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Protestants slain by rogue Para unit deserve justice too

By Eamonn McCann

Published 16/12/2015

Secretary of State Theresa Villiers
Secretary of State Theresa Villiers

Mark Carruthers asked Theresa Villiers on BBC's The View last week about the killing of Ritchie McKinney on the Shankill by the Parachute Regiment in 1972. He asked why his innocence had never been acknowledged despite a document found in the Public Record Office showing the Ministry of Defence had been aware from the outset he was innocent. Another innocent Shankill man, Robert Johnston, had been killed by the Paras the same night.

One dismaying aspect of the killings has been the silence of unionist politicians, including Shankill representatives. The Para unit responsible for the Shankill deaths had been involved in the Ballymurphy massacre of August 1971 and in Bloody Sunday in Derry in January 1972.

Mr McKinney and Mr Johnston were gunned down at around 9.30pm on September 7, 1972. There had been rioting earlier, but relative calm had been restored.

Mr McKinney (49), an engineering worker at Mackies who was married with five children, was shot as he drove slowly along Matchett Street, avoiding debris. His brother Thomas, back from Canada on his first visit home in 31 years, was in the passenger seat. The bullet shot off Richie's thumb as it gripped the steering wheel, fragmented, ripped through his chest and lacerated his heart.

Witnesses described Mr Johnston (50), a labourer who lived alone in Sydney Street, as seemingly drunk and waving his arms around at the Berlin Street/Weir Street junction. Sarah Anderson, of Silvio Street, said he was shouting, "I walked these streets in my bare feet in the Thirties." William Greer, manager of the Wee House bar, on Berlin Street, said: "I heard him shout: 'The meek shall inherit the Earth'. Then I heard a single shot."

Statements from soldiers presented to the inquest were eerily reminiscent of paratroopers' evidence to the Bloody Sunday Tribunal. Fierce rioting, gunman identified, aimed shot, gunman falls. The inquest ruled the killings unjustified. Ministry of Defence counsel didn't challenge this view, but the Army stuck to its guns. NIO Minister William Whitelaw blamed "Protestant extremists" indulging in "unBritish behaviour".

There was a flurry of protest in the days following the shootings, mainly driven by Shankill women. Hundreds picketed Tennent Street RUC station. A one-day unofficial inquiry at West Belfast Orange Hall concluded that there was a "desperate need for an independent judicial inquiry".

The rest was silence, no continuing pressure for any class of inquiry, nothing remotely resembling a campaign. The deaths didn't fit into any approved narrative. Unionist leaders were making daily demands for rougher action against republicans. To press for justice for the Shankill victims, they reckoned, would have contradicted their basic position.

Given events in their "own" areas, nationalist politicians had no compelling interest in campaigning. Mr McKinney and Mr Johnston may have been well-respected in life, but there were few to speak up for them in death.

It wasn't until Seamus Treacy QC, representing a number of the Bloody Sunday families, pressed the Saville Tribunal to take the Shankill killings into account that the incident again figured in any formal arena. The tribunal rejected the application.

The Paras will have felt they could get away with it in Derry because they'd gotten away with it in Ballymurphy. They will have felt at ease taking aim at Mr McKinney and Mr Johnston because they'd gotten away with it in Derry. Or so they thought. In averting their eyes from previous Para killings, unionist parties facilitated further deaths. Eager to do down the other side, they let their own side down. There hasn't even been a decent outburst of whataboutery. Bloody Sunday Inquiry? What about the Shankill? Unionist leaders, including one elected Shankill representative, pressed by Bloody Sunday campaigners at the time of Saville to take up the case of Mr McKinney and Mr Johnston replied: "You don't understand the Protestant people."

The NIO and leading republicans are currently discussing a panel to decide whether documents on State killings can be withheld from the Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) on national security grounds. The names of a lawyer involved in the Bloody Sunday Inquiry and a well-known individual with experience of police matters are said to be under consideration. No party other than Sinn Fein appears to be involved in these discussions - as if the rest of society has no legitimate interest.

There's no suggestion a document's relevance to the truth of a killing should be enough for it to be made available to the HIU. In practice, the Government - that is to say the security services - will have the last word. This shouldn't be good enough. The time for side-deals should be gone. Political parties, including unionists, should be demanding the full truth and unequivocal apologies for bereaved families like the McKinneys and the Johnstons.

Belfast Telegraph

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