Belfast Telegraph

Coroner names British soldier who fatally shot driver of backfiring van in 1971

The identity of a British soldier who shot dead a father of six after mistaking his van backfiring for gunfire has been publicly revealed by a coroner in Belfast.

Now-deceased Sergeant Allan McVitie from the Parachute Regiment fired the two shots that killed van driver Henry Thornton outside a police station in 1971.

Delivering his final findings in a long-running inquest, Coroner Brian Sherrard ruled the paratrooper's actions were not "necessary, reasonable or proportionate".

In lifting the anonymity order that had protected Mr McVitie's identity, the coroner made clear it would not set a precedent for other legacy cases involving the military.

"Each and every one has to be looked at on its own merits," he told Belfast Coroner's Court.

"Anonymity applications will be looked at in a very structured and careful way in each of those cases."

As Mr McVitie is dead, it could not have been argued that his individual security was at risk by naming him - a consideration that is a major factor in anonymity decisions relating to living current and former security force members.

Mr Thornton, 29, died almost instantly when the soldier shot him through the rear of his Austin works van close to Springfield Road police station in west Belfast in August 1971.

The labourer, from Silverbridge, Co Armagh, and his colleague Arthur Murphy were driving to work early in the morning when the incident unfolded outside a police station that was repeatedly attacked during the Troubles.

Mr Sherrard delivered his preliminary findings last year. The only addition in his finding ruling was the insertion of Mr McVitie's name.

The coroner acknowledged that the paratrooper chased after the van with the "honestly held belief" that shots had been fired at the police station.

However, he said his decision to open fire himself was not justified, even if the occupants had been armed. The coroner said there were other non-fatal options open to the soldier.

No weapon was found in Mr Thornton's van.

"There is no evidence that Sergeant McVitie considered a less forceful response to the situation than the death of the driver," said the coroner.

Mr Sherrard added: "The shooting of Mr Thornton was neither a necessary nor reasonable nor a proportionate response to the situation that Sergeant McVitie actually encountered or thought he encountered."

A lawyer for the Ministry of Defence passed on his condolences to Mr Thornton's family.

The coroner praised the dignity with which the family had conducted themselves throughout the lengthy inquest proceedings.

Outside court, Mr Thornton's widow Mary welcomed the move to name the solider who killed her husband.

"The way I look at it is, he shot him, so why not," she said.

"He should have been named."

Mrs Thornton said the proceedings had brought some closure for the family, in particular her children.

"They grew up without their daddy and it was hard on them too - it was troubled times," she said.

"They couldn't understand why he was shot. He was just an ordinary father who lived for myself and the children."

The coroner dismissed as "implausible" evidence given at the inquest by another soldier.

Soldier C claimed the van had driven towards the police station's security checkpoint at speed and he had seen smoking weapons protruding from its windows after hearing the loud bangs.

"He was inaccurate in his recollection and interpretation of events," said Mr Sherrard.

The coroner added: "There was never any weapon."

Soldier C had relayed his account of a gun attack to Sergeant McVitie, who then ran down the street after the van - which was stopped at traffic lights - dropped to his knee and fired his rifle at the back of the vehicle.

Both rounds penetrated the back door and struck Mr Thornton in the driver's seat - one in the back and one in the head. The coroner said he would have died "very rapidly".

"Sergeant McVitie proceeded on the honestly held but false belief that the van's occupants fired shots on the station," said Mr Sherrard.


From Belfast Telegraph