The lack of coverage of the Ballymurphy inquest is a scandal

Roy Greenslade


It is highly doubtful if many people living in England, Scotland and Wales know about the startling and disturbing testimony delivered at Belfast’s high court two weeks ago.

For the inquest into the deaths of 10 people shot by British paratroopers in 1971, later known as the “Ballymurphy massacre”, has been under-reported by London-based mainstream media since it began more than five months ago.

But the failure of newspapers and news broadcasters to report on what was said by two former soldiers who served in Northern Ireland at the time of the deaths, was a breathtaking omission.

First up was Henry Gow, a former paratrooper, SAS member and RUC officer who has been a barrister for 25 years. He told the coroner that one of the soldiers, having recovered part of the skull of one of the regiment’s victims, used it as an ashtray. He also said that a sweepstake was run by his unit to reward soldiers who “got a kill”.

Relatives of the victim, identified as Henry Thornton, were said to have been deeply distressed by the revelation, which is understandable. What was not understandable, however, was that every daily national newspaper ignored Gow’s astonishing evidence, although it was reported in the Belfast-based Irish News.

Then came the testimony of a former corporal in A Company of the Parachute Regiment’s 1st Battalion, who was identified only by the code M597. He contended that Gow’s claim about the skull ashtray was “a fantasy”, a debunking of the story that did get reported in some outlets, including the Belfast Telegraph.

But his denial of that allegation should be seen in the context of what he went on to say about the actions of his fellow soldiers on the streets of west Belfast over the course of three days in August 1971. Some of them, he said, were “psychopaths” or “rogues” who were “out of control” and prepared to shoot anyone.

According to M597, these paras “revelled” in killing innocent citizens in the mistaken belief that anyone walking the streets at the time was fair game. “They were saying, anything out there that moves, we consider them to be in the IRA or associated with the IRA, and for that alone they could be, or should be, shot.”

The witness, who is now 70 years old, broke down in tears while giving what surely amounts to astonishing and damning testimony, as was reported on the BBC news website. Yet it was not considered astonishing enough to warrant large headlines in any British national newspaper.

There was more from M597 that also deserved the widest possible coverage. He argued that the military authorities were dedicated to covering up the killings. “It is like the KKK,” he said. “It’s like a brotherhood. They are sticking together.”

He referred to recent Facebook posts by former servicemen opposed to the prosecution of soldiers: “Death, dementia and delay. What they are saying is delay it … and we will all be gone.”

Contrast this failure to report with the space given to politicians, such as Tory MPs Penny Mordaunt and Johnny Mercer, and former army chiefs, such as Lord Dannatt and Sir Mike Jackson, when protesting against the historical prosecution of British servicemen. Their views were headlined while the Ballymurphy inquest evidence has been all but buried.

In fairness, as with all long-running inquiries, it is expensive to staff the press bench day after day. However, the Press Association has been providing a service, enabling editors to receive copy on a regular basis, and BBC online has reported all the key evidence.

The Irish News has carried almost 70 pages about the inquest and its editor, Noel Doran, argues that “significant new information has emerged over the course of the inquest.” He says: “Senior officers have spoken for the first time about the incidents, and they’ve been cross-examined, too. New facts have come to light.”

Intense public interest inside Northern Ireland is natural enough. People in Belfast have sought for years to highlight the massacre of Ballymurphy, which should be seen as a prelude to Bloody Sunday five months later, when 13 innocent people were shot dead by the Parachute Regiment in Derry.

But what is at issue here, the conduct of British soldiers, merits attention across Britain. By turning a blind eye to this inquest, editors fail to provide essential information that would help to counter the propaganda of those who seek to conceal from the public the realities of the Northern Ireland conflict.

They happen to include the Northern Ireland secretary, Karen Bradley, who outraged the relatives of people who died at the hands of the British army by calling the soldiers’ actions “dignified and appropriate”. Her subsequent apologies did not assuage the anger of those who see her views as part of a pattern, a refusal to accept that crimes were committed by troops.

A word of praise here for Channel 4, which screened an eye-opening documentary, the Ballymurphy Precedent, in August 2018. It was rightly praised by the Guardian at the time as a “diligent” reconstruction of the shootings and for its portrayal of the “grief and sense of injustice” felt by survivors and relatives of the victims.

That film did win some coverage, and its content appeared to take the rest of the media by surprise. Sadly, it did not convince editors to follow up by devoting resources to the inquest.

Doubtless, should the inquest identify any individual as being responsible for the shootings, those editors will headline the fact and attack it, just as they have in the case of Soldier F, the former paratrooper who is to be prosecuted for the murder of two men on Bloody Sunday.

In a thoughtful Guardian piece last week, a former commanding officer in the 2nd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, Colonel David Benest, made a powerful argument against the idea of there being an amnesty for veterans. Given his background, it carried weight. However, did he overlook a point I’ve heard made time after time in Ireland?

Although it is understandable that the bereaved should seek justice, and therefore want to see people face the court for what they did, it is unfair for the poor bloody infantry to take the rap when both their leaders, the army chiefs, and the people who sent them there in the first place, the politicians, escape scot-free.

In reading the Ballymurphy inquest testimonies, what struck me was the complete absence of sensitive, mature leadership on the ground and, at the political level, a lack of understanding about what those troops were supposed to achieve in those dark days of 1971.

That is also an historical indictment of the media.