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May 17, 2021

Ballymurphy Families Win Decades-Long Fight For Official Truth

News last week that a Belfast coroner had officially declared "entirely innocent" ten local people shot dead in 1971 was a vindication of the campaign run by the victims’ families and their lawyers.

Theirs was a 50-year struggle for the truth to be accepted. Coroner Mrs Justice Keegan confirmed on Tuesday that nine civilians were killed by members of the British Parachute Regiment in the Ballymurphy neighborhood of west Belfast over three days in August 1971, during the early years of The Troubles. The inquest couldn’t definitively establish who killed John McKerr, the tenth victim.

Justice Keegan dismissed claims by soldiers that some of the victims had been armed and shooting, finding that all of those killed were unarmed and "entirely innocent of wrongdoing on the day in question," and that they "posed no threat to soldiers." The victims included 44-year-old mother of eight Joan Connolly, who had gone to the aid of the wounded 20-year-old Noel Phillips. 

The inquest heard that a bullet went through her eye and took “half her face off.” She was shot three more times, and soldiers let her lie on the ground bleeding to death from 9:00 p.m. to 3:15 a.m., because - as their statements said - “She was already dead.” Another man shot dead was local priest Fr Hugh Mullan, killed after helping the wounded Bobby Clarke. 

It's taken half a century of struggle for the families to have the truth acknowledged, and an arduous ordeal for their lawyers going up against the British establishment.

As Human Rights First reported in 2017, human rights lawyers in Northern Ireland - including those representing families of the Ballymurphy massacre - have been vilified and threatened for years by the British media and senior politicians.

The issue of past crimes committed by British soldiers - part of what's known locally as "legacy cases" - is highly sensitive in Ireland and Britain. Faced with the prospect of human rights lawyers bringing cases against former British soldiers for 1970s killings, the British government has for some years been considering introducing some form of immunity from prosecution for its ex-military personnel.

This has been accompanied by a campaign of vilification against lawyers attempting to hold former British soldiers to account. Belfast lawyer Padraig O Muirigh represents the Ballymurphy families, and featured prominently in the Human Rights First study on attacks on lawyers.

In December 2016, popular British newspaper The Sun ran a series of articles smearing Northern Ireland human rights lawyers as exploiting the legacy cases for lucrative profits. Headlines included “TANKCHASE LAWYERS AGONY FOR 1,000 SQUADDIES [British soldiers]; FIRMS’ PROFIT FROM HEROES, and “LAWYERS SCORED £12M IN LEGAL AID.” Several lawyers were singled out, including O Muirigh.  

In the comments section under the online version of one article, a contributor wrote, “Soldiers should have immunity from this kind of thing. These parasite lawyers need shooting along with the scum they’re representing.”

I spent time with O Muirigh when I was researching the report for Human Rights First. He told me that the fabricated stories about him and other human rights attorneys making a fortune out of the legacy cases had some traction. He said that when “walking into city center I get comments…‘You must be the richest fucking lawyer in the world,’ one woman walking past me said recently." 

He said too that in October 2014, police warned him that paramilitaries had gathered information on his movements, and that he should review his personal security. One newspaper reporting the threats featured O Muirigh’s photo with crosshairs superimposed over his face.

Human Rights First has a long history of documenting attacks on human rights lawyers in Northern Ireland, dating back to the early 1990s and the pursuit of justice for the family of murdered lawyer Pat Finucane.

Interest in Northern Ireland and the role of the British state in past human rights violations remains strong in the U.S. Congress. Earlier this month, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs held hearings on reaffirming the Good Friday Agreement, where the issue of legacy cases was addressed.

Whether or not the families of the Ballymurphy massacre will be able to bring any prosecutions against former British soldiers is open to question, but last week’s news was a landmark victory for them, and for their lawyers.