Ex-police tell Ballymurphy inquest of gun battle between soldiers and unseen men

Two former police officers have described witnessing a gun battle between soldiers and unseen men in Belfast.

Ex-Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers John Jackson and Rolf McGookin were on duty in Springmartin Road on August 9 1971 hours after internment was introduced.

They were standing with a crowd of loyalists watching rioting in front of a temporary Army base at Henry Taggart Memorial Hall.

Six people were killed in the area that day in a disputed shooting, including a Catholic priest and a mother of eight.

Photos of those killed at Ballymurphy
Photos of those killed at Ballymurphy (Ballymurphy Massacre Committee/PA)

The episode dubbed the “Ballymurphy massacre” started on August 9 as the British Army moved into republican strongholds to arrest IRA suspects after the introduction by the Stormont administration of the controversial policy of internment without trial.

A new inquest at Belfast Coroner’s Court is examining the deaths of 10 civilians over three days in the Ballymurphy area from August 9 to 11.

Claims that IRA gunmen were in the area at the time have been disputed during the inquest hearings.

On Monday, the two retired RUC officers gave evidence in person, while statements made in 1972 were read on behalf of two others who are now dead and one who cannot be traced.

Their evidence included claims of seeing an exchange of fire between unseen gunmen and soldiers.

Belfast Coroner's Court
Belfast Coroner’s Court (Paul Faith/PA)

Mr McGookin said there were 250-300 loyalists at Springmartin, and described the crowd as initially “not hostile”.

He said that changed when an unknown person shouted “the Fenians are attacking from Springfield Park”, and the crowd surged forward to a wire fence which divided the two areas and started to climb it.

He told the inquest that after a person had been taken from a house in Springfield Park by soldiers, there was talk among the loyalist crowd of “lynching” that person.

Mr McGookin said soldiers fired a number of shots into the air to push back the loyalist crowd, which he described as having “turned into a mob”.

Mr Jackson said shots were fired from the Moyard, Springfield Park and Ballymurphy areas, and soldiers returned fire, but added that he did not see the gunmen.

In a statement made in 1972, Constable Rex Thompson described helping the soldiers by directing gunfire at those who he said he believed to be gunmen.

Karen Quinlivan QC, acting for the families of some of those killed at Ballymurphy, put to Mr McGookin that witnesses observed an attack at Springfield Park by loyalists in Springmartin that was so “ferocious” that women, children and the elderly were being evacuated from their homes in the street.

She also put to Mr McGookin that a witness had observed RUC officers “laughing and joking” with the loyalist crowd at Springmartin.

He rejected that, saying: “We didn’t have the numbers to control them.”

The inquest continues.

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