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No regrets, says soldier who fired rubber bullet that killed 11-year-old boy

Published 26/04/2016

Francis Rowntree died after he was struck on the head by a rubber bullet while walking through the Divis Flats complex
Francis Rowntree died after he was struck on the head by a rubber bullet while walking through the Divis Flats complex

A soldier who fired a rubber bullet that killed a Northern Ireland schoolboy more than 40 years ago has told an inquest he has no regrets.

The former sergeant major, whose identity is protected, told Belfast Coroner's Court he had no concerns about his conduct that day, insisting he was simply doing his job.

Giving evidence by videolink from an undisclosed location, the man known only as Soldier B said: "I have nothing to be reproachful about."

Eleven-year-old Francis Rowntree died on April 22 1972 - two days after he was struck on the head by a rubber bullet while walking through the Divis Flats complex close to Belfast's Falls Road.

The case is mired in controversy with disputed claims on whether the boy was hit directly or injured by a ricochet, and if the bullet had been doctored to make it potentially cause more harm.

Soldier B, who served with the Royal Anglian Regiment, had 17 years of experience in 1972 and was on his first tour of duty in Northern Ireland, the court was told.

He says he has no memory of the incident involving Francis but raised doubts that he fired the fatal shot.

Asked if he had anything to say to the boy's family, Soldier B added: "There is nothing to say that the round I fired hit their son.

"If it did, for that I am very, very sorry. But there's no proof, to me, that's what happened.

"It was certainly not fired at somebody not rioting. Everybody there was deeply intent on making life deeply uncomfortable."

Fiona Doherty QC, representing the Rowntree family, said the evidence available to the court, including Ministry of Defence (MoD) documents, identified Soldier B as the person who fired the rubber bullet that hit Francis.

During cross-examination by an MoD barrister, Soldier B, who has suffered heart and memory problems for years, said he feels victimised.

"After 44 years I find it almost impossible to remember any incident. I feel as though, for whatever reason, I am being targeted and I don't fully understand why."

In a statement given to Royal Military Police on April 24 1972, Soldier B said he fired two baton rounds -- one of which struck an unidentified person who may have been taken to hospital by ambulance.

He said he had not picked a particular target but fired into a crowd during an escalating riot situation because of fears that petrol or blast bombs could be thrown inside or underneath his armoured Humber Pig vehicle.

Although he could not remember any specific instructions or orders, Soldier B was confident he would have acted in accordance with the Army rules of engagement.

"I do not have any concerns," he said. "I was doing my job as we did all the time."

The court has previously heard how Francis suffered extensive head injuries and never regained consciousness. Civilian witnesses said he was not carrying anything or acting aggressively when he was hit and a report by the now defunct Historical Enquiries Unit also concluded he was an innocent bystander.

According to his statement, Soldier B's company fired 24 baton rounds in the Divis Street area on the day in question.

Warnings were rarely given and it was difficult to distinguish between rioters and onlookers like women and children, it was claimed.

"Virtually everybody you see were the target," said Soldier B.

"The fact we are being pelted by just about every kind of missile, you are not really looking round to see if this person is innocent. I did not see a distinction."

The retired soldier was also unable to say when he became aware a child had died.

He said: "There was talk of a child being injured and the name rings in my mind.

"I am not wanting to be evasive or anything of that nature. In my case this was one incident of many, many, many incidents over a four-month period.

"There were many other concerning incidents I was involved in during that period."

Soldier B rejected suggestions that his statement to the RMP was a "concocted story" designed to conceal what really happened.

"I am not denying I hit somebody," he added. "Quite the reverse. I cannot say who I hit."

He also said he had not encountered anyone doctoring rubber bullets and had never engaged in such a practice.

Outside the court, Francis's older brother Jim Rowntree expressed disappointment that Soldier B had been screened from view.

He added: "He said he feels persecuted but a child died and there has been 44 years of false allegations made against that child."

The hearing was adjourned.

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