threw them into the back like animals”.

The soldiers fired so many rounds that they ran low on ammunition. One of the soldiers who resupplied them, Harry Gow, then an 18-year-old paratrooper, wrote in a book published in 1995 that the soldiers inside the hall “were on a high” when he arrived. “As soon as I walked in I understood why. Six bodies lay sprawled at the bottom of a raised stage. One of them was a woman, hit at least three times. On every reunion I’ve attended the number of bodies in the hall has climbed. The last time I heard the story it had risen to 22.”

Gow said he believed the IRAhad handed out its weapons to local people who were attempting to overrun the hall. “The woman killed was said to be manning a Bren gun,” he wrote.

Today Gow is a barrister in Liverpool. Asked whether he really believed that a 44-year-old woman would be manning a machine gun on open land less than 100 yards from a well-defended army base, he replied: “Why would [the soldiers in the hall] lie to me? They might lie to inquiries, but they wouldn’t lie to me, a fellow Para.”

He said a friend of his had shot both Clarke and Mullan. “My friend shot the young man, and then he shot the priest when he picked up the man’s rifle. He may also have been giving the last rites, but he picked up the rifle.” Gow also insisted it was not possible that the soldiers had been mistaken; that they could not have shot unarmed people.

A mural commemorating the 1971 Ballymurphy shootings in west Belfast, Northern Ireland. A mural commemorating the 1971 Ballymurphy shootings in west Belfast, Northern Ireland. Photograph: Paul McErlane for the Guardian
The following day there was more rioting in Ballymurphy, and barricades were erected across some of the roads. At around 4.30pm that afternoon, at a road junction two-thirds of a mile south of the Henry Taggart memorial hall, a soldier driving a tractor with a mechanical shovel was attempting to dismantle one barricade while other troops fired rubber bullets towards the crowd.

Eyewitnesses said the driver was wearing a black beret, indicating that he was not a member of the Parachute Regiment. At one point, he opened the door of his tractor and opened fire. Edward Docherty, 28, a father of four, was hit and died within minutes.

Nine months later the soldier gave a statement for Docherty’s inquest in which he said he had been armed with a submachine gun which held 30 rounds, from which he “fired one shot” at a man who was about to throw a petrol bomb towards him.

A number of eyewitnesses gave statements saying Docherty was running away from the barricade when shot, and that the soldier had been firing indiscriminately.

Among the papers that will be considered by the inquests will be a statement that the soldier had given to military police three days after the incident in which he said he had accidentally switched his weapon to automatic, and that when he pulled the trigger he “emptied the magazine”.

The following day, 11 August, a few hundred yards west of the memorial hall, John Laverty, 20, was shot dead and Joseph Corr, 43, a father of seven, shot and wounded as soldiers from the 1st Battalion the Parachute Regiment entered Ballymurphy from the hills to the west. The soldier who was at the head of the patrol later gave a statement in which he said he shot two men whom he claimed were crawling towards him, shooting. The soldier said he then walked past the two men he had shot, but did not explain why no firearms were recovered from the scene. Corr died 16 days later.

Later that morning, John McKerr, 49, a joiner from Andersonstown in west Belfast, was carrying out some last-minute work at the newly-opened Corpus Christi church, a few yards from the spot where Edward Docherty had been shot the previous afternoon. McKerr took a break while a funeral service was being conducted, and walked outside. “A short time later I heard what I believed to be two shots,” a priest from the church, Father Francis Harper, said in his statement. Harper ran outside and found McKerr lying face down. “His head was lying in a pool of blood. I attended to him spiritually.” McKerr died eight days later.

A mural commemorating the 1971 shootings in Ballymurphy, west Belfast, Northern Ireland
 A mural commemorating the 1971 shootings in Ballymurphy, west Belfast, Northern Ireland. Photograph: Paul McErlane for the Guardian
A number of eyewitnesses said they saw soldiers shooting towards the area, but there is nothing in the police report to suggest that the army was asked about this. The police report into McKerr’s death is just 58 words long.

The families of the 10 dead believe that the fresh inquests will lead to an official acknowledgement that the dead had not been armed and will reveal whether the soldiers who fired the fatal shots were involved in other killings, such as those on Bloody Sunday.

The hearings are also likely to shed light on the role the IRA played in the disturbances in Ballymurphy during those 36 hours.

The Belfast commander of the IRA, Joe Cahill, had been staying at a house in the area, and his biographer quotes him as saying that the IRA’s response to the internment swoops had been so intense that civilian casualties were inevitable.

However, the IRA has denied shooting at troops during the time the 10 died; it says the soldiers were not trying to defend themselves against attack at the point at which they opened fire. It is a claim that many of the relatives of the dead appear to accept.

Another eyewitness, Ali Khilleh, a Palestinian student who was spending the summer as a youth worker in Ballymurphy, said his recollection is that soldiers appeared to be responsible for most of the shooting.

However, claims that shots were fired from within the crowd of Catholic demonstrators appear not only in the statements of soldiers and police officers who were present, but the statements of some local people. Gerard McCaffrey, for example, said that after plucking his daughter to safety when their home came under attack, he saw gunmen emerge from within the Catholic crowd and confront Protestants. “The number [of gunmen] seemed to increase considerably when the streets cleared,” his statement says. “It was a gun battle between the Catholic crowd at Springfield Park and the Protestant crowd at Springmartin. The army directed their fire at the Catholic crowd.”

Harry Gow insists that when he arrived at the memorial hall, it had been at the centre of a two-way gun battle. And some of the cine footage shot after the disturbancesindicates that the troops had been fired upon at some stage, as it appears to show holes in sandbags outside the Henry Taggart memorial hall.

 Ballymurphy killings: IRA shootings under dispute – video
What emerges above all else from the many contemporary statements and the recollections of those who were present is an impression of tumult, chaos and confusion. “It was very confusing,” says Pittam. “I was there and it was incredibly confusing at the time.”

Of one matter, he is certain: “By the end of that summer it would have been difficult to find anyone in that area who was not 100% behind the republican movement.”

After so many years, recovering the truth about the massacre will be an enormously complicated task. But the Ballymurphy families, like so many other people in Northern Ireland, feel they may never escape the shadows of the past until that truth is laid out in the open.