LONDON -- A coroner in Northern Ireland ruled Tuesday that 10 civilians killed during military operations in west Belfast half a century ago were innocent victims, clearing them of suggestions that they were shot for attacking British soldiers.
Family members, who had requested a new inquest to clear the names of their loved ones, applauded as High Court Justice Siobhan Keegan delivered her findings. The killings occurred in August 1971 as the British Army confronted protesters in the Ballymurphy area of Belfast during the early days of the sectarian conflict that became known as The Troubles.
Though she acknowledged that the times were chaotic, Keegan ruled that none of the victims had been engaged in paramilitary activity at the time they were shot. They included a mother of eight, a Catholic priest and a World War II veteran.
The victims were “entirely innocent of wrongdoing on the day in question,” Keegan said as she delivered the verdict.
The shootings occurred from Aug. 9 to Aug. 11, 1971, amid protests over the government’s decision to implement a new policy allowing suspected militants to be interned without trial. As soldiers moved into Ballymurphy to arrest suspected members of the Irish Republican Army, they clashed with protesters.
Keegan’s ruling was a harsh indictment of military conduct during the protests, finding that the victims weren’t acting in a threatening manner, the state had failed to justify the shootings and that investigations had been inadequate.
A series of one-day inquests held in 1972 returned “open verdicts” for each of the deaths. These verdicts, which were used in cases where a coroner’s court didn’t consider the circumstances of a death, allowed suggestions to persist that the victims were somehow responsible for their deaths.
The new inquest was ordered in 2011, following a campaign by the victims’ families. It ultimately heard more than 100 days of testimony during hearings that stretched from November 2018 to March 2020.
While Keegan ruled that nine of the 10 deaths were caused by British soldiers, she said there wasn't enough evidence to determine who fired the fatal shots in one case. The findings were based on the civil standard of proof, known as the balance of probabilities, not the higher criminal standard.
The first of the incidents was among the most chilling.
Father Hugh Mullan, 38, was hit by at least two high velocity bullets as he tried to help a shooting victim while waving a white handkerchief as a sign of peace, according to the verdict. Francis Quinn, 19, who accompanied Mullan, was also killed in the same incident.
The use of force was disproportionate and soldiers violated the rules of engagement in force at the time, Keegan found.
“He was unarmed, not acting in any way as a threat, attending to a wounded man in the field and waving a white object as a sign of his peaceful intentions,” Keegan said of Mullan.
The verdict comes as former soldiers press the U.K. government to ensure they aren’t prosecuted for conduct decades ago when they were sent to enforce the peace in Northern Ireland. More than 3,000 people died during decades of violence between mostly Catholic supporters of unification with the Republic of Ireland and mostly Protestant backers of continued ties with the United Kingdom.
John Teggart, whose father, Danny, was one of the victims, read out the names of the 10 dead at a press conference in Corpus Christi Youth Club in Belfast, pausing to say the word ‘innocent’ after every name.
The families are outraged at the prospect that the soldiers could be granted amnesty for their actions, he said.
“I want to speak directly to the people of Britain at this moment," he said. “Can you imagine what would happen if the British soldiers murdered 10 unarmed civilians on the streets of London, Liverpool or Birmingham? What would you expect, an investigation? Would you expect justice? Or would you be happy for them to get an amnesty?”
A UK government spokesperson said the findings had been “long awaited by the bereaved families of the deceased, military personnel and their relatives."
“We recognize how difficult the process has been for all of those affected by the events of August 1971 and the inquest," the spokesperson said. "We will now take the time to review the report and carefully consider the conclusions drawn.”