Malachi O'Doherty: Could Gerry Adams hold the answer to UVF claims about the Ballymurphy Massacre?
Loyalist boasts that they had snipers operating in west Belfast during an Army operation in August 1971 in which 11 people were killed shouldn't be dismissed too lightly... for one thing, the IRA believed it, writes Malachi O'Doherty
The week in which the Army launched the first internment raids saw massive violence in Belfast and a huge amount of gunfire in and around Ballymurphy. Several civilians were killed by the Army and a cluster of killings in Ballymurphy over two days is now known as the Ballymurphy Massacre.
Relatives of the dead and their supporters are hoping that an inquest later this year will point the finger at soldiers of the Parachute Regiment, who were stationed in the area, mostly at the Henry Taggart Memorial Hall.
This is a highly credible account of civilian deaths. The Paras were a brutal and ignorant bunch of soldiers, who brought fear and grief to the streets. That is my recollection of them.
But they are now officially recorded as the murderers of civil rights protesters on Bloody Sunday, five months after the Ballymurphy killings, so one needn't be too tender with their reputation.
And it is perfectly understandable that families of the dead would hold a settled conviction that the Paras killed their loved ones. And they probably did.
Some of them see only as mischief-making the intervention of the UVF this week, claiming that they had a sniper in the area, who was responsible for some of the killings. And that, too, may be a reasonable inference.
But all this is to be considered by an inquest. And the job of an inquest is to find the truth, not to affirm the perspectives of others.
We saw, for instance, in the Bloody Sunday inquiry that the long-held view that no shots had been fired at the Army was simply not true. One Official IRA gunman had opened fire and then been dissuaded from continuing. In Ballymurphy, we know, the Army and the Provisional IRA exchanged fire for days.
The inquest will have to consider if all the deaths of civilians are attributable to one side. And it is not as if the IRA never killed civilians in crossfire; it did that several times.
Gerry Kelly said on The Nolan Show yesterday that we can be sure that the IRA did not kill Catholics. But we can be sure of no such thing. One thinks of Martha Crawford, in Rosnareen Avenue, shot dead by the Provisional IRA in an ambush on the Army in 1972. Or the eight people killed by an IRA bomb in Short Strand that same year.
Kelly may be confident that the IRA could not possibly have any blame, or responsibility, for any of the Ballymurphy killings, but an inquest is not going to take his word for it. No one in their right mind would.
Now, we have the added complication in assessing what happened during those days of being told that the UVF had a sniper firing into Ballymurphy and that this sniper believed he killed some of the victims.
The annoyance with this development, as expressed by many, does not address the question of whether it is plausible that the UVF had snipers firing into Ballymurphy. It focuses, instead, on the timing of the announcement, seeing it as an attempt to deflect attention away from the Paras.
The Paras were in action on those days; they were directing their fire into Ballymurphy. They remain the most likely killers of the innocent civilians. And this is made all the more likely now that we know how trigger-happy they were in Derry. But if a Para is charged with a murder and the doubt is raised that the UVF was to blame, then he may be acquitted.
We have seen other cases where confusion about who fired the shot that killed has led to an acquittal.
For instance, the conviction of Lee Clegg for the murder of joyrider Karen Reilly was overturned, not on the argument that he hadn't fired at the car in which she was traveling, but that the bullet which hit her could not firmly be traced back to his gun. But the other possibility is that the UVF claim is true, or at least genuinely held to be true.
Lost Lives reports that, at the time of the Ballymurphy massacre, a three-way gun battle raged between the Army, the IRA and loyalist gunmen firing from the Springmartin estate nearby.
So, there is nothing particularly unlikely about this week's claim by the UVF. It seems that, even without it, the inquest would have to consider the role of loyalists in the shootings.
There was also a later instance of loyalist gunmen firing into Springhill estate, beside Ballymurphy. This was in July 1972 after the IRA ended a two-week ceasefire. Six people died.
I was sent by the Sunday News, on which I was a junior reporter, to meet with Frank Cahill, the brother of Joe Cahill, to hear his version of the killings. He took me to Springhill and to the spots on which each of the victims died and he pointed out what could clearly be seen from each position, rectangular slats cut into the frontage of Corry's woodyard. Cahill claimed that these were the firing positions of the snipers.
My paper decided not to run the story, apparently because Corry's was an advertiser. Shortly afterwards, the IRA burned down the woodyard because snipers were using it.
This doesn't prove anything about the Ballymurphy killings, almost a year earlier, but it establishes that the IRA held the firm conviction that loyalist snipers were firing into the estate. They also believed that soldiers had facilitated those snipers, which may or may not be true.
So, those who would wish to dismiss the UVF claim to have been sniping at Catholic civilians in Ballymurphy have a difficulty. The IRA itself believed that such attacks were common and said so at the time.
The participation of loyalist gunmen is now on the historical record through Lost Lives. But there is another possible reason why the republicans might be miffed at the UVF claim, especially if it turns out to be true and even helpful to the inquest: it would put moral pressure on them to be as candid about their own actions at that time.
And who knows where that would lead? Perhaps to senior republicans, who were in the area at the time being called as witnesses.
On internment day in Ballymurphy, Gerry Adams organised a Press conference for Joe Cahill, the Belfast officer commanding, to prove to the media that he had survived the internment raids.
Ask him about that day. I'm sure he knows more about it than I do.
Malachi O'Doherty is the author of Gerry Adams: An Unauthorised Life, (Faber & Faber)