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No rioting at time Army baton round killed Belfast boy Francis Rowntree (11), inquest told

By Lesley-Anne McKeown

Published 12/04/2016

Shot: Francis Rowntree
Shot: Francis Rowntree

A soldier who fired a rubber bullet at an 11-year-old boy in Northern Ireland more than 40 years ago had a clear view of his target, a Coroner's Court heard.

Francis Rowntree died days after being hit by the bullet while walking through the Divis flats complex close to Belfast's Falls Road in April 1972.

Controversy surrounds the shooting, with disputed claims about whether the boy was struck directly or by a ricochet, and if the bullet had been doctored to make it potentially cause more harm.

Witness Henry Donaghy, who was 14 and was with the St Finian's Primary School pupil when he was shot, said he still had a vivid recollection of events.

He said: "He (Francis) seemed to lift off the ground slightly and go backwards at the same time. That has stayed with me."

Mr Donaghy was giving evidence during the first day of a long-awaited inquest at Belfast's Laganside Court, ordered by Attorney General John Larkin.

According to Mr Donaghy, the bullet was fired from an Army vehicle parked about eight or 10 yards away with its engine running. The doors were closed but an observation hatch was fully open, he said.

"It hit him directly because there was nothing to ricochet off," the witness said. "Whoever fired the shot would have had a clear view of who they were firing at."

The court heard how the Divis area had been plagued by sustained disorder between republican youths and the Army in the days before and after April 20, 1972, when Francis was shot.

But Mr Donaghy, a self-confessed "serial rioter", insisted there were no disturbances at the time. He and his group of friends had gone to Divis expecting to take part in riots, the court was told. Francis had joined them by accident, unaware of their intentions, Mr Donaghy claimed.

Earlier the court heard how Francis suffered extensive skull fractures and lacerations to his brain. Despite undergoing emergency surgery at the Royal Victoria Hospital he never recovered.

Retired State Pathologist Professor Jack Crane said the fatal injury was more likely to have been caused by a "direct hit" than a ricochet. But he said there was no evidence to support allegations that the projectile had had batteries or sharp objects inserted.

James Rowntree told the court his sports-mad younger brother had never been in trouble with the law or school.

Outside court he said: "It would mean a great deal that it is proven he was not involved, that he was an innocent child." The hearing continues on Tuesday.

Belfast Telegraph

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