Coroner baffled by identity riddle
A coroner has expressed surprise at the failure to identify three soldiers who could hold crucial information about the killing of a labourer in Northern Ireland more than 40 years ago.
Henry Thornton from Tullydonnell Cottages in Crossmaglen, Co Armagh was shot in the head after his van backfired outside a police station in west Belfast in 1971.
Even though his long-awaited inquest is scheduled to start in October key witnesses known as B, D, and E, have still not been tracked down by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), a court was told.
Coroner Jim Kitson told the preliminary hearing at Mays Chambers in Belfast: "It is surprising that the MoD have three soldiers present in a police station and do not know who they are."
Mr Thornton, who was 28, was in a work van with a colleague when he was shot on the Springfield Road in Belfast.
His death, at the height of the Troubles in August 1971, sparked serious rioting.
It is understood soldier B ran outside the station immediately after hearing the fatal shots; D was posted in a rooftop sangar; while soldier E was also inside the station but witnessed the immediate aftermath.
Lawyer Ken Boyd, representing the MoD, said: "We do not know who B, D and E are."
A fourth witness, possibly a police officer given the cipher X or Major M in some court papers, was asleep on the second floor of the station when he heard loud bangs, it was claimed.
He has also not been traced and may live abroad, the court was told.
Philip Henry, barrister for the Coroners Service, said the testimony from D and X was particularly important for the forthcoming inquest and urged all avenues including trawling through military pension records and reports by the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) to be "bottomed out".
Mr Boyd said correspondence had been sent to the last known address of Mr X and of another soldier known as C.
He said: "They were given six weeks to come back to the MoD. That time limit expires next week.
"So far the correspondence sent has not been returned so, we are assuming the personnel are not at those addresses or whoever is at those addresses has not bothered."
A barrister for the Thornton family said he was taken aback by the situation.
Neil Fox said: "I am somewhat taken by surprise that there is absolutely no knowledge where they are.
"This was a fairly substantial incident. It does not seem to be, as a matter of sense, proper that three soldiers and a police officer would be anonymised completely.
"Considering this was a fatal incident and statements were taken and they would have been told 'you are going to have to attend a coroners court'."
Meanwhile, the court was told that the soldier who fired the fatal shot, known only as A, may have died in Angola.
Problems with the legibility of some sensitive material disclosed by the MoD were also raised during the hearing.
Mr Boyd said: "I am told these microfiche documents are 40 years of age and are of very poor quality. It may be that they simply cannot be read.
"The MoD are looking at this to see if they can do anything."
Mr Thornton's widow and son were present in court for the proceedings.
Outside, solicitor Padraig O Muirigh expressed concern at the delays in identifying key witnesses.
He said: "This has been listed for hearing in October. It is vitally important that the witnesses are traced before then.
"It is hard to understand how no trace can be found or no records retained by the MoD given that this was a fatal incident."