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Anger at naming of soldier who killed innocent Belfast man Henry Thornton

By Rebecca Black

A veterans group has criticised a decision to name a former soldier who shot dead an unarmed civilian in August 1971.

Senior Coroner Brian Sherrard named the now deceased Paratrooper Sergeant Allan McVitie yesterday during his final findings in an inquest into the death of Co Armagh workman Henry Thornton.

Mr Thornton (29), a father-of-six from Silverbridge, had been travelling in a van with a colleague along the Springfield Road in west Belfast.

Mr Sherrard found that shortly after passing a road barrier before the frequently attacked Springfield Police Station, the van backfired.

It backfired again on the approach to traffic lights of the junction with the Falls Road. Military personnel interpreted the sound of backfiring to be gunfire.

Sgt McVitie had been on desk duty when he heard the noise, and armed himself with a rifle before making his way to the Springfield Road where he spoke to Soldier C who also believed the backfiring van had been gunfire.

Sgt McVitie chased the van before the traffic lights turned green, at which point he fired two shots to the rear of the van. Both rounds hit Mr Thornton.

"At the time Sergeant McVitie fired the fatal shots his objective was to stop the van. He would undoubtedly have known that firing two high velocity bullets at the driver of the vehicle was likely to result in the driver's death," Mr Sherrard told the inquest.

"There is no evidence that Sergeant McVitie considered a less forceful response to the situation than the death of the driver.

"At the time of the shooting Sergeant McVitie was not under attack. The supposed attack upon the station had passed without damage or injury."

Mr Sherrard concluded: "The shooting of Mr Thornton was neither a necessary, nor a reasonable, nor a proportionate, response to the situation."

Mr Thornton was unarmed and no weapon was found during a search of a van, despite claims by Soldier C that he had seen a gun protruding from the van. In 2012, the Government wrote a letter of apology to his widow Mary, confirming that her husband had been an "innocent man".

During yesterday's hearing a lawyer for the Ministry of Defence did not challenge the lifting of the anonymity order on naming Sgt McVitie. He also passed on his condolences to the Thornton family.

Mr Sherrard said requests to lift anonymity orders will be looked at in each case.

Speaking outside court solicitor Padraig O Muirigh said it had been a very fair and transparent inquest, "in stark contrast to the original inquest which was deeply flawed".

"We have been fighting for over 40 years now to clear the name of her (Mary Thornton) husband and the father of her children," he said.

"This day has come and it is very welcome. It shows that these legacy inquests can get to the truth and can assist families."

Mrs Thornton said she is happy with the outcome of the inquest, and that Sg McVitie had been named. "The way I look at it, he shot him so why not," she said.

Sg McVittie died on December 29, 2007 at the age of 67.

Alan Barry, co-founder of Justice for Northern Ireland Veterans, criticised the decision to name the soldier. He said: "Why name him? This is tarnishing his name when he is dead and cannot defend himself."

The group has organised a march on Downing Street this Saturday in protest at ongoing criminal investigations into soldiers over Troubles deaths.

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