The Ministry of Defence has been unable to warn a high-profile veterans’ group to stop encouraging former soldiers to bin letters urging co-operation with Troubles inquests because it cannot find its postal address, a court has heard.
A lawyer representing families of some of those killed in shootings involving the Army in Ballymurphy in west Belfast in 1971 branded the MoD explanation as “bordering on the comical”.
Earlier this year, the Great Britain-based campaign group Justice for Northern Ireland Veterans (JFNIV) recommended that former soldiers who received letters asking them to volunteer information about the Ballymurphy shootings should “throw them in the bin”.
A fresh inquest into the deaths of 10 people shot at Ballymurphy has been hampered by an inability to trace soldiers involved. The letters to potential military witnesses were sent on behalf of the Coroners Service for Northern Ireland.
The JFNIV group has been involved in a well-publicised campaign to stop historical investigations into the actions of ex-security force members in Northern Ireland.
The MoD had committed to write to it to make clear that the ministry wanted former Army personnel to co-operate with the coroner.
At a preliminary hearing in Belfast on Wednesday ahead of the scheduled autumn inquest, MoD barrister Kevin Rooney QC told presiding coroner Siobhan Keegan why the MoD had not yet communicated that message to the group.
“The MoD can’t get a correspondence address for them,” he said.
The lawyer said the MoD had looked at the group’s website, but said it did not list an address.
It does border on the comical for the MoD to suggest that they don’t know how to contact an Army veterans’ association or what their address isBallymurphy families lawyer, Barry McDonald QC
Mr Rooney said if an address could be sourced the MoD would write to the group to “let them know those letters shouldn’t be thrown in the bin and there should be co-operation with the coroners’ office in this regard”.
Barry McDonald QC, representing some of the Ballymurphy families, expressed scepticism at the MoD position.
“It does border on the comical for the MoD to suggest that they don’t know how to contact an Army veterans’ association or what their address is,” he said.
“It’s very difficult for the next of kin to accept that is correct.”
Mr Rooney highlighted that the group had no official links to the MoD.
“They have absolutely no connection with the MoD,” he said.
“They are a totally independent group. They don’t act with MoD authorisation and they are not under their auspices. So there’s no method that we can, at this point in time, find an address for them.”
A Catholic priest and a mother-of-eight were among those killed during three days of gunfire involving members of the Parachute Regiment in August 1971.
Another man died of a heart attack following an alleged violent confrontation with the troops in the west Belfast estate.
The shootings took place as the army moved into republican strongholds to arrest IRA suspects in the wake of the introduction by the Stormont administration of the controversial policy of internment without trial.
Responsibility for the deaths has long been attributed solely to soldiers on the ground, amid disputed claims they were returning IRA fire.
But a number of weeks ago loyalist paramilitaries claimed they were also involved.
Former members of the Ulster Volunteer Force provided information to the Coroner’s Court indicating that one of its gunmen had fired on crowds from a nearby loyalist estate.
The inquest is scheduled to start in September.