By David Burke.
The denial of justice for political gain.
Next week will see the release of the long-awaited inquest report into the Ballymurphy massacre during which British soldiers killed and wounded a large number of unarmed civilians in Belfast. The atrocity took place after the introduction of internment in August of 1971. Adding insult to inqury, the victims were vilified as gunmen and terrorists.
A documentary entitled ‘The Ballymurphy Precedent’ will be broadcast on Channel 4 on Wednesday 12 May. It contains detailed re-enactments of the actions of Kitson’s and Wilford’s troops. RTE will also be showing it at a date yet to be determined.
Meanwhile, the British Government led by Boris Johnson proposes to grant all British soldiers implicated in murder in Northern Ireland immunity from prosecution, contrary to the Stormont House Agreement. Incredible as this may seem in Ireland and across the globe, it has enhanced Boris Johnson’s standing in the eyes of large numbers of the British electorate.
Johnson has also set himself on a collision course with the Irish Government. Taoiseach Micheál Martin has stated that: “There is an agreement in place with the British government, with the parties in Northern Ireland and indeed with victims’ groups and that is the Stormont House Agreement of 2014 and that any move from it would amount to ‘a unilateral breach of trust”’.
He added: “For us the victims are the priority and the victims remain the priority. There has to be adherence to that agreement. If people have new ideas to present they have to involve all of the parties, and above all the concerns of victims irrespective of who committed the atrocities. People must be held accountable”.
Johnson’s Minister for Veterans, John Mercer MP, resigned last month in protest at what then looked like the British Government’s reluctance to change the law to prevent the prosecution of British soldiers accused of murder in Northern Ireland. In his resignation statement, he said he was stepping down to “try and shift UK Government position towards looking after these people and preventing the repeated and vexatious nature of litigation against those who served is a huge task”.
There have been further developments and insights into the free rein afforded to British soldiers in Northern Ireland to shoot at human targets.
Last week the trial of two paratroopers accused of shooting Official IRA volunteer Joe McCann while he ran away from them collapsed. Judge James O’Hara pointed out that:
“At that time, in fact until late 1973, an understanding was in place between the RUC and the Army whereby the RUC did not arrest and question, or even take witness statements from, soldiers involved in shootings such as this one. This appalling practice was designed, at least in part, to protect soldiers from being prosecuted and in very large measure it succeeded.“
Her Majesty’s Killers.
The Ballymurphy Inquest report may not address the roles played in the massacre by two of the most notorious British soldiers to set foot in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, Brigadier Frank Kitson and Colonel Derek Wilford.
Kitson is a counterinsurgency expert who had served in Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus and the Oman before he was sent to Northern Ireland as the brigadier in charge of the 39 Brigade area which included Belfast, 1970-72. He set up the Mobile Reaction Force (MRF) which carried out the murder of a series of unarmed civilians in Belfast in the early 1970s. Kitson’s own pen has long since exposed him as a racist and anti-Catholic bigot. He committed perjury at the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday (January 1972) on an industrial scale.
Wilford assumed command of 1 Para on 21 July 1971. 1 Para formed part of 39 Brigade. Wilford believes that virtually all Catholics in Northern Ireland are IRA supporters, and has said as much in public. He had served with the SAS for two years and trained with American paratroopers at Fort Bragg, the US Army Special Forces School before coming to Ireland. He was also a veteran of Malaya and Aden. He joined the Parachute Regiment as a company commander in 1969. Perceived as a bit of a loner, he was given to reading the classics, in their original Latin.
The number of unarmed Catholic civilians murdered by 1 Para reached unprecedented levels after Wilford’s arrival. Many were shot in the back or while lying on the ground. He reported directly to Kitson.
The number of unarmed Catholic civilians murdered by 1 Para reached unprecedented levels after Wilford’s arrival. Many were shot in the back or while lying on the ground. He reported directly to Kitson.
Both men are still alive and unrepentant at the multiple deaths caused by their troops including those who died during the Ballymurphy massacre.
Wilford took 1 Para to Derry early the following year, an event that resulted in Bloody Sunday. Wilford committed perjury at the Widgery and Saville inquiries into Bloody Sunday. He has also admitted lying to the press. He is the keeper of many secrets about that massacre. While Wilford presents himself as an officer who has always been loyal to the paratroopers who served under him on Bloody Sunday, the truth is that he has thrown them to the wolves to save his own skin. One of them is facing murder charges for his actions on Bloody Sunday. Meanwhile, Wilford cowers in Belgium.
While Wilford presents himself as an officer who has always been loyal to the paratroopers who served under him on Bloody Sunday, the truth is that he has thrown them to the wolves to save his own skin. One of them is facing murder charges for his actions on Bloody Sunday. Meanwhile, Wilford cowers in Belgium.
Operation Demetrius was the code name ascribed to internment which commenced on 9 August 191. 342 people were swept up on that day and taken to to makeshift camps in a series of dawn swoops by the British Army. 105 were released after two days. Instead of restoring law and order, the arrests sparked an eruption of violence. During the upheaval that ensued between 9 and 11 August, 1971, 1 Para and other regiments of the British Army killed a series of unarmed civilians in Ballymurphy, Belfast. Kitson must shoulder the lion’s share of the blame for this as he was fully engaged in the actions of his troops. General Michael Carver, the Chief of the General Staff of the British Army, praised Kitson’s behaviour in his 1989 memoirs in which he had described how Belfast had become quiet by 12 August “after some rioting and burning, thanks to the energetic action of Frank Kitson, the brigade commander there”.
Palpably, Wilford is another person with questions to answer about the behaviour of 1 Para, the troops under his command.
The Kitson-Wilford Massacre in Ballymurphy, Belfast, August 1971.
Loyalist gangs came out in force to take advantage of the upheaval. On the 9th a group of them launched an attack on Catholics at Springfield Park causing an exodus from their homes. During the strike, a group of people fled across a wasteland to get away from them. One of the locals, Bobby Clarke, carried a child to safety and then returned to see who else he might be able to help. There were two military snipers in newly built flats that overlooked the wasteland. Clarke noticed them over his shoulder and, fearing the worst, began to zigzag until he was shot in the back. The snipers were from the Queen’s Regiment who had arrived in position just 30 minutes before the shooting started – they had never been in the area before.
A priest called F. Hugh Mullan was watching what was taking place from a house in the estate when he spotted Clarke fall. He left the dwelling waving a white cloth with the intention of administering the last rights to him. When he reached him, he was still alive. It was while he was making his way back, still waving the white cloth and hoping to phone an ambulance that he was shot. After the first shot struck, he continued to wave the cloth but was felled by another bullet. He began to bleed to death.
Frank Quinn, a nineteen-year-old, was shot while he attempted to go to the aid of Clarke. Witnesses believed he was targeted by three paratroopers, the same group responsible for shooting Fr. Mullan. Clarke, who survived, later explained how Quinn had removed his shirt to stem his bleeding. The pair were within earshot of Fr Mullan and lay low to avoid the attention of the paratroopers. They could hear the moans of the priest as he lay dying. The tension must have got to Quinn who rose up suddenly and was fatally struck by a bullet under the chin.
Also on the 9th, Danny Taggart, forty-four, was hit fourteen times. Most of the bullets entered his back. According to some witnesses, this happened while he lay injured on the ground.
Noel Phillips, twenty, was shot as he stood opposite Henry Taggart army base. Locals claim that he was fired upon by soldiers at close range as he tried to escape from them. After he was shot, he lay on the ground screaming.
Joan Connolly, forty, was shot at 7:15 p.m. that night while she scoured the streets for her children. She came across Noel Phillips lying on the ground and went to help him. The first bullet threw her to the ground. According to witnesses, after she was hit, she managed to get up again whereupon a second bullet struck, this one into her head. She had eight children ranging between three and twenty-two. When she was found, half of her skull was missing. Bullets had also penetrated her shoulder, hand and thigh. Her children were taken to Waterford in the Republic of Ireland. They missed her funeral which they saw reported on a television. They were among many who had fled Ballymurphy on buses to army camps in the Republic.
According to witnesses, after she was hit, she managed to get up again whereupon a second bullet struck, this one into her head. She had eight children ranging between three and twenty-two. When she was found, half of her skull was missing. Bullets had also penetrated her shoulder, hand and thigh.
Joseph Murphy, forty-one, was shot but not killed opposite an army base. He was then taken into army custody, released and made his way to hospital where he received a vicious kicking meted out by a group of soldiers who then discharged a bullet into his existing wound. Beyond Ballymurphy, little credence was given to this until October 2015 when a second projectile was found in his body.
An eleven-year-old boy was also struck by bullets and spent months in hospital recovering.
On the 10th John Beattie was taken down by a bullet which tore through his heart. He had become the target of an army sniper who aimed directly at the van in which he was carrying a number of men.
Also, on the 10th, paratroopers were sent in to demolish barricades which had sprung up to protect the community. Eddie Doherty, twenty-eight, was shot by a member of the Royal Engineers who was assisting 1 Para with the removal of the Barricade on Whiterock Road. He fired a 9mm Sterling Sub Machine gun.
The soldiers alleged he had been throwing a petrol bomb whereas a local witness said he had been running away from the barricade when he was attacked. He was struck on the right-hand side of his back. He had been on his way to check up on the welfare of his father and sisters. The paratroopers later provided contradictory accounts of what had happened. Forensic evidence demonstrated that there was no petrol or bullet residue on his person.
John Laverty, twenty, was shot twice, once in the back and once in the back of the leg.
Joseph Corr, forty-three, was shot multiple times on the 11th and died of his injuries on 27 August.
John McKerr, forty-nine, was shot in the forehead outside a church on which he was working on the 11th. He died on the 20th after contracting meningitis in hospital. A local priest explained that he had been completing work on the building and had been targeted because he had a stiff arm which might have made it look as if he was carrying a weapon. Praising him later, his employer explained that he had an artificial hand with the special fitting into which he could screw his hammer “he was a better joiner than many men with two good hands”, the employer said. McKerr died of his injuries on 20 August.
There was yet another fatality on the 11th: Paddy McCarthy, forty-four. He had been wounded after he left a community centre in Ballymurphy with a Red Cross flag tied to a broomstick. A splinter tore into his wrist and he began to lose blood. Later on, he obtained milk which he tried to bring back to the estate for his neighbours. Before he got back, he was accosted by two paratroopers. One struck his head with a rifle blow while the other smashed some of the milk bottles. His family claimed that an empty gun was shoved into his mouth after which the trigger was pulled. Unsurprisingly, he believed it had been loaded. After this ordeal, he walked away apparently telling the soldiers they could shoot him in the back. He suffered a fatal heart attack later on the 11th.
Many others were beaten and shot but did not die. Terror descended upon Ballymurphy. One woman saw two soldiers moving along the gardens smashing windows with rifle butts and firing plastic bullets into the houses. They spotted people in her house “and one of the Paras said ‘Get them bastards!’ They fired at us, and the bullet passed through my mother’s hair, showering her hair with glass. And they shot my father in the chin. They knew they’d hit somebody; but they didn’t come in. They went into Collins’ next door and wrecked the house. They drank everything in the fridge. They had already broken into Kelly’s Bar and stolen drink. They were full [drunk]. .. They shot someone’s chickens up in New Barnsley”. [Ciarán de Baróid, ‘Ballymurphy and the Irish War’ (Pluto Press, London, 1989), p. 88.]
There were many other victims. Once the shooting began, it went on all night. One witness told historian Ciarán de Baróid that:
“There were fellas running everywhere with guns. In and out of every house. They were engaging the Brits in running battles. It was just chaos. All you could hear was screaming, shouting and shooting. Then about 5 o’clock the Brits started kicking in doors. At this stage the gun-battles had died down, and the Paras were just moving along the street, kicking in doors and shooting. You could hear their voices screaming ‘There’s one! Shoot the bastard!’ Or ‘Halt’ then heavy firing. We thought the place was literally covered in bodies. We couldn’t look at the window. When we had, they fired on us. A wee fella Quinn across the street was grazed when he tried to look out”. [Ciarán de Baróid, p.87.]
Jean Campbell, a teacher, recalled that the “Brits came in shooting from every direction, and we could only assume that some of the shooting was the IRA trying to hold them off. They systematically moved through every street. They tore down the fences, smashed in the doors, and just wrecked the houses. They were totally destructive. Any male over 14 found in the house was dragged out and taken off. You could hear it getting closer and closer and closer. There were a few dogs shot in the street, and people screaming .. When they got to our house, they burst in the front door, and all you could hear was Lizzie saying ‘Oh Sacred Heart of Jesus! Oh Sacred Heart of Jesus!’ Lizzie had been stranded in the house since Monday morning and couldn’t get out of the area. They stayed downstairs for about 15 minutes, but for some reason, they never came up. But you can imagine the hysterics going on upstairs”. [Ciarán de Baróid p. 87.]
Wilford’s adjutant, Captain Michael Jackson, was responsible for the smears put about that the victims were IRA volunteers. Jackson later rose to the top of the British Army.
Not a sinle one of the victims had a connection to the Official or Provisional IRA.
The loss of innocent Irish lives matters not a jot to Kitson.
The loss of these lives matters not a jot to Kitson. He did not testify at the inquest. However, when he appeared at the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday on 24 September 2002, he was asked by a barrister if he could ‘recall an incident on 10th August, in the early hours – a series of incidents, I should say, in the early hours of the morning of 10th August in Ballymurphy where 1 Para was involved in the shooting dead of five people?’ Kitson replied: “No, I do not — the whole of, I think I am right in saying the 10th August came very soon after internment started.”
The barrister prompted him saying it was ‘the day after, in fact really the night and early morning of the day of the introduction of internment’. This, allegedly, did not help. Kitson responded: “The answer is, no, I am afraid I do not.”
After that the barrister tried: “‘If I were to mention to you the names of two of the nine people who were killed: Father Hugh Mullan, a Catholic priest, and Mrs Joan Connolly, a 50-year-old woman; does that help to jog your memory at all, so that you remember it?” In response Kitson said: “No, I am afraid I had not looked at any of that. A lot of what we have been talking about in January 1972, one’s memory, as you put it, has been jogged, but I have not been back over the period of the previous year at all.”
The barrister tried again: “If I were to tell you that the five deaths were a matter of considerable public controversy and that it was alleged that the members of 1 Para had quite improperly shot and killed these people; does that assist you?” The answer he received was: “No. What would have happened, like any shooting incident, there would have been an inquiry and there undoubtedly would have been in this case.”
He was next asked if was aware of an inquiry. “Well, I do not know, but there would have been.”
He was told that there had been no criminal prosecution and was asked if he was aware of any type of courts martial. Kitson responded: “No, I am sorry, I cannot tell you anything about it.”
When asked if he had disciplined any of the soldiers, he took refuge in jargon and arid points of procedure: “Well, they would not have been disciplined by me. The system of what you might call court’s martial action is in any theatre, it is not typical of Northern Ireland. It goes from the battalion to the division, that is to say the two-star level have the dealing with this and it goes to HQ Northern Ireland. So if there was a prosecution it would have been ordered in that way, by 1 Para and thence to – HQ Northern Ireland would have produced the military part of the investigation and then that would have led, if it did, to a prosecution”.
Kitson could not recall any form of discipline or rebuke that was meted out to any of the paratroopers as a result of the carnage.
Lying Low in Belgium
In 2016 the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, Declan Morgan, recommended that an inquest take place into the killings but this was thwarted by the First Minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster. Her decision was condemned by Amnesty International. One finally began in 2018.
Wilford did not appear at the Ballymurphy inquest. Instead, he sent a statement purporting not to recall the atrocity. “This comes as a complete surprise to me,” he alleged. Yet, there was nothing wrong with his memory as he was able to recall that the troops of 1 Para had been interviewed after Bloody Sunday. In so far as the deaths in Ballymurphy were concerned, he claimed in his statement: “None of that information came my way. Had it come my way, it would’ve been quite serious.”
To Wilford’s eyes, he is the victim. He gave an interview to the Telegraph in March 2019 claiming that he and his troops had somehow been ‘betrayed’.
We may yet get to hear what Kitson believes of his culpability for the lethal counter-insurgency tactics he deployed in Northern Ireland as he is being sued by the widow of one of his victims in the High Court in Belfast. The death at issue was perpetrated by an undercover MRF agent acting in co-operation with the UDA. Kitson faces the charge that he established the tactic of State collusion with Loyalist terrorists.
Readers interested in further information about Kitson, Wilford and the Parachute Regiment are directed to a publication produced by the Pat Finucane Centre entitled ‘The Impact of the Parachute Regiment in Belfast 1970 – 1973’.
Two other publications of note have been written by Margaret Urwin: