Investigations into the actions of British soldiers during the Troubles were branded a “macabre charade” by Lord Bramall, Britain’s former defence chief, earlier this month. Sir Nick Carter, the current head of the armed forces, also weighed in against “a clutch of vexatious claims” against soldiers, and warned against what he reportedly dismissed as attempts to “rewrite history”.
There is a very real problem with these comments. I have just made a film that is not an attempt to rewrite history, but an attempt to tell a hidden history. Neither Bramall nor Carter will like it, but this is a story that needs to be told. Not just for the record, not just to help redress a terrible damage done to the victims and their families, but because the failure to acknowledge this history remains a block on Northern Ireland’s painful road to peace and reconciliation.
My film, The Ballymurphy Precedent, investigates a shocking series of killings that took place over three days in west Belfast’s Ballymurphy estate in 1971.
The incident is doubly significant because most, if not all, of those killings were carried out by members of Britain’s elite Parachute Regiment less than six months before Bloody Sunday, when the same regiment shot dead 13 unarmed people in Derry’s Bogside.
On 10 September, a renewed inquest begins into the Ballymurphy deaths. It can establish whether violence was justified
The victims in Ballymurphy included a priest who was attending another man who had been shot (the other man survived) – and a mother of eight children. Several of the dead were shot more than once – some several times. No credible evidence has been presented suggesting they were armed. Autopsy reports reveal that several were shot in the back as they ran away from the paratroopers. Ten of the victims died of gunshot wounds – an 11th died of a heart attack during a confrontation with an armed Para patrol.
Just as they did on Bloody Sunday, the army immediately released statements describing the victims as gunmen and terrorists. Those claims have never been withdrawn.
It was four decades before the Saville inquiry concluded that all the victims of the Bloody Sunday killings in Derry were innocent. But Saville also emphatically rejected any suggestion that the army sent 1 Para to Derry knowing what they were likely to do, or even that they intended to do it. That effectively suggested Bloody Sunday was not the fault of either the government or the Ministry of Defence, and largely placed the blame on the commander of 1 Para.
Scuffles at Ballymurphy memorial hall in August 1971. Video from Cine Camera. Ireland, 1971.
I believe that what happened in Ballymurphy makes that conclusion unsustainable. The army chiefs in Belfast who decided to send 1 Para to Derry in January 1972 (to help control a massive anti-internment march), knew only too well what the Paras had already done in Ballymurphy – and if they didn’t they certainly should have. Police and British army commanders in Derry, committed to a more conciliatory approach than those in Belfast, had also warned of the dangers posed by importing the Paras’ hardline tactics.
But I would suggest that Belfast’s hardline strategy was an inevitable product of Britain’s whole approach to “peacekeeping” in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland civil rights movement, which evolved in the late 60s, had virtually identical demands to those of Martin Luther King in the US. They boiled down to an end to discrimination and a demand for an end to anti-Catholic gerrymandering – “one man, one vote” as it was quaintly known in those days.
When loyalist mobs and unionist police responded to those civil rights marches with violence and repression, rather like their white equivalents in the deep south of the US, the UK sent in the army ostensibly to “restore law and order”. They were welcomed by most Catholics. In my film, Briege Voyle, the daughter of Joan Connolly, the mother of eight who would later be shot dead in Ballymurphy by the Paras, remembers her mother giving the soldiers tea and biscuits when they first arrived. Voyle’s sister married one of the soldiers.
But where federal forces in the US effectively (albeit inadequately and belatedly) took the side of the civil rights marches and enforced laws banning segregation, the UK’s “federal forces” – the army – set about restoring “law and order”. This was the law and order of an avowedly sectarian, Protestant state, with all its panoply of discriminatory practices.
It was therefore inevitable that many Catholics who had initially welcomed the army as protectors soon began to see them as oppressors. And after events like Ballymurphy and Bloody Sunday, it was equally inevitable that many began to turn to the IRA.
There is another reason why the truth about Ballymurphy needs to be told; and in the long term, it is probably the most important reason of all. If the culture of impunity, licence and, frankly, indiscipline that allowed these killings to happen is not acknowledged and addressed then the clear danger is that these kind of events could happen again.
For that reason alone, I would suggest, Carter – as chief of the defence staff – should stand wholeheartedly behind the search for truth and justice over Ballymurphy, and all other incidents of concern involving British forces during the troubles. Anything else would be an abdication of his responsibilities.
On 10 September a renewed inquest begins into the Ballymurphy deaths. While an inquest cannot establish criminal responsibility, it can establish whether the violence was justified. For the relatives that would be a start.
Callum Macrae is the director of The Ballymurphy Precedent, out now. A shorter version will be broadcast on Channel 4 in September.