Belfast Telegraph

Ballymurphy massacre soldiers 'well pleased' after shootings, general tells inquest

Michael Mansfield QC (back row, centre) at Belfast Coroner’s Court today with Ballymurphy families
Michael Mansfield QC (back row, centre) at Belfast Coroner’s Court today with Ballymurphy families
Mark Bain

By Mark Bain

A former paratroop commander has told the inquest into the deaths of 10 people in west Belfast in 1971 that his soldiers thought they "had done their duty and were well pleased" when he arrived at the scene shortly after the shootings.

On his second day of evidence, families of those killed in the Ballymurphy massacre heard General Sir Geoffrey Howlett tell the courtroom his men were not "on a high" afterwards, although he admitted the men who had fired shots at civilians were "quite excited".

But General Howlett (89), who was commanding B Company 2 Para based at Henry Taggart Hall on the Springfield Road on the day internment was introduced in August 1971, denied his troops were celebrating the deaths.

The general said the situation he experienced at the time amounted to "almost warlike conditions".

Mourners file past the coffin of Father Hugh Mullan, one of the 10 people killed (PA Archive)
Mourners file past the coffin of Father Hugh Mullan, one of the 10 people killed (PA Archive)

He was questioned as to whether that led him to be personally responsible for permitting or encouraging troops to beat up and shoot civilians with impunity.

"No," he replied. "I hope that my soldiers would be obedient, do what they were told, and act toughly but reasonably."

General Howlett repeated his evidence from the previous day that he believed the people shot outside the base were not in the IRA, but that some may have been "associated" by involving themselves in the riot "in sympathy with and helping" IRA gunmen.

The victims of the Ballymurphy Massacre (Ballymurphy Massacre Committee/PA)
The victims of the Ballymurphy Massacre (Ballymurphy Massacre Committee/PA)

When quizzed over the death of Fr Hugh Mullan, he accepted that he was not a member of the IRA, as well as "the probability" that the priest was not associated with the IRA.

"I do not believe he was shot on purpose," he said.

But he refused to back down on previous evidence that Frank Quinn, shot while trying to help Fr Mullan, could still have been associated with the IRA.

Riots : Belfast. January 1971. Soldiers frisking passengers and driver of a car on the Springfield Road, near Ballymurphy. (14/01/1971)
Riots : Belfast. January 1971. Soldiers frisking passengers and driver of a car on the Springfield Road, near Ballymurphy. (14/01/1971)
Riots : Belfast. August 1970. Troops shelter behind their riot shields during rioting at Ballymurphy. (04/08/70)
Riots : Belfast. August 1970. The common sight in the Roman Catholic estate at Ballymurphy, Belfast, as young rioters attack the army with missiles during the troubles. (04/08/70)
Riots : Belfast. September 1970. Ballymurphy Disturbance: troops stand by at the junction of Springfield and Whiterock Roads, after a crowd had thrown stones at them and two police cars. (20/09/1970)
Riots : Belfast. January 1971. Catholic housing estate, Ballymurphy. (15/01/1971)
Mourners file past the coffin of Father Hugh Mullan, one of the 10 people killed (PA Archive)
Father Hugh Mullan. Shot at Moyard Park. 9/8/1971 THE FUNERAL HEARSE CARRYING THE BODY OF FATHER HUGH MULLAN TRAVELS ALONG THE ROAD IN BALLYMURPHY ESTATE. 12/8/1971
Joseph Murphy was one of 10 people shot dead by British soldiers in West Belfast in 1971
Pacemaker Press 17/6/10 John McKerr who is one of the 11 people died in the Ballymurphy Massacre in 1971 in West Belfast
Pacemaker Press 17/6/10 Fr Hugh Mullan who is one of the 11 people died in the Ballymurphy Massacre in 1971 in West Belfast
Pacemaker Press 17/6/10 Joseph Corr who is one of the 11 people died in the Ballymurphy Massacre in 1971 in West Belfast
Pacemaker Press 17/6/10 Danny Teggart who is one of the 11 people died in the Ballymurphy Massacre in 1971 in West Belfast
Pacemaker Press 17/6/10 Paddy McCarthy who is one of the 11 people died in the Ballymurphy Massacre in 1971 in West Belfast
Pacemaker Press 17/6/10 John Laverty who is one of the 11 people died in the Ballymurphy Massacre in 1971 in West Belfast
©Press Eye Ltd Northern Ireland - 25th January 2012 Mandatory Credit - Photo-Jonathan Porter/Presseye. Ballymurphy massacre relatives call for a meeting with the Prime Minister, David Cameron. 10 people were shot dead by soldiers in west Belfast in August 1971. The victims, which included a priest and a mother-of-eight, were killed over the course of three days in August 1971 by members of the Parachute Regiment during Operation Demetrius, when people suspected of paramilitary activity were interned. Relatives Rita Bonner, John Teggart and Briege Voyle pictured at the top of the Whiterock Road in west Belfast beside a mural depicting the shootings.

The coroner asked the general how he could come to that view. He replied that any armed group bringing "first aiders" with them could expect those people to be considered associated with them, though he added that did not mean they should be shot.

The comments were later clarified, with General Howlett agreeing that someone caught in the crossfire or coming to the assistance of an innocent person would not have been associated with the IRA.

He added that it would have been "a bad day's work if everyone his soldiers shot were the wrong people".

After General Howlett's evidence concluded, Pat Quinn, brother of Frank Quinn, said his family had been left hurt and upset.

"I couldn't believe it. It's lucky my sisters weren't there. It would have been too much for them," he said.

"He didn't care about my brother. I think they were glad about what they'd done - thinking they'd done their duty well was a disgrace."

His comments were echoed by John Teggart, whose father Danny was one of those killed. He said he believed "the soldiers had deemed anything that moved as an associate of the IRA".

"I was glad the general gave his evidence, but I wasn't glad at the evidence he gave," Mr Teggart said. "I thought he'd be more apologetic, but after hearing the past two days any apology would have been empty."

Later the inquest heard from the former major in charge of B Company 2 Para.

Granted anonymity by the coroner, witness M45 described the first day of internment and how his men arrested 18 suspects early in the morning of August 9, 1971. He described the rioting at the Henry Taggart base throughout the rest of the day, with soldiers firing 38 rubber bullets and discharging 11 CS gas cannisters as the base came under attack from petrol bombs, nail bombs and gunfire.

He said he had provided his own briefings to his men on when they would be allowed to fire their weapons, rather than relying on the 'yellow card' rules of engagement for soldiers.

"You cannot deal with a riotous situation if you're looking all the time at a yellow card," he said.

The inquest continues.

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