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Story Publication logo June 23, 2021

'You Can Remember the Truth, but You Can’t Remember the Lies': The Lessons of the Ballymurphy Massacre

A memorial mural to the victims of the Ballymurphy massacre that reads, "The Ballymurphy Massacre August 1971 We demand the truth".

In The Ballymurphy Precedent, Collum Macrae probes the killings of 10 unarmed Catholics, including a...

People stand and cheer in front of a building. Some hold white flags that read 'Innocent.'
Ballymurphy families celebrate the inquest results. Image courtesy of Callum Macrae. United Kingdom, 2021.


Bobby Clarke was the first person to be shot by the British Army on the first day of a shameful and tragic event almost fifty years ago, now known as the Ballymurphy Massacre. Clarke survived, but 10 unarmed and innocent people from the same nationalist estate in West Belfast, Northern Ireland, died from gunshot wounds. They included a priest, Father Hugh Mullan, shot after he ran from his house to help Bobby as he lay on the ground with a bullet wound in his back, and a mother of eight, Joan Connelly, shot several times, once in the face, as she ran to help another injured victim. She was left by the British to die of her injuries.

An eleventh man, a social worker named Paddy McCarthy, was injured in the hand by a British Army gunshot, one of as many as 30 people shot and injured in Ballymurphy over the three bloody days of the massacre. Despite his injury, McCarthy insisted on going out to supply milk and bread to young families trapped in their homes by the shooting, only to be threatened by a foot-patrol from the elite British Parachute Regiment. He died of a heart attack there on the pavement.

Most if not all of those who died were shot by the Parachute Regiment. In May, nearly five decades after the massacre, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson issued what has to be one of the most evasive and inadequate political apologies in the history of that insincere genre.

Portrait of Bobby Clarke.
Bobby Clarke, survivor. Image courtesy of Callum Macrae.

The Ballymurphy killings followed the introduction on August 9, 1971, of the mass internment of nationalists suspected of IRA sympathies. Some were held for years without trial or charge. Others were hooded, abused, and subjected to techniques now widely condemned as torture. Protests broke out across the north as families demanded the release of their loved ones. In Ballymurphy, the protests centered on a building commandeered by the Parachute Regiment as one of their local bases. Several of those who died were shot by soldiers in the barracks.

In the aftermath of the killings, the British Army claimed the victims were IRA gunmen, a gunwoman, and a petrol bomber.

That was a lie. A terrible, cynical lie which had the effect, if such a thing was possible, of twisting the knife even deeper in the wounds of the grieving families. And it was a lie that the British Army failed to retract for decades.

Three years ago, with the support of the Pulitzer Center, among others, I had the privilege of making a feature documentary film that told the truth about what really happened called The Ballymurphy Precedent. Only now can I say it “told the truth” without inevitable howls of outrage and denial because in May, after two years of deliberation, a renewed inquest in Belfast finally laid the British Army’s lies to rest—and confirmed what the families and witnesses had been saying all along.

The coroner, Justice Siobhan Keegan, concluded that all of the victims were “entirely innocent” and that their killings could not be justified by the state. She was able to reach that unequivocal conclusion despite the fact that the inquest had been complicated by constant delays by the Ministry of Defence, “lost” official documents, and military witness after witness claiming they “could not remember” the details.

In contrast, the events were seared in the memories of the families and of survivors like Bobby Clarke. When Clarke, now 85, was asked why his story had never changed over the decades, he said: “You can remember the truth, but you can’t remember the lies.” It was a deliberate and pointed observation because, throughout the inquest, it was members of the British Army who seemed to be most afflicted with memory problems.

One army witness who had particular difficulties with his memory when he testified was a young captain at the time of the killings. He was then the adjutant and press officer for 1 Para, the battalion of the Parachute Regiment that shot two of the victims on day three of the massacre.

Despite his difficulty remembering the details, there is actually a very clear record of what the captain said on the day of those two killings. It’s in a Belfast Telegraph report headlined, “In the Morning Two Gunmen Die.” The story quotes the captain saying his men “fought a two hour gun-battle” with as many 20 gunmen who, he said, were using Thompson submachine guns, pistols, and rifles. “We killed two of them and recovered their bodies,” the captain told the paper.

Newspaper headline reading, "In the early morning two gunmen die".
Image courtesy of Callum Macrae.
Belfast Telegraph headline reading, "We have wiped out IRA hard-core—claims the army"
Image courtesy of Callum Macrae.

But as the families always maintained—and as we said in the film—the inquest has finally confirmed, half a century after the event, that those two men they killed were not gunmen. One was an innocent, unarmed 19-year-old called John Laverty, the other an innocent father of seven, Joe Corr. Both were shot in the back as they ran away from the paratroopers who had fired, apparently indiscriminately, into a crowd of local Catholic civilians.

The captain who described John and Joe as heavily armed IRA gunmen is now better known as General Sir Mike Jackson, a man who subsequently rose seamlessly through the ranks to become head of the British Army. A national hero.

And that is not the end of the story. Less than six months after the Ballymurphy killings, Jackson’s battalion, 1 Para, was sent from Belfast to the north’s second city, Derry, to “police” a large anti-internment march (over the objections of local army and police commanders who knew what the Parachute Regiment was capable of). On that march, they shot dead another 13 unarmed civilians. A fourteenth died later. Unlike at Ballymurphy, these killings were filmed—and the day became known the world over as Bloody Sunday. But again the army claimed the victims included gunmen and bombers.

Bloody Sunday eventually became the subject of the UK’s longest-ever public inquiry during which Jackson again appears to have had a memory lapse. In April 2003, he appeared before the inquiry and explained that, despite being adjutant, and therefore effectively second-in-command of the battalion, he had seen none of the shooting. However, his lack of knowledge of the events on Bloody Sunday was subsequently called into question when the inquiry was presented with a contemporary handwritten army record of the shootings that day. The document, a “shot list,” contained detailed descriptions of several shootings and identified most of the victims as nail-bombers, petrol bombers, and gunmen. That list appears to have been the source of the official story released to the media by the army and circulated to British diplomats around the world to justify the killings.

But the list was a complete work of fiction. None of the locations appeared to be consistent with where the bodies were found. Bullets would have had to turn corners or travel through buildings to perform as suggested by the descriptions on the list.  The victims, as the inquiry was able to establish, were unarmed and innocent.

That list was in the handwriting of General Sir Mike Jackson. When Jackson was summoned back to answer questions about the document, he confessed he had “forgotten” about it when first testifying, though he now admitted to a “vague” memory of it.

A woman stands at a podium in front of a black and white mural.
Briege Voyle, beneath a portrait of her mother, Joan Connolly. Image courtesy of Callum Macrae. United Kingdom, 2021.

So what will come of the official lies exposed by both the Ballymurphy Inquest and the Bloody Sunday Inquiry?  For the relatives of those who died, it is vindication of decades of campaigning. I came to know the Ballymurphy families well during the making of The Ballymurphy Precedent, and I can honestly say they are some of the most dignified, determined, and brave people I have met. I know that this result will not end the pain, but it will bring some degree of closure. They have cleared the names of their loved ones, and that is an extraordinary tribute to their tenacity and their courage.

But the story is not over. The ball is now in the court of the British Army, the Ministry of Defence, and the government—and they must not be allowed to ignore it. Trying to “remember and repeat” the lies of the past won’t wash any more. Instead they must confront the truth they have been forced to hear. And that truth demands a complete rethink of what happened on Bloody Sunday.

The Bloody Sunday Inquiry concluded, quite correctly, that the victims were innocent and their deaths unjustified. But it also concluded that those deaths could not have been predicted by the army or the government—that the blame lay with one officer and a number of members of the lower ranks. It was a conclusion the inquiry could only reach because it had specifically decided not to consider events at Ballymurphy.

But after the Ballymurphy Inquest findings, the senior commanders and the government can no longer hide behind the claim that Bloody Sunday was all the fault of some ill-disciplined “bad apples.” Because it wasn’t the “bad apples” or the junior orders of the Parachute Regiment who decided to go to Derry less than six months after they had killed so many innocent people in Ballymurphy. It was their commanders. And if those commanders did not know what the Paratroopers were likely to do, they certainly should have.

Justice now demands that the army high command, the Ministry of Defence, and the government are called to account for what, it is now clear, was a pattern of behavior.

The Ballymurphy Massacre and Bloody Sunday were two of the most critical events in the transformation of what started as a peaceful campaign for civil rights into a bloody, thirty-year war.

It is deeply ironic that on the very day the Ballymurphy Inquest findings were released, the British government confirmed, through the arcane ritual of the Queen’s Speech, that their program for this parliamentary session would include legislation to deal with the “legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.” It was widely seen as a coded reference to the Johnson government’s stated commitment to introduce some kind of immunity for soldiers accused of committing crimes during the so-called “Troubles.”

A commitment that may explain why last month’s “apology” from Boris Johnson was so evasive. (He apologized to their families “for how the investigations were handled” and the delay in acknowledging the victims innocence. He entirely failed to apologize for the fact that they were unlawfully killed by British soldiers, to whom he wants to grant immunity.)

But if that “amnesty” legislation is ever to be passed, it will enshrine in law the right of the army and its government to “forget” their crimes. It will lock a burning sense of betrayal and distrust in the hearts of the survivors, the families, and their communities—and  will cause yet more damage to the fragile, but vital, peace process.

Callum Macrae is the director of The Ballymurphy Precedent. He is an Emmy, Grierson, and triple Bafta nominee whose awards in the U.S. include a Peabody and a Columbia Dupont award.

The trailer for The Ballymurphy Precedent can be seen here, and the film can be rented or bought on Amazon Prime Video

Callum Macrae is on Twitter. @Callum_Macrae


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