Coroner expresses concern British soldiers could boycott Ballymurphy inquest

A coroner has warned the court has the power to issue subpoenas to witnesses who refuse to cooperate with the inquest into the killings of 10 people in west Belfast almost five decades ago.

Mrs Justice Siobhan Keegan made the stark warning after a barrister representing some of the Ballymurphy families said there is “widespread and deep” concern British soldiers are boycotting the inquest.

Michael Mansfield QC, who represents a number of the victims’ families, called for the coroner to take direct action on the issue.

The long-awaited inquests are examining the deaths of 10 people killed during shooting incidents involving the Army in the Ballymurphy area of west Belfast in 1971.

Mr Mansfield said: “There is widespread and deep concern from the families about what appears to be a boycott at what is a critical point of this inquest.

“The appearance of a boycott is being articulated very clearly.”

He said former soldier Alan Barry, who is involved in the campaign group Justice for Northern Ireland Veterans (JFNIV), advised soldiers involved not to cooperate with requests to attend the inquests.

The comments were reported in a newspaper on Friday and repeated in a different national newspaper on the first day of the inquest.

Mr Mansfield said these warnings to soldiers present serious risk of adverse inference.

Ballymurphy inquest
Ballymurphy inquest

Mrs Justice Keegan expressed concern in learning about the media reports, saying: “I would like to remind people that cooperation is key to my role.

“If people refuse to cooperate I have the power to subpoena witnesses or draw adverse inference.

“It is not permissible for people to discourage those who may have relevant information to come forward.”

On the second day of the inquest, families of two of the victims’ read out statements and described the impact of the killings.

Patsy Mullan, whose brother Fr Hugh Mullan was killed as he tried to help a wounded man, described him as “very helpful and kind”.

“When I was told that he was dead, I phoned our doctor and asked him to come to be with my mother as I didn’t know how she would cope with this news,” he said.

“She was in a terrible state and had to be sedated.”

Fr Mullan’s niece, Geraldine McGrattan, said: “As a family we want this inquest to prove that my uncle was not a gunman as was stated in some of the newspapers at the time. That he was an innocent priest going about his pastoral duties.”

Pat Quinn, the brother of 19-year-old Frank who was shot dead after trying to help a wounded man, said his death forever changed his family’s life.

Mr Quinn, who was comforted by his other brother Liam as he broke down in court, added: “It was like hell on earth that this was happening to our family.”

Frank’s daughter Angela Nolan said: “(There are) so many memories that we didn’t get to make because someone decided that it was okay to take him from us, because he was a kind human being he went to help others.

“I have always been proud of his bravery. Many a man would have walked away.”

Defence barrister Barry McDonald said at least 12 soldiers fired 117 shots into an area known as Manse field, however he added not one of these soldiers have provided a statement.

Ballymurphy inquest
Ballymurphy inquest

“The soldiers who fired are simply refusing to cooperate with this inquest and are boycotting it,” Mr McDonald added.

He said soldiers believed to be involved have not been prepared to give statements and he called for them to be subpoenaed.

Continuing his opening statement on Tuesday, counsel for the coroner Sean Doran outlined details around the UVF’s controversial claim of involvement.

The court was told an Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) sniper was active in that part of west Belfast at the time of the killings.

Mr Doran said no information as to which of these deaths may have been caused by the sniper was given.

In May this year, the coroner’s service received correspondence from a solicitor representing an interlocutor who claimed he had information about the possible involvement of the UVF in a number of shootings in Ballymurphy.

The interlocutor, known as Witness X, said he had spoken to people he described as veterans of the UVF.

He said information provided identified a UVF sniper, who is now dead, was active in the vicinity of where the shootings took place and may have caused some of the deaths.

It is understood the man named by the organisation is a now deceased member called Tommy West.

Mr Doran told the court Witness X claims he was told a Mauser rifle had been used.

The barrister also described the extensive work the coroner’s service has been carrying out for the inquests.

He said they have requested 127 military witness statements and around 800 soldiers have been identified as potentially being able to assist the inquest.

The inquest will also examine areas of the military operations taking place at the time.