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Soldier who fired rubber bullet 'had clear view of 11-year-old boy'

Published 11/04/2016

Solicitor Padraig O Muirigh and Jim Rowntree, the brother of Francis Rowntree, at Belfast coroner's court
Solicitor Padraig O Muirigh and Jim Rowntree, the brother of Francis Rowntree, at Belfast coroner's court

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 has 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 on whether the boy was struck directly or injured 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.

"We knew something was desperately wrong by the colour on his face. That scared us."

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

According to Mr Donaghy, the bullet was fired from an Army vehicle parked with its engine running about eight or 10 yards away.

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.

"There were no cars parked, no wall, there was no obstacles in the direct line of fire between the Saracen and Francis Rowntree's head."

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.

"At that particular time in the afternoon and at that particular part of the Divis complex, it was quiet."

He later added: "This local regiment had lost one of its officers and anyone who has experience from that time will will you that soldiers tended to run amok a bit after things like that happened.

"I am not in a position to argue with people from the MoD, I am just relating what I experienced at that particular time at that particular part of Divis flats. I have already said there was rioting going on in the general Divis complex but at that particular time and that particular location there were no barricades, there were no burning cars and there was certainly no crowd of 50 yobbos attacking soldiers."

Mr Donaghy and his group of friends had gone to Divis expecting to see and to participate in riots, the court was told.

Francis had joined them by accident and was not aware of their intentions, Mr Donaghy claimed.

"I think the wee lad was just curious to find out what was going on," he said. "I certainly do not believe he came there to actually engage in that type of activity. It had more to do with childish curiosity.

"A lot of people in or near the area would not have been involved in pelting the Army with stones. People went along to look.

"Unfortunately for my generation, it (rioting) happened to be a fact of life. If you lived in an area like the Lower Falls, Ballymurphy or New Barnsley, unfortunately, looking back, it was a fact of life for hundreds, if not thousands of young people."

Replying to an assertion from Martin Wolfe QC, representing the Ministry of Defence (MoD), that riots were designed to injure soldiers, the witness added: " I cannot recall any soldiers being beaten with pillows."

Earlier, the court heard how Francis suffered extensive skull fractures as well as 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 sport-mad younger brother had never been in trouble with the law or school.

He said: "He was in and out of hospital and my mother kept a very strict eye on him in case his leg went while he was playing. She would have kept a closer eye on him than any other family and as a family we agreed to watch out for him.

"He had no interest in riots, he just loved to get out in the fresh air because of the amount of time he spent in hospitals."

The former member of the Royal Anglian Regiment who fired the baton round is known to the court as soldier B and is expected to give evidence later this week.

Outside the court, Mr Rowntree said he hopes the inquest will help clear his brother's name.

Mr Rowntree 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.

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