Retired general’s ‘enormous sympathy’ for Ballymurphy families

A retired army general has expressed “enormous sympathy” with families whose relatives died in disputed circumstances in west Belfast during the Troubles.

General Sir Geoffrey Howlett, 89, told a court he acknowledged most of the victims were not in the IRA.

A coroner is examining a series of shootings by paratroopers in which 10 people died in August 1971.

The then-lieutenant colonel, commander of the Second Battalion of the Parachute Regiment between 1971 and 1973, gave evidence to the Ballymurphy inquest in Belfast on Monday.

Sir Geoffrey told relatives of the dead: “I want just to say to you how sincerely I have enormous sympathy with you all … as relatives of those who were killed in this case on the ninth of August 1971.

“I know something about bereavement because my father was killed in Italy in the war when I was 13 and I wanted to know everything about how it happened as well.

“I just repeat what enormous sympathy I have with you all.”

He spoke from the witness box at a Belfast courtroom. Three rows of families of the dead sat opposite him in silence.

They maintain their loved ones were entirely innocent.

A contemporaneous regimental note said soldiers viewed the incident as one of inflicting “severe casualties” on the IRA.

The general accepted his belief at the time may have been mistaken.

“I realise now that most, but not all, were not IRA,” he said.

The retired serviceman went on to occupy high-ranking military positions including commander-in-chief of the Allied Forces in northern Europe.

Crime – Ballymurphy Massacre – Father Hugh Mullan – Corpus Christi Roman Catholic Church, Belfast
Mourners file past the coffin of Father Hugh Mullan, one of the 10 people killed (PA Archive)

Sir Geoffrey recalled serious escalation of the violence in west Belfast in 1971 after troops were charged with implementing internment of suspects without trial.

“None of us realised that the day of internment and the next day or two would turn out to be such a rebellious period with as much rioting, shooting, petrol and nail bombing as it was.

“I don’t think any of us were quite prepared for the big change.”

The streets were barricaded amid “looting, shooting and bombing”, Sir Geoffrey said.

The witness added: “The situation went from rioting to a full-blown battle.

“It was very busy – certainly the busiest day of my life.”

He said the operation went from police to military primacy at some stage.

Sir Geoffrey was at an army headquarters in west Belfast during part of the events in question.

It was reported to him by B Company, a sub-group of around 100 men, that the violence was started by a large group who attacked soldiers.

He attested that many hundreds of rounds were fired at members of B Company.

“The situation was never the same again, life was difficult,” he said.

“Following internment there had become an enemy out there who were definitely armed and firing at us.”

He said the military in the area was already at full capacity and no extra soldiers were sent.

They tried low-profile patrolling but that did not quell the violence.

After Ballymurphy, no soldier was disciplined and there was no debrief, the witness said.

“We were too busy trying to get Belfast back to normal,” he said.

The battalion left Northern Ireland on August 25 and took a month’s leave.

Crime – Ballymurphy Massacre – Father Hugh Mullan – Belfast
Sir Geoffrey paid tribute to the role played by Catholic clergymen such as Fr Mullan (PA Archive)

A priest, Father Hugh Mullan, was among those who died in Ballymurphy.

Sir Geoffrey paid tribute to the role of the Catholic clergymen during the trouble.

“The priesthood on the whole were pretty good,” he said.

The sequence investigated by the inquest started after the introduction of internment in Northern Ireland on August 9.

Mass arrests sparked rioting across the region.

Over three days, from August 9-11, 10 people died in shootings at multiple locations in west Belfast.

The events have become known by relatives of the dead and many nationalists as the Ballymurphy Massacre.

Soldiers have long been held responsible for killing all 10 people.

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