Monday, May 24, 2021

Poots elected; Ballymurphy: A Conspiracy of Cover-up

 There will be constitutional change

Edwin Poots has been elected as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. I want to wish him well. It’s going to be an interesting time as he faces up to the challenges of leadership in these changing times.

I remember when we were negotiating, just before I stood down as Uachtarán Shinn Féin, that in the course of those efforts Edwin was very constructive and positive and I came to like him.

We got to know each other better. This is what happens when you are locked away for long periods in negotiations with each other.

More recently Edwin led the charge to get rid of Arlene Foster and now he will face exactly the same challenges that confronted her. It’s all about positive societal change. Change is coming, including on constitutional matters. Edwin must know by now that the best way to deal with the change is to manage it with others. Standing aside may slow progress down but that will only serve to deepen difficulties and will ultimately fail.

I hope the Edwin who I came to like faces up to this. He may not. If so he will end up like Arlene.

But let’s see what happens.

I especially want to wish Michelle O’Neill well as she leads our team in the time ahead.


Ballymurphy - A Conspiracy of Cover-up

I was in Corpus Christie Chapel in Springhill as the Coroner Mrs Justice Siobhan Keegan took almost three hours to read out her judgement from the Ballymurphy Massacre Inquest.

Around me sat some of the relatives, victims and witnesses of those terrible events in August 1971 which left 11 people dead. Ten, including a priest and a mother of eight were shot dead. Nine were victims of the Parachute Regiment. The available forensic and other evidence could not confirm that the tenth, John McKerr was killed by the British, although it is widely accepted that he was. All were deemed entirely innocent by the Coroner who described the use of violence by the Paras as “unjustifiable” and “disproportionate.” The 11th victim Paddy McCarthy died of a heart attack after he was assaulted and threatened by British soldiers. His case was not part of the inquest hearings.

Later the families responded with an emotional mixture of joy and sadness at the outcome of the inquest. I was struck by the similarities between this occasion and that almost exactly 11 years ago when the families of those killed on Bloody Sunday in Derry heard the outcome of the Saville Inquiry.

Martin McGuinness and I were in the Guildhall Square that day in June 2010 as the families of the 14 victims of the Parachute Regiment expressed their delight at the conclusion of the Saville Report.

That same day the British Prime Minister David Cameron addressing the British Parliament apologised for the actions of the Paras. However, he then sought to defend the record of the British Army in the North by claiming that “Bloody Sunday is not the defining story of the service the British Army gave in Northern Ireland from 1969-2007.”

The Ballymurphy Massacre which took place six months earlier than Bloody Sunday and the Springhill Massacre in which 6 people proves that Cameron was wrong. Bloody Sunday like Ballymurphy and other killings are exactly the defining story of the British Army’s involvement in Ireland. Over 360 men, women and children were killed directly by the British Army and RUC and many hundreds more were killed as a result of collusion between those forces and unionist paramilitaries.

The response of the Tory government of Johnson, like that of Cameron and of every British and Unionist government for 50 years has been to cover-up the culpability of their forces in the killing and wounding of citizens. On the day that a Coroner found that nine innocent citizens were murdered by the Paras Downing Street issued a statement in which it said that the British government intends introducing a legacy package that delivers better outcomes for victims, survivors and veterans, focuses on information recovery and reconciliation, and ends the cycle of investigations. This package will deliver on the commitments to Northern Ireland veterans, giving them the protections they deserve as part of a wider package to address legacy issues in Northern Ireland.” This is effectively an amnesty.

This is a unilateral breach of commitments made by the British government in the Stormont House Agreement. It is in part the pandering to the right wing English nationalist sentiment that created Brexit and still thinks it has an Empire. It is also the inevitable consequence of a political and military strategy that has its roots in Britain’s counter-insurgency strategies in colonial wars through the 1940s to the late 1960s. It should never be forgotten that British policy in the North was dictated in large part out of this experience and by the policies advocated by British General Frank Kitson.

In 1969, the year before he was sent to the North to take command of the 39th Brigade, which covered the Belfast area, Kitson published, Low Intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency. To defend British national interests Kitson wrote: “Everything done by a government and its agents in combating insurgency must be legitimate. But this does not mean that the government must work within exactly the same set of laws during an emergency as existed beforehand. The law should be used as just another weapon in the government’s arsenal, in which case it becomes little more than a propaganda cover for the disposal of unwanted members of the public.”

The subsequent decades of conflict must be seen in this context. Understand this and you begin to understand the rationale behind British state collusion with unionist paramilitaries; their use of sectarian killings; the torture of citizens and of prisoners; the use of the shoot-to-kill policy; plastic bullet deaths; the extensive human rights abuses inflicted by the state and its agencies; the imposition of emergency powers that stripped away peoples fundamental human rights; and the mass killing of civilians on Bloody Sunday, the Ballymurphy Massacre, the Springhill Killings, and much else.

The reality is that the Coroner’s conclusions in the Ballymurphy case will not have surprised the security mandarins that run the British system. Every government, Conservative and Labour, has known the truth of these events since they first occurred. That’s why they have stalled and prevaricated, rejected and obstructed every effort by the families to get to the truth and to ensure accountability.

Regrettably the Irish government was not much better. In November 2008 the families and I met Dermot Ahern who was then the Irish Minister of Foreign Affairs. In May 2010 I facilitated a meeting between the families and the then Minister of Justice Micheál Martin. We visited the sites of the murders and the families told Mr. Martin of the circumstances of the deaths of their loved ones.

After I was elected to the Oireachtas the Ballymurphy Massacre families visited Leinster House on several occasions to lobby for support in their dealings with the British government. In November 2011 I read the names of those killed into the record of the Dáil for the first time.

“I would like, if I may, to read into the record the names of those killed in Ballymurphy: Fr. Hugh Mullan, who was 38 years old; Frank Quinn, 19, a father of two; Joan Connolly, 50, a mother of eight; Daniel Teggart, 44, a father of 13; Joseph Murphy, 41, a father of 12; Noel Phillips, who was 18; Eddie Doherty, 28, a father of four; John Laverty, who was 20; Joe Corr, 43, a father of six; John McKerr, 49, a father of two; and Paddy McCarthy, who was 44 years old. I once again implore the Government to assist and support the families' campaign and their demand for a full independent investigation.”

In March 2015 the Taoiseach Enda Kenny met the families and in July an all-party motion in support of the families was passed. The motion also supported the Stormont House Agreement on legacy issues.

Regrettably, the Irish government never adopted a strategic approach to challenging the British government on the Ballymurphy case. As in so many other instances these issues were generally viewed as an irritant in the government’s discussions with the British.

The response of An Taoiseach Micheál Martin following his meeting last week with Boris Johnson underlines this. Mr. Martin couldn’t bring himself to speak about the murder of civilians by the British forces but waffled his way around what he described as “the Ballymurphy situation.” It was he said a “good discussion” with Johnson and this after the families had been contemptuous of Johnson’s response.

I outline these meetings as evidence of the enormous courage and tenacity of the Ballymurphy families. For decades, but especially in the last 15 years they have never wavered in their determination to prove their loved ones innocent of any wrongdoing and the victims of state murder. I am in awe of their courage.

Finally we should not forget that their journey for truth and accountability is not over. There are more steps ahead as they seek to overcome British government efforts to protect those responsible for the murder of the innocent victims of the Ballymurphy Massacre. We must walk each new step with them on the way forward.


A Calendar of Cover-ups

Over many years the Ballymurphy families have met successive British Secretaries of State. This is an example of the record of shame by the British government. Successive politicians have been part of the cover-up of the Ballymurphy Massacre.

·         In February 2009 I facilitated a meeting between the Ballymurphy Massacre families and the then British Secretary of State Shaun Woodward. The meeting took place in Hillsborough Castle and Woodward was visibly shaken by the accounts of the families. He was considerate and seemed willing to help. The families asked for an inquiry. Six months later Woodward wrote to me referring to “those who died” while commending the work of the Historical Enquiries Team (HET), a body the families had previously told him they had no confidence in.

·         In October 2010 the families and I met the next British Secretary of State Owen Patterson. Like his predecessor Patterson pointed the families at the HET as the way to resolve their concerns. He did so while wearing a green wristband expressing his support for the Royal Irish Regiment. The families left the meeting expressing their deep disappointment at the attitude of Patterson.

·         Two years later Patterson rejected the families request for an investigation claiming it was “not in the public interest.”

·         In 2011 the Attorney General for the North agreed to reopen the inquests into the Ballymurphy Massacre.

·         In 2012 the Coroner John Lecky suspended the inquests on the grounds that the Attorney General had no authority to order them.

·         In February 2013 the Coroner changed his position when it was pointed out to him that there no legal barriers to the inquests being held.

·         In 2013 the families met the next Brit Secretary of State Theresa Villiers. They asked for the setting up of an independent review panel into the events in Ballymurphy.

·         In April 2014 Villiers dismissed the families request claiming it would not serve the public interest. At an emotional press conference Briege Foyle, whose mother Joan Connolly was one of those killed, tore up the letter received from Villiers. Briege told the media: "We will fight for this until we die and then our young family will come in and they will fight for it, we will get our day."

·         In her letter Villiers said that: “In my view, the balance of public interest does not favour establishing an independent review.”

·         In September 2016 the Ballymurphy Massacre families met the next British Secretary of State James Brokenshire. They specifically asked him to release the funding, requested by the Lord Chief Justice, needed for the scores of inquests that were waiting to be heard. Brokenshire refused and the families walked out.

·         John Teggart said afterward: “It was a terrible meeting. It was just the same old, same old. The families poured their hearts out about what had happened to their late relatives and were basically pleading for him to release the funding, but it was going nowhere.”


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