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Ballymurphy Inquest Findings

Volume 812: debated on Monday 17 May 2021


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Thursday 13 May.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on the findings of the Ballymurphy inquest. I want to put on the record the Government’s acknowledgment of the terrible hurt that has been caused to the families of Francis Quinn, Father Hugh Mullan, Noel Phillips, Joan Connolly, Daniel Teggart, Joseph Murphy, Edward Doherty, John Laverty, Joseph Corr and John McKerr.

I also want to pay tribute to the great patience with which the families have conducted themselves during their determined campaign, which has lasted almost 50 years. The Prime Minister is writing personally to the families, having yesterday expressed his deep regret to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and apologised unreservedly on behalf of the state.

The findings of the coroner are clear: those who died were entirely innocent of wrongdoing. The events at Ballymurphy should never have happened. The families of those who were killed should never have had to experience the grief and trauma of that loss. They should not have had to wait nearly five decades for the judgment this week; nor should they have been compelled to relive that terrible time in August 1971 again and again in their long and distressing quest for truth.

Over the course of the Troubles, more than 3,500 people were killed, and tens of thousands injured, with families torn apart forever. The majority of those killed were innocent civilians, such as those on the streets of Ballymurphy.

The vast majority of those who served in Northern Ireland did so with great dignity and professionalism, but it is clear that in some cases the security forces and the Army made terrible errors too. The duty of the state is to hold itself to the highest standards at all times. When we fail to meet these high standards, we must recognise the hurt and agony caused.

There is no doubt that what happened in Ballymurphy in those awful few days also fuelled further violence and escalation, particularly in the early years of the Troubles. The Government profoundly regret and are truly sorry for these events, for how investigations after these terrible events were handled, and for the additional pain that the families have had to endure in their fight to clear the names of their loved ones since they began their campaign almost five decades ago.

In order to make lasting change, actions are required as well. The Belfast/Good Friday agreement was the defining action that allowed Northern Ireland to begin to move away from violence, but the events of the past continue to cast a long shadow, as we have seen. Those who were killed or injured during the Troubles came from all communities, and they included many members of the security forces and Armed Forces. Immense and difficult compromises have since been made on all sides, including the early release of prisoners, which was so difficult for many people to accept.

To a very large extent, Northern Ireland has moved away from violence, so we stand by those compromises and the progress made towards a more peaceful society. Yet the desire of the families of victims to know the truth about what happened to their loved ones is strong, legitimate and right. The campaign for justice in Ballymurphy has reminded us all of that—if we needed to be reminded at all.

Twenty-three years after the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, thousands of murders remain unresolved and many families still yearn for answers. With each passing year, the integrity of evidence and the prospects of prosecution diminish, and the Government are not shrinking away from those challenges. We are determined to address them in a way that reflects the time that has passed, the complexity of Northern Ireland’s troubled history and the reality of the compromises that have already been made. But, above all, we are determined to address them in a way that enables victims and survivors to get to the truth that they deserve. We must never ignore or dismiss the past; learning what we can, we must find a way to move beyond it. The coroner’s findings this week are part of that often very painful process.

The Government want to deliver a way forward in addressing the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland; one that will allow all individuals or families who want information to seek and receive answers about what happened during the Troubles, with far less delay and distress. We want a path forward that will also pave the way for wider societal reconciliation for all communities, allowing all the people of Northern Ireland to focus on building a shared, stable, peaceful and prosperous future. I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, some years ago I met the Ballymurphy families and I was appalled, obviously, by their story. Ten innocent civilians died, including a priest, a mother of eight and a veteran of World War II, and 57 children were left without a parent. Since these events of over half a century ago, all Governments, including the one of which I was a member, have let these families down. I applaud the families for their resilience and determination in getting to the truth of that terrible day in August 1971.

The conclusions of Mrs Justice Keegan are clear: those who lost their lives were innocent and posed no threat. Their deaths were without justification and their fundamental right to life was violated. That these families have had to fight for so long for the truth is a profound failure of the criminal justice system, and we must learn from this dreadful story. Other families in Northern Ireland are still fighting for answers. As Northern Ireland Secretary, I initiated three public inquiries and spent many hours trying to resolve this very difficult issue of the legacy of the past, including going to South Africa to look at their truth and reconciliation process. There is no simple answer, but the Government must ensure that there is the widest possible consultation on legacy, including with all the Northern Ireland parties, the Irish Government and especially, of course, with victims and their representatives.

I fully appreciate that the Government have apologised for this tragic event but, frankly, they should go further. The Prime Minister should have delivered the Statement himself in the Chamber of the House of Commons, like his predecessor David Cameron did on the Bloody Sunday inquiry. He should now travel to Northern Ireland to meet the families personally. After 50 years, they deserve no less.

My Lords, first, I associate myself with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, who has long experience of the situation in Northern Ireland and this particular case. Given the long and bitter history of the Ballymurphy killings and Operation Demetrius, which was the genesis of the events of 9-11 August 1971, I agree also that the Prime Minister’s apology appears somewhat graceless and inadequate. Sending a stereotyped collective letter, rather than making a public statement and apology in Parliament, falls short of the sensitivity and compassion required following such a clear and stark verdict.

It has taken almost 50 years to get to this point— 50 years during which, as the verdict confirms, the victims were slandered and vilified, including by the most senior members of the Armed Forces. As the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, pointed out, Mr Johnson’s predecessor, David Cameron, whatever his faults, came to the House of Commons and made a sincere and unqualified public apology over the Bloody Sunday report. This event surely required nothing less. Once again, it reveals a dangerous lack of understanding of or consideration for the raw wounds left by the Troubles and the delicate path Northern Ireland is now treading as a result of the Prime Minister’s reckless haste to get Brexit done without adequate concern for its impact on the Belfast agreement.

The Ballymurphy killings were among a larger number of deaths that occurred during Operation Demetrius, when the Army was systematically rounding up terrorist suspects for internment without trial. Internment, a deeply controversial sanction, was made worse by poor intelligence leading to innocent, non-violent members of the nationalist community being targeted—often brutally, according to reports—by soldiers who perceived almost anyone as a potential terrorist. Not surprisingly, for such a draconian course of action, it was resented and provoked demonstrations and, in the heightened tension this created, the Army reacted by firing living ammunition and, as is now confirmed, killing innocent citizens. Despite the fact that loyalist paramilitaries also perpetrated acts of violence, it appears that Operation Demetrius was focused entirely on the Catholic community. Paddy Murray, the solicitor who represents the families of nine of the 10 victims, has said that following the verdict further legal action is being planned.

Before the verdict, the Government appeared determined to press ahead with legislation to limit the scope for future prosecutions on crimes related to the Troubles. The Secretary of State trod carefully around the issue in the other place on Thursday but, nevertheless, made it clear that the Government are still planning legislation. He talked about finding a solution that can work for “families in Northern Ireland”, but if the Government are really committed to finding a solution that works for families, does the Minister agree that the victims of Ballymurphy, and indeed of all the atrocities committed during the Troubles, and their families must come first? They must have confidence in any process that is established going forward; otherwise, the peace and reconciliation that everybody wants for Northern Ireland will be more difficult to achieve.

I remind the Minister of the key principles set out in the Stormont agreement. These are:

“promoting reconciliation … upholding the rule of law … acknowledging and addressing the suffering of victims and survivors … facilitating the pursuit of justice and information recovery”

and that the agreement is

“human rights compliant … balanced, proportionate, transparent, fair and equitable.”

Can there be any justification for setting these aside? Are the Government reassessing their position on any limitation? Is it possible or acceptable to exempt veterans from prosecution without denying recourse to victims of terrorism? Is there any support for the Government’s approach within the Province? Is it helpful or necessary to introduce this into the mix at a time of such volatility and uncertainty? Without clear cross-community support for any government proposals, will the Government accept that pressing ahead would be insensitive and unwise, and should not be imposed?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Murphy and Lord Bruce, for their comments and their points. As is now apparent from the inquest verdict from Mrs Justice Keegan last Tuesday, we can all agree that the deaths of 10 entirely innocent people in Ballymurphy over three days in August 1971 was one of the most appalling events of all the years of the Troubles. It was a new and particularly dark low, the results of which may have—or are likely to have—exacerbated further incidents in subsequent years. Noble Lords will have read the Statement. In normal times in the House, I would be repeating it. A Statement such as this, one of such gravity and sensitivity, deserves as much.

I start by emphasising that my thoughts are with the families of the Ballymurphy victims. It is sobering for me to consider that I was 15 in 1971. The deaths left no fewer than 57 children—as the noble Lord, Lord Murphy said—without a parent, with all the tragedy, the loss of loved ones, and the permanently changed lives that stemmed from this. I want to put on record again today the Government’s acknowledgment of the terrible hurt that has been caused to the families of the victims: Francis Quinn, Father Hugh Mullan, Noel Phillips, Joan Connolly, Daniel Teggart, Joseph Murphy, Edward Doherty, John Laverty, Joseph Corr and John McKerr. The events at Ballymurphy should never have happened. The families of those who were killed should never have had to experience the grief and trauma of the losses, or the decades of waiting for last Tuesday’s verdict.

The noble Lords, Lord Murphy and Lord Bruce, raised issues around the Government’s apology to the Ballymurphy families. I start by saying that it cannot change what they have endured. The PM, on behalf of the UK Government—the state—has apologised by writing to the families. He has also spoken to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. My right honourable friend in the other place, Brandon Lewis, also apologised in his Statement last Thursday and, today, I add my own heartfelt apology, as I address the House.

The results of Mrs Justice Keegan’s report and the apologies given will be followed by action to prevent others who have lost loved ones, from all communities, whether civilians, paramilitaries or solders, continuing to go through the same lengthy and traumatic experiences. To answer the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, that is why the Government are committed, as spelt out in the recent humble Address, to address the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland. We are doing so in a way that allows all individuals or families who want information, including those from Ballymurphy, to seek and receive answers about what happened during the Troubles with far less delay and distress.

Again to answer a question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, it is important that we do this with all parties involved in Northern Ireland, from the parties themselves to civic society and victims organisations, to ensure that we bring everybody along with us in what is being proposed.

My Lords, having met the Ballymurphy families a number of times, I commend their dignity and tenacity and express the genuine hope that the coroner’s conclusions, which are clear, provide them with some comfort. On the past, given that the Stormont House agreement, which I helped to negotiate, is now nearly six and a half years old and that its legacy sections have yet to be implemented, is it not right that we look at possible alternative approaches that protect those who served and provide better outcomes for victims and survivors of terrorism? Finally, does my noble friend agree that, while we do not defend the reputation of the British Army by defending the indefensible, as in this case, the vast majority of those who served did so with courage, professionalism and restraint and all of us owe them and the RUC a huge debt?

I agree with my noble friend that the current system is working for no one, failing to bring satisfactory outcomes for families and placing a heavy burden on the criminal justice system, leaving society in Northern Ireland hamstrung by its past. But we must never forget, dismiss or ignore the past. We must find a way forward to move beyond it, which is why the Government want to deliver a process that will, as I said earlier, allow all individuals or families who want information to seek and receive answers about what happened during the Troubles. On my noble friend’s point about the Armed Forces, the UK Government are committed to delivering on their commitments to Northern Ireland veterans.

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House why the Statement and press release issued by the Northern Ireland Office do not state that nine of these 10 victims were shot dead by the Army and that three of them were shot as they went to the help of people who had already been shot? In the 10th case, because of a massive failing by the state, the coroner could not attribute responsibility. Given the families’ response to the coroner’s finding and that this country proudly proclaims its respect for and adherence to the rule of law, surely we must continue to use our resources positively and in the interests of truth and justice, rather than in trying to prevent future prosecutions and abandoning the various agreements made between the UK Government and Ireland, supported by the political parties.

I agree with the noble Baroness that it is important to get to the truth and provide justice. With regard to her earlier points, questions arising from the deaths of the victims at Ballymurphy are a matter for the coroner and should be directed to her office.

My Lords, if something is wrong, it is wrong. What happened in Ballymurphy in 1971 was wrong. My noble friend is aware that, in that year, 171 people were killed in Northern Ireland, including 60 members of the security forces. I suspect that there was no closure or truth for the vast majority of them. Should the Government now provide resources to the existing, established and acceptable security forces so that, if fresh evidence is available, they can pursue it, rather than spending hundreds of millions of pounds on setting up new organisations that will take up to 15 years just to complete their case work?

I take note of my noble friend’s points about the 171 people who were killed that year. Today, our focus should be on the Ballymurphy victims, but my noble friend makes a wider point, which is that, looking ahead, we must also focus on all victims of the Troubles. The Government are clear that any system to deal with the legacy of the past must be fair, proportionate and focused on reconciliation to deliver for all those affected by the Troubles.

My Lords, the report is clear, and our sincere sympathies are with the families and loved ones of those who lost their lives needlessly in the terrible events of August 1971 in Ballymurphy. Can the Minister also assure the grieving families of the many hundreds of victims who are forgotten and were never named that their loved ones will also receive recognition, even an acknowledgement or perhaps even an apology from the political spokespersons of the terrorist groups, some of which are in government in Northern Ireland today? Can they expect justice as a result of the forthcoming proposals on legacy? Will the Minister guarantee that the representatives of victims are fully consulted before the legacy proposals are brought forward?

I hope I can reassure the noble Lord that consultations are continuing with civic society and victims organisations to help us do what we have set out in the Queen’s Speech. As the Government have said, we will bring forward legislation in this Session to address the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland. I hope that those points reassure the noble Lord.

My Lords, the events at Ballymurphy were a stain on the UK Armed Forces. Our sympathy goes out to the families who have had to wait so long to prove the innocence of their lost loved ones. More broadly in the context of resolving the contentious issue of historic investigations and prosecutions, will the Minister confirm that the Government see no moral equivalence between our servicemen, who left barracks daily at the risk of their lives, with the intention of ensuring the safety and security of the people of Northern Ireland and their property, and the terrorists, who left home with the intention of killing and maiming citizens of Northern Ireland and those protecting them?

The Government want to find a way forward that provides information for all those caught up in the Troubles, helps families to get the answers that they want and lays the foundation for greater reconciliation and a shared future for all communities. As I said earlier, we must not dismiss the past but find a way forward on reconciliation because we must think about the future and young people in Northern Ireland. We must find a way not to dismiss the past, but to secure the future of Northern Ireland, which is very bright.

My Lords, I welcome the full apology given by Her Majesty’s Government to the families of those killed in Ballymurphy. Fifty years is a long time to wait for justice and this verdict. I pay tribute to them for their fortitude and determination. Truth and justice must be possible for everyone but, sadly, there are too many victims in Northern Ireland who will never have justice, particularly those who saw many of the IRA terrorists given royal pardons or on-the-run letters by a former Prime Minister. Does the Minister agree that there is now an imbalance of legacy trials against our state forces, the vast majority of whom did their best to protect people? Maybe it is time for Her Majesty’s Government to announce their own public inquiries into unsolved terrorist atrocities.

Well, it is clear that certain court cases that have been brought forward have been unsatisfactory. As the noble Baroness alluded to, we are talking about events that happened 40 to 50 years ago, so it is extremely difficult to find admissible evidence that is helpful. But I go back to the point that, in bringing forward issues on legacy, as we have pledged to do, we must do our best to get to truth, find justice and get the information that victims’ families want.

My Lords, I know Ballymurphy rather better than I would wish. The Statement says that the Army made terrible errors. The 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment showed itself to be out of control and without any proper discipline, both in Ballymurphy and a few months later in Londonderry, on Bloody Sunday. I was 20 at the time, a probationary officer at university. I could have told you that then. Now it is 50 years ago—the same distance away as the Boer War was when I was born. This is tragic, but it is time to move on from this terrible, shameful disgrace, and from the many hundreds of murders committed by terrorists. For instance, we will not be able to convict Gerry Adams for his involvement in the 1972 murder of Jean McConville, a mother of 10, or those responsible for many other victims—police, Army and civilians—of the IRA and loyalist terrorist groups. Is it not now time to draw a line in the sand?

Well, my noble friend makes a point, to the extent that those who were killed and injured during the Troubles came from all communities and also included many members of the security forces. The state must hold itself to the highest standards and acknowledge where its role has fallen short of these standards. As I said earlier, I hope that the PM’s apology and my comments today make it clear that we are not afraid to do this, and that all sides must look at their actions and work together to enable Northern Ireland to move forward. This is why the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has committed to working closely with the Irish Government, Northern Ireland parties, civic society and the wider community, in the weeks and months ahead.

My Lords, I was serving in Belfast in August 1971, when a badly thought-through policy of internment was enacted. Many people died that month, including soldiers, paramilitaries and, tragically, innocent civilians such as the 10 in Ballymurphy. Given that the collapse of the recent trial of soldiers A and C showed that prosecutions for alleged offences committed decades ago are likely to fail because of the lack of admissible evidence, and that the same would probably occur if any prosecutions were to follow the Ballymurphy inquest findings, will the Minister comment on the proposal for a qualified statute of limitations for all alleged offences connected with the Troubles that were committed before the signing of the Good Friday agreement in April 1998—policy that was proposed more than 10 years ago in the Eames-Bradley report and successfully followed by the Dublin Government in 1924?

I alluded earlier to the recent court case regarding soldiers A and C, so I will not go over that again, but I take note of what the noble Lord said. The Government are very clear that, as I said earlier, the current system for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles is not working for anybody, particularly the bereaved families, such as those who lost loved ones in Ballymurphy in 1971, as the noble Lord said, whose grief has been compounded by the long and difficult process of waiting for answers for so many years. Every family who wants them deserves answers about what happened to their loved ones, so, to answer the noble Lord’s question, the Government want to deliver a way forward that will provide information about what happened during the Troubles.

My Lords, I have met the Ballymurphy families on many occasions and have always been impressed by their sincerity and tenacity to find out the truth about why their loved ones were murdered. Will the Minister ensure that the Prime Minister meets with the families to discuss their quest for truth as to why their loved ones were killed? Will he also ensure that the proposed legacy legislation reflects the Stormont House agreement and ensures that there will be no amnesty for those who committed acts of murder, irrespective of whether they were military or paramilitary, in our society?

I will certainly pass the request from the noble Baroness further up the ladder to the Prime Minister. The Government are looking closely at the report which has come from Mrs Justice Keegan. There are some 700 pages and, given that it came out last Tuesday, time is required to look at it carefully.

My Lords, I associate myself with the comments made by my noble friend Lord Murphy and the noble Lord, Lord Bruce. The coroner’s report emphasises the end of a legacy in Northern Ireland’s past. It is vital that the Government have a clear policy on this with timelines, as they currently have no policy and are failing. They must consult with all the families and those giving support, and the groups in Northern Ireland. Again, I emphasise that there must be a timeline, otherwise we will never see the end of this. This is not a situation for totalitarianism: the Government do not know best.

I can understand that the noble Baroness would like me to give a timeline today. I am unable to do that, but I can reassure her that, despite it being 50 years ago that the awful events in Ballymurphy took place, we pledged in the recent Queen’s Speech to bring forward details regarding legacy in this session.

Like my noble friend Lord Murphy and other Members of the House, I met the Ballymurphy families years ago. I was impressed by their determination in the face of intolerable grief and sadness. What is puzzling is why the Prime Minister did not himself meet the Ballymurphy families. Surely the right thing would be not to leave it to other Ministers but to go to Belfast, meet the families in person and express his apologies face to face.

As I said earlier, the Prime Minister has written to the Ballymurphy families to apologise directly for the events that unfolded between 9 and 11 August 1971, and the Secretary of State also apologised as part of his Statement to the Commons on 13 May. Both did so on behalf of the UK Government and I repeat that apology today. But whatever the nature of the apology, it can do nothing either to reduce the suffering that the families have endured or to lessen the sincerity of our sorrow.

My Lords, it is shocking that this coroner’s finding has been delayed for 50 years. Do the Government acknowledge the insuperable difficulties for the Crown Prosecution Service in preparing cases for trial about the Troubles in Northern Ireland that will achieve clear outcomes due to the passage of time? Does the Minister agree that a decisive lead to seek a wide politically agreed solution to this dreadful legacy is now the only realistic one?

Yes, indeed—the noble and gallant Lord makes a very important and sobering point about the delay. It is fair to say that it was further delayed by Covid, but we are talking about 50 years here and I am not making light of that; it is too long. I assure the noble and gallant Lord that, as I have said before, we are determined to bring Northern Ireland forward and to address the legacy matters. It is complex and sensitive. It is not easy, but we are determined to do it.

My Lords, it is surely right that a historic wrong that occurred during the Troubles 50 years ago in Northern Ireland is acknowledged and that the names of innocent victims are cleared of wrongdoing, which is what the inquest found. This was a time of extreme conflict, and injustices occurred on both sides. Unless there is powerful and compelling new evidence, it heaps injustice on injustice to charge British soldiers who are now reaching the autumns of their years for acts committed under orders so long ago. Does the noble Viscount account agree with me that some kind of commission to achieve peace and reconciliation on both sides of the conflict is a more constructive way forward in these very difficult matters?

It is true that there are a lot of challenges and difficulties because of the time that has passed, and the noble Lord makes some extremely good points about those challenges. As I said earlier, this is a very sensitive, challenging and difficult matter. I reiterate that, in order to go forward, we must continue to bring with us as many groups as we possibly can in Northern Ireland, to liaise with the Irish Government, and to bring on board victims’ groups, civic society and the rest in what we need to do.

My Lords, will the Government learn from the reception of this apology—the rightful and understandable upset of the families of the innocent Ballymurphy victims, who heard that it was going to be delivered from journalists and who were not consulted on its contents—which was not delivered by the Prime Minister personally, in future apologies relating to events all around these islands? Will they take further steps to support the families of the Ballymurphy victims and acknowledge their disappointment at the way the apology was delivered?

Sitting suspended.