BELFAST, Northern Ireland (CN) — David Voyle stands in Belfast where his grandmother was shot by British soldiers and left for dead. Joan Connolly — a 44-year-old mother of eight — bled to death on Aug. 9, 1971, one of 10 Catholic civilians, including a priest, killed by British soldiers during three terrifying days in an outburst of violence at a West Belfast housing estate called Ballymurphy.
Back then, the British army described those killed as gunmen with the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Now, 48 years later, that official story has been unmasked as a falsehood.
The Ballymurphy deaths are the focus of a long-running and complicated government inquest into a largely forgotten, but pivotal, moment in the history of the conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Ballymurphy Massacre.
The inquest is significant because it examines the actions of the Parachute Regiment, an elite fighting branch of the British army sent into Northern Ireland to defeat the IRA, a paramilitary force that fought a guerrilla-style war against British rule.
Most significantly, the Parachute Regiment’s allegedly criminal killing of civilians in Ballymurphy foreshadowed the regiment’s actions nearly six months later in Londonderry when 13 unarmed civilians were killed in the infamous Bloody Sunday shootings on Jan. 30, 1972. The deaths in Derry, as the city is known among those who are pro-Irish, helped ignite “the Troubles,” the decades-long virtual civil war in Northern Ireland that left more than 3,600 people dead.
This new inquest into what happened in Ballymurphy mirrors a probe launched in 1998 that re-examined the military’s responsibility for the Bloody Sunday deaths. That inquest led to charges being filed in March this year against one British soldier, known as Soldier F. Under British rules, the identities of former soldiers are often kept secret to protect them from potential revenge attacks.
This new probe into the killings in Ballymurphy is reopening old wounds and memories in Northern Ireland.
On one side, there are those like Voyle who see the inquiry as a way to right injustice and shed light on alleged crimes committed by the British army. For Voyle, the British government and army are the guilty ones responsible for unleashing decades of violence.
On the other side, those who support the British army view the inquest as unfairly treating soldiers as criminals for actions they took during a war against terrorists. They blame the IRA for the decades of bloodshed.
“Without the army we would have had a civil war, but they were also a blunt instrument,” said Trevor Ringland, a lawyer and former top member of the Northern Ireland Conservatives, in an email to Courthouse News.
He added that thousands of soldiers were injured and more than 1,000 were killed. By comparison, he said the military killed about 350 people.
“So overall and whether some like that reality, their story is generally one of restraint,” Ringland said. “Ballymurphy and Bloody Sunday were terrible tragedies but they also have to be looked at not in isolation but in the context of what was happening at that time.”
In 2011, upon the request of family members of the deceased, the attorney general of Northern Ireland, John Larkin, opened the Ballymurphy inquest. It began hearing testimony in November 2018.
Since then, witnesses, former soldiers, survivors and experts have appeared in a Belfast courtroom to speak about what happened. Testimony has included one ex-soldier tearfully saying his comrades were out of control and a former commander acknowledging that the people killed were not IRA members. Other former soldiers, though, have insisted they came under fire from the IRA.
The inquest’s public hearings are expected to end in September and its findings may be delivered by the end of the year, a lawyer for Ballymurphy families said.
“My grandmother is on record as being an IRA gunwoman,” the 41-year-old Voyle says, standing by a plaque on a wall depicting the scene from 1971. “In the newspapers afterward, in the main English newspapers, they said, ‘IRA gunwoman shot dead in Ballymurphy.’”
It’s a bright warm spring day in Ballymurphy and Catholic schoolchildren walk by in uniforms. Not far away, a wall and security fence dividing Catholic neighborhoods from Protestant ones can be seen. The barrier is a reminder of how the ethnic conflict that left Northern Ireland a scarred, burned and bloody mess is still vivid here, 21 years after the peace treaty called the Belfast-Good Friday Agreement gave Catholics the equality they yearned and fought for.
“We want the British army to stand up and say: ‘We now believe she was not an IRA gunwoman. We believe she was innocent and we are sorry for it happening,’” Voyle says without obvious emotion. His is a voice of determination.
Those who were affected by what happened in Ballymurphy — survivors of wounds suffered during those three terrible days, family members of the dead and more generally Northern Ireland itself — are seeing for the first time a true investigation take place.
In opening an inquest into Ballymurphy, Northern Irish authorities are seeking to provide more clarity and a sense of truth to one of the more brutal periods in modern British history: the killing of civilians by a British army sent in to stamp out the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland led by Catholic Irish demanding equal rights to those enjoyed by Protestants.
Historically, this inquest is seen as a key missing link to understanding the decision-making at the highest levels of the British government and its strategy to round up and imprison without trial hundreds of people suspected of being IRA members.
The ill-conceived strategy to allow British soldiers to storm Catholic neighborhoods and arrest suspects at their homes was called Operation Demetrius. It began on the same day that Voyle’s grandmother was killed — Aug. 9, 1971 — and sparked riots in Ballymurphy.
Before August 1971, tensions between Protestants and Catholics had been rising as a Catholic civil rights movement, inspired by the Rev. Martin Luther King in the United States and the worldwide 1968 protests, gained momentum and appeared unlikely to stop.
Irish Catholics were demanding equality after decades of oppression. They were mostly barred from the legislature, the judiciary, the police force and good-paying jobs. The system in Northern Ireland is often referred to as a kind of apartheid.
By 1971, Northern Ireland was in chaos. Across the country, Protestants and Catholics were clashing. Most of the violence, in those early years of the conflict, was initiated by Protestants who attacked Catholic homes with the goal of pushing them out. Northern Ireland’s police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, took the side of Protestants and clashed fiercely with rioting Catholics. Ballymurphy was one place where Catholic families had moved to escape the violence.
In August 1969, as Northern Ireland descended into chaos, the Northern Irish government asked for assistance from the British army, to help protect Catholics from Protestant attacks. That was the situation until August 1971.
Voyle tells this part of the story with more emotion.
A few days before the paratroopers with the Parachute Regiment showed up to take over, soldiers with an outgoing battalion bought his grandmother a large ornament and took flowers around to other women in Ballymurphy as gestures of friendship. Catholics like his grandmother saw the British army as being on their side, he said.
Then everything changed.
“What had changed so drastically?” Voyle asks rhetorically. “What changed to make them good soldiers and then coldblooded killers?”
What changed was the arrival of the Parachute Regiment and the orders from on high: Operation Demetrius had begun.
Soldiers with the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, one of Great Britain’s most fierce fighting groups, were now in Ballymurphy. They stormed the Catholic neighborhood, kicked in doors and arrested people suspected of being IRA members.
Ballymurphy descended into chaos as Catholics, including IRA members, rioted. Later in the day, Protestants from a neighboring housing estate began clashing with Catholics too.
“You had literally hundreds of Protestants raining down bricks and petrol bombs, stones, and people in this area were fearing for their life,” Voyle says, beginning to describe in detail the day’s events.
As the rioting against the Catholics worsened, a Catholic priest stationed in Ballymurphy, Father Hugh Mullan, went over to the British soldiers stationed in a former community center called the Henry Taggart Memorial Hall.
“He asked them to move the families, saying, ‘We need to get families from A to B,’” Voyle recounts. “But the army said they could not control the rioting.”
Mullan went back to his residence amid the chaos that was enveloping Ballymurphy, Voyle said.
In the meantime, a man called Bobby Clarke was helping women and children to safety from the Protestant attack when he was shot in the back, according to witness accounts.
As Clarke lay bleeding, people went to Mullan’s house and asked the priest to intervene. Mullan called the army and asked for a ceasefire. The priest then went out to assist Clarke, waving a white infant’s onesie to signal his peaceful intentions. But as he went to the aid of Clarke, the priest was shot. Another man, a 19-year-old window cleaner called Frank Quinn, went to assist Mullan and was shot in the head.
The shooting wasn’t over.
“Some eyewitnesses said they sat for over an hour watching the bullets digging into the grass,” Voyle says. “This is the first incident.”
What was happening?
According to Ballymurphy residents, the shooting came from a high point where paratroopers were positioned near the community center.
British soldiers have testified that they believed they were under fire from IRA gunmen. But Voyle says, was it not perhaps the case British soldiers were the only ones shooting, under the mistaken assumption that they were being fired upon?
Amid this chaos, Voyle’s mother and her sister were “being nosy” and had wandered off to see what was happening, Voyle says. Worried about the safety of her daughters, Voyle says his grandmother panicked and went out in search of them.
During the search for her daughters, his grandmother was caught in large crowds of Catholics fleeing for safety after the first shots were fired at around 7:30 p.m.
Then, in an open area near the Henry Taggart army base, a 19-year-old named Noel Phillips was shot. He cried out for help. Voyle’s grandmother then went to help him and she was shot too.
“As she stepped out, the first shot blew off half of her face,” Voyle says. “She fell to her knees and she cried out: ‘I can’t see.’”
Two other men were shot to death then: Joseph Murphy, 41, and Daniel Teggart, 44. Two others were shot too but survived.
The shooting continued. Teggart was shot 14 times.
“People witnessed Mr. Teggart’s body jumping, jerking, as each bullet went in. The fellow never stood a chance,” Voyle says. “My grandmother was shot a total of three times. She was hit in the face, in the thigh and in the side.”
Eventually, there was a lull in the shooting and an armored vehicle showed up. Soldiers jumped out and picked up those they believed were still alive, but Voyle’s grandmother was left to die.
“My grandmother lay here, and we know from our autopsy that it took five hours for her to bleed out,” he says, flatly. “If she had gotten help in between, even though half her face was blown off — she was fit, she was healthy, never smoked, never drank — she would have had a good chance of surviving it.”
Instead, the soldiers left her to die. “They looked at her, and said: ‘Nah, she’s dead. We’ll move on,’” Voyle says.
Murphy, though, was taken away and hauled to the Henry Taggart base. He allegedly was shot again with a bullet fired into the same place in his leg where he had already been hit. Murphy survived for another 13 days and told family members he had been shot again. His family had his body exhumed in October 2015 and a 9 mm bullet was found inside his leg.
“That there was disgusting, absolutely disgusting,” Voyle says.
During hearings, a British officer testified that he had lost control of his soldiers. Voyle says many of them were young and inexperienced 18 and 19 year olds. He describes them as “pumped up” and “full of adrenaline,” asking their officers to allow them to shoot.
“Can we shoot? Let us shoot,” Voyle says. “It was mayhem.”
Voyle says the Parachute Regiment had recently been in Africa, where they were “fighting out and out war” and that they had no training in the kind of guerrilla warfare taking place in Northern Ireland.
“They sent in the wrong battalion, the wrong arm of the army,” Voyle says. “These Parachute Regiments are known as tough, well-trained, shoot to kill. To bring them in onto the streets was a strategic disaster. If they had brought in a different branch of the British army, maybe we wouldn’t even be standing here.”
The afternoon moves on and at last the anger inside Voyle comes out.
“Once the first bullet was fired over there, this is when these trigger-happy, blood-lusting bastards decided, ‘Right, it’s time to go, let’s shoot. Anything that fucking moves we’ll shoot,’” Voyle says. “It just took the first person to fire a bullet.”
But were the soldiers given orders to shoot? Were they told that they were up against the IRA when in fact they were shooting at unarmed civilians?
Voyle thinks so. He says that even before the first shots were fired, British officers told news reporters that they were under attack from IRA.
That, he says, “was an absolute complete lie.” He shakes his head: “How can you tell a story before it actually happens?”
Voyle talks about how puzzled people like his mother were by the change in attitude of the military.
“The last words my granny ever spoke to my mummy was: ‘The Protestants will shoot you, but the British army won’t.’ And within an hour and a half later the British army had shot dead my granny,” he says.
He says those killed in Ballymurphy had allegiances to the British army and did not see it as the enemy.
“Every family of the dead were either members of British army, territorial army or had fought for the British army at some stage,” he says. “It wasn’t as if they were seasoned republicans [pro-Irish] who wanted to kill … There was no hatred toward the British army.”
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)