Ten people killed in Belfast during a British army operation in 1971 were unarmed, innocent civilians and posed no threat to soldiers, an inquest in Northern Ireland has found.
The damning findings in a long-awaited coroner’s report implicated the army in an atrocity to rival Bloody Sunday, potentially galvanising a new push to prosecute army veterans.
Nine of the dead were killed by soldiers using unjustified force but the inquest could not establish who killed the 10th victim, John McKerr, during a blood-soaked incursion in Ballymurphy, a west Belfast Catholic neighbourhood, in August 1971.
“All of the deceased in the series of inquests were entirely innocent of wrongdoing on the day in question,” said the coroner, Mrs Justice Keegan, dismissing claims by soldiers that some of the victims had been armed and shooting.
Families of the dead wept and applauded after the findings were read out in court, saying the truth had come out after half a century.
“We have corrected history today. The inquest confirmed that the soldiers who came to the area supposedly to protect us … turned their guns on us,” said John Teggart, whose father, Daniel, was among the dead.
“It hasn’t actually sank in, it’s like a dream,” said Joan Connolly, holding a framed portrait of her mother, Joan Connolly, a mother of eight whom soldiers had branded an IRA gunwoman. “The joy and the peace and the mixed emotions that my mummy has been declared an innocent woman.”
Her father had not been able to identify his wife in the morgue because her face was mangled, said Connolly. “Her name has been cleared. We have got justice after 50 years. My daddy died a broken man.”
The coroner’s blistering indictment of the army’s actions and state-backed efforts to depict most of the dead as IRA members prompted agreement across the political spectrum that a profound injustice had been committed.
Brandon Lewis, the UK’s Northern Ireland secretary, acknowledged the “terrible hurt” caused to the families and said they “should not have had to wait this long”, but did not apologise for the state’s role in the killings or delayed justice. “The government will carefully consider the extensive findings set out by the coroner, but it is clear that those who died were entirely innocent of wrongdoing,” he said.
Lewis’s Labour shadow, Louise Haigh, said: “The conclusions of Justice Keegan are clear and irrefutable. Those who lost their lives were innocent and posing no threat.
“Their deaths were without justification. The fundamental right to life violated. That families have had to fight for so long for the truth is a profound failure of justice.”
The inquest findings coincided with a promise by the UK government to introduce legislation to turn the page on Northern Ireland’s so-called legacy cases, which some victims’ rights groups believe could grant a blanket amnesty for crimes. The former armed forces minister Johnny Mercer said the Queen’s speech on Tuesday contained no explicit pledge to shield army veterans from prosecution.
Leaked proposals had suggested a statute of limitations would be introduced to prevent charges being brought for incidents before the Good Friday agreement was signed in 1998. Any time limit is expected to apply to former paramilitaries as well as ex-forces personnel, with plans under discussion by the UK government and politicians in Dublin and Belfast.
Lewis said the current system for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles was not working for anyone, adding: “This government wants to deliver a way forward that will provide information about what happened during the Troubles in a way that helps families get the answers they want and lays the foundation for greater reconciliation and a shared future for all communities.”
Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, said the Ballymurphy inquest had cast light on a dark page of the Troubles. In a veiled message to the UK government, he said: “Every family bereaved in the conflict must have access to an effective investigation and to a process of justice regardless of the perpetrator.”
Naomi Long, leader of the Alliance party and Northern Ireland’s justice minister, said the families had to battle too hard and too long for truth.
Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill, the deputy first minister, said: “What happened in Ballymurphy was state murder and for decades the British government have covered it up. Now the truth has been laid bare for all to see.”
What survivors have long called the Ballymurphy massacre began on 9 August 1971 when the army swept through republican districts across Northern Ireland to round up suspects for internment without trial. Violent street protests erupted.
The Parachute Regiment spent several chaotic days detaining and shooting people in Ballymurphy from 9 to 11 August. There were no TV crews or newspaper photographers to document what happened – unlike in Derry five months later when the same regiment massacred protesters, triggering worldwide condemnation.
Outsiders largely overlooked events in Ballymurphy until relatives campaigned for an inquest. It began in November 2018 under Keegan, a high court judge, and heard from more than 100 witnesses including experts in ballistics and pathology, the former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams and more than 60 former soldiers, among them Gen Sir Mike Jackson, the former head of the British army and chief of the general staff.
Lawyers for the soldiers said the troops opened fire only when they perceived they were under threat. The coroner’s findings eviscerated that narrative. Applying the civil standard of proof on the balance of probabilities, the report found all of the 10 dead were innocent civilians and that nine were shot by soldiers.
Father Hugh Mullan, a parish priest, was hit by at least two bullets as he read the last rites to an injured man. “Lacerations to the right lung, liver, stomach and intestines would have resulted in fairly rapid but not necessarily immediate death,” according to the coroner’s report.
The priest died alongside Francis Quinn, 19, in what the coroner called “clearly disproportionate” use of force.
Joan Connolly, 44, was the only woman killed. “She died as a result of blood loss from gunshot wounds after a period of initial survival, likely to be measured in tens of minutes.”
The coroner found that the other fatalities - Daniel Teggart, 44, Noel Phillips, 19, Joseph Murphy, 41, Edward Doherty, 31, Joseph Corr, 43, and John Laverty, 20, were also innocent.
She acknowledged it was a difficult environment for soldiers and that they had come under fire from gunmen but said the state had failed to establish that the shootings were justified. Adams, who is from Ballymurphy, told the inquest two masked IRA members were in the area during the violence.