Seeking justice for Belfast’s forgotten massacre

Posted By: November 18, 2018


Ten civilians, including a mother-of-eight and a priest, were killed in Ballymurphy in August 1971. As their inquests open, the families hope the truth about the massacre will be uncovered

Kim Bielenberg. Irish Independent. Sunday, November 18, 2018

It happened just six months before Bloody Sunday, and the same British army regiment was responsible for the killings.

In August 1971, 10 Catholic civilians were shot dead over three days in the Ballymurphy area of West Belfast.

For decades, the victims of the Ballymurphy massacre, in which the Parachute Regiment was implicated, were largely forgotten beyond their own community.

Unlike the murders on Bloody Sunday in Derry, the killings happened away from the spotlight – and they were not photographed or filmed by TV crews.

The shootings occurred during a frenetic time in Belfast, just as the authorities were introducing internment – the rounding up and imprisoning of paramilitary suspects without trial.

It was a time of shooting, explosions and arson attacks all over the city.

Nobody has been brought to justice for the deaths of the ten civilians, but 47 years later, the families have been given renewed hope that the truth about what happened will be exposed.

Inquests investigating the 1971 killings finally opened at the Laganside Court in Belfast this week.

Sean Doran, the barrister for the coroner’s service, outlined some of the evidence that will be examined during the inquests that are expected to go on for months.

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

Doran added that this ran contrary to that of the Ballymurphy families who say the deaths resulted from “illegitimate, unjustified and indiscriminate use of force by the army on civilians.”

The families suggest that the army’s actions resulted in the deaths of 10 “entirely innocent civilians.”

This week at the inquest hearings, family members recalled Father Hugh Mullan, the curate in Ballymurphy, who was shot dead “while performing his spiritual duties as a priest.”

The 38-year-old was helpful and kind, his younger brother Patsy told the inquest hearing. He loved to play his guitar for family, friends and the children of the parish.

Fr. Mullan had only recently moved to the Corpus Christi parish, and when trouble started in Ballymurphy, he was reportedly trying to calm the crowds down.

Trouble had flared from earlier that morning on August 9, when hundreds of soldiers moved into the estate, kicking down doors, and dragging suspects from their beds.

There were riotous scenes on the estate that evening and at one stage, gunfire could be heard.

During the evening, local man Bobby Clarke had been trying to remove children from the area and was crossing a field. Clarke was shot in the back by the paratroopers.

Local people sent for Fr. Mullan. Before entering the field, where Clarke lay wounded, the priest phoned the nearby army barracks to warn the soldiers he was going to help him.

In a scene similar to Bloody Sunday, when the priest Edward Daly held a white handkerchief as he went into the line of fire of troops, Fr. Mullan waved a white babygro as he approached Clarke to give him the last rites.

Tending to Clarke, he realized that the injured man could survive with medical assistance, and tried to move away to phone an ambulance. It was then that the priest was himself shot in the back by the paras.

Fr. Mullan prayed as he lay dying, and another man, 19-year-old Frank Quinn, who had been trying to help Bobby Clarke, was also shot in the back of the head and died. In the event, Bobby Clarke was the only one of the three men who survived.

“It was announced on the radio that a priest had been shot in Ballymurphy and I knew immediately that it was my brother,” recalled Patsy Mullan in a later interview. “He had no fear, and he would never abandon his parishioners.”

Among the relatives at the hearings, this week was Briege Voyle, who spoke movingly about her mother Joan Connolly, the only woman killed in the massacre.

Like many other Catholics, Joan Connolly, a mother of eight children, had initially welcomed the troops with tea and sandwiches when they arrived in Belfast.

But on August 9, she was caught in the trouble flaring up in Ballymurphy.

Amid riotous scenes in the area, Joan told two of her daughters to go home, but she never made it home herself.

The British soldiers opened fire, and she saw 20-year-old Noel Phillips being shot in front of her. As he crawled along in the field, she is said to have cried out: “Don’t worry son, I’m coming. I’ll help you!”

As she walked over to the wounded man, she was first shot in the face.

Witnesses heard her repeatedly screaming that she had been blinded and calling for help. Then there were more shots, and she fell silent. Danny Teggart, a father of 13, was also shot nearby and killed.

Later on, Joan Connolly’s husband Denis began to worry about what had happened to her and only found out after he was told there was a red-haired woman in the morgue.

Hours later, Joan Connolly’s five daughters were picked up and driven across the border, first to a refugee camp in Cork, and then to another camp in Waterford.

They were among 7,000 refugees from the North who were housed in camps in the South, usually in old army bases.

Briege Voyle recalled in an interview how two days after she fled Belfast and arrived in the refugee camp, she saw her mother’s funeral on RTÉ News.

“I can’t describe how awful that was,” she said. “My youngest sister Irene was three years old. She cried her eyes out.”

Briege Voyle has been keen to deny suggestions that her mother was armed on the day of her death

“While coping without her has been hard for all of us, what has made things worse were the media reports that she was a gunwoman and the rumors that followed us that we were the children of the gunwoman that was shot. I believe this to be untrue.”

One of the soldiers present in Ballymurphy wrote in a memoir: “The woman killed was said to be manning a Bren gun.”

But is that plausible? Would a 44-year-old mother-of-eight be operating a machine gun on open ground just 100 yards from an army base?

According to an account of the killings in The Guardian newspaper, soldiers recovered no weapons from any of the ten shot dead in Ballymurphy during that period.

Eyewitness Desmond Crone, who had been standing next to Joan Connolly when she was shot, said in a statement: “There was no shooting or stone throwing from the group of which I was a member.”

Six people were shot dead in the area on August 9, one man was killed on August 10, and three more on August 11.

Another man, community worker Pat McCarthy, died of a heart attack after an encounter with the troops in the West Belfast estate.

At the opening of the inquests, barrister Sean Doran said the original investigations into the deaths were “very limited.”

He said there were many examples of failure to get witness accounts and forensic opportunities were missed.

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

The new inquests will inevitably focus attention on the excesses of the Parachute Regiment, which was also involved in the killing of civilians on Bloody Sunday.

The families hope that the inquests will uncover the truth of what happened, but it remains to be seen if the soldiers involved cooperate.