Tracing of 1971 massacre soldiers by MoD 'flawed'
Lawyers for relatives of those killed in the Ballymurphy massacre have criticised how soldiers have been traced in an inquest into the deaths.
A preliminary hearing in the inquest at the Royal Courts of Justice in Belfast yesterday was told that the Ministry of Defence has been writing to soldiers to ask them if they were present during the shootings, which left 10 people dead over a three-day period in August 1971.
A number have not responded to approaches from the MoD, or else replied to say that they had not been present on the days of the attacks.
Karen Quinlivan QC, representing the next of kin, told the court: "There is a fundamental issue with the Coroner's Office letting the MoD trace witnesses.
"Their method is based solely on soldiers self-identifying.
"It is completely ineffective and is designed to let soldiers evade scrutiny."
She added: "There is a lack of independence in the MoD and their method is fundamentally flawed."
Michael Mansfield QC, another barrister for victims' families, told the court: "We're very, very concerned that in many cases the soldiers can say they don't remember or that they weren't there.
"So we need to be very careful in examining what they say.
"It may be genuine, but it may not be."
In response, Justice Siobhan Keegan, who is hearing the case, said that the MoD has not been given sole responsibility for tracing witnesses in the case and that some work is also being done by the Coroner's Office For Northern Ireland.
However, barrister for the Coroner's Office, Sean Doran QC, told the court that an investigator and a researcher are employed by the office to work on the case and so they were limited in the amount of work they can do in tracing soldiers.
"There is no reason to believe they could be able to investigate on this scale," he said. Mr Doran also suggested that his office would be willing to consider an external agency being brought in to independently trace witnesses.
He added: "I am not by any means saying we're in an ideal situation with regards to tracing."
The court was also told that a bullet thought to have been used in one shooting has been lost.
Mr Doran told the court that the bullet had been housed with a forensic company in Northern Ireland, but had been lost at some point between 2007 and 2010.
He also said that a witness event will be held in the new year to invite potential witnesses to come forward with information for the inquest.
The victims, which included a Catholic priest and a mother-of-eight, died in an Army operation that saw soldiers storm republican strongholds in west Belfast to arrest IRA suspects following the introduction of the controversial state policy of internment without trial.
The next preliminary hearing in the inquest will be heard in February of next year, with the inquest scheduled to begin in September 2018.