A week ago, Mrs. Justice Siobhan Keegan delivered her findings on the inquest into the deaths of ten people in Ballymurphy. The road to that moment had been a long and arduous one, but at its end was a profound and historic truth. Each of the ten was innocent. Each was unarmed. Every rumour or allegation about the victims being anything other than ordinary, decent private citizens was powerfully and categorically dismissed. The ten people who lost their lives in August 1971 were innocent victims, civilians, community members, who were either in the wrong place at the wrong time or in a number of cases, were unable to pass by and turn a blind eye to someone in distress or wounded who was calling out for their help.
The days and months that followed the launch of Operation Demetrius on 9 August 1971 are some of the darkest in the history of this island. The families of the Ballymurphy victims battled not just with the overwhelming grief that comes with losing a loved one but also with the false assertions and rumour that accompanied their deaths, which Mrs. Justice Keegan definitively dispelled last week. She told the world what each of those families had known all of the time. The bravery, determination and dedication of the Ballymurphy families in their dogged pursuit of justice in the face of persistent adversity is an example to us all. Throughout this process, successive Governments have worked with the Ballymurphy families and supported them in their campaign to establish the facts of what happened. The time I spent with them on the ground in Belfast while I was Minister for Foreign Affairs stays with me to this day.
On behalf of the Government, I extend my deepest condolences to the Ballymurphy families for what happened during those terrible days in August 1971 and for the grief they have suffered. There is no better tribute to the families' work than to highlight the findings of last Tuesday's report following an inquest that lasted almost three years and to read it now into the record of this House.
In her report, Mrs. Justice Keegan reviewed the ten deaths as part of five "incidences" that took place between 9 and 11 August 1971. The first incident concerned the deaths of Fr. Hugh Mullan and Francis Quinn on 9 August. Both were innocent and unarmed. There was evidence that Fr. Mullan was waving a white item as he came to the aid of another man who had been shot. Mrs. Justice Keegan used the word that those who knew Fr. Mullan have repeated time and again over the past 50 years: he was a "peacemaker". She determined that both had been shot by the British Army and that the use of force had been "clearly disproportionate" and unjustified, given that the soldiers were firing from a protected position, that there were civilians fleeing from the violence, and that Fr. Mullan was waving a white flag.
The second incident involved the deaths of Noel Philips, Joan Connolly, John Murphy and Daniel Teggart. All were innocent, unarmed and posing no threat. Mrs. Justice Keegan was satisfied that they were shot by the British Army from Henry Taggart hall. The use of force by the army was clearly disproportionate given the number of civilians around and as soldiers were in a protected position in the hall. Mrs. Justice Keegan said that these were innocent people, and their deaths had been a tragedy to their families.
The third incident regarded the death of Edward Doherty. Mr. Doherty was an innocent man who posed no threat and had come across the events on the Whiterock Road while passing by. Mr. Doherty was killed by soldier M3, using disproportionate force, and, as Mrs. Justice Keegan noted, the actions of soldier M3 were not properly examined or investigated at the time.
The fourth incident involved the deaths of Joseph Corr and John Laverty. Mrs. Justice Keegan found that Mr. Laverty was shot in the back while crouching or prone. Both were shot by the British Army, with no valid justification provided for soldiers opening fire. The men were not armed or acting in a manner that could be perceived as posing a threat. Mrs. Justice Keegan noted that no adequate investigation was subsequently carried out by the Royal Military Police. Mrs. Justice Keegan stated that it had been wrong to describe the two men as gunmen at the time and that rumour should be dispelled.
The fifth incident involved the death of John McKerr. Mr. McKerr was an entirely innocent man who was shot indiscriminately on the street. He was not armed or behaving in any way that would explain why he was shot. He had no associations with the IRA. Mrs. Justice Keegan could not make a definitive finding as to who shot Mr. McKerr and from where the shot had been fired. However, she described the inadequacy of the original investigation as shocking. Not one statement was taken from the military in the area, the scene was not sealed and the bullet was not recovered. There had been an abject failing by the authorities to inquire into the death of an innocent civilian on the streets. This failure had hampered the inquest greatly and was the striking feature of the case which Mrs. Justice Keegan recorded in the strongest of terms.
This is the truth about the ten civilians who were killed in Ballymurphy and this is what history will record. I would also like to pay my condolences to the family of Paddy McCarthy, who died of a heart attack on 11 August 1971, following an altercation with soldiers in Ballymurphy, and whose death did not form part of this inquest.
It has been a long, hard struggle for truth and justice. As John Teggart, whose father Danny was killed, said last week, the families sat through 100 days of evidence during the inquest and relived the horror of what happened to their loved ones, day in, day out. Mr. Teggart also pointed out that many family members, witnesses and campaigners have died along the half-century road to justice. It was also a journey marked by entirely unfounded speculation and suspicion. As Mrs. Justice Keegan noted in her findings, the blackening of these names led to some victims' families being isolated and enduring hardship in their own communities. Grief and loss was compounded by shame and a palpable sense of injustice as their loved ones were murdered and posthumously defamed. Briege Voyle, daughter of Joan Connolly, spoke bravely last week about the impact on families' mental health and how trauma effectively ruined so many lives beyond the ten who were murdered. She noted her father, left to raise eight children alone, never recovered from Joan's death. Eileen McKeown, daughter of Joseph Corr, spoke about how the hearts, hopes and dreams of her family were "shattered" by his killing. John McKerr was a former British army soldier who lost his hand in the Second World War and was proud of his military service. His daughter, Anne Ferguson, spoke at her family's shock and sense of betrayal at his killing, as he was such a proud military man.
It should not have taken this long to establish the full truth about Joan, Joseph, John and all the Ballymurphy victims. I hope, though, that the families can take solace from the full truth finally being told and from this part of their journey coming to an end. The findings of the inquest were very significant and there must be a recognition of the appalling hurt caused to the families.
When I met with Prime Minister Johnson on Friday, we discussed the inquest results and the impact that the lack of a proper and impartial investigation into the killings has had on the families over the past 50 years. I also discussed with the Prime Minister the acknowledgement and apologies that have already been made. I emphasised the importance of the British Government responding in a way that recognises the gravity of the findings, which categorically established that ten innocent people were killed, and in a way that respects the wishes of the families. Following that discussion, I would hope that all opportunities will be taken to convey and underline that acknowledgement of the seriousness of these findings.
Prime Minister Johnson and I also spoke about the wider issue of legacy and of how best to secure progress and answers for the many other families who, like those in Ballymurphy, or in Kingsmill, or in Birmingham, have been pursuing truth and justice for far too many years. Yesterday was the 47th anniversary of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, another of the darkest days of the conflict, and those families' search for the full facts of what happened to their loved ones continues also. I was clear with the Prime Minister that every family bereaved should have access to an effective investigation and to a process of justice, regardless of the perpetrator. The Stormont House Agreement framework allows for the crucial elements we need - investigations, truth recovery, oral history, reconciliation and acknowledgement. While the Government is ready to engage and work with the British Government and the Northern Ireland parties in relation to any concerns around aspects of the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement, I made clear that this must be a collaborative and collective process and must have the needs of victims at its heart. I was clear that unilateral action cannot be the basis of any sustainable way forward. We will continue to engage with the UK Government on this.
While the terrible details of these unjustifiable killings are a sombre reminder of the dark years that this island endured, and while many challenges still remain, I strongly believe that we are in a far better place today. I would also like to say that I do not accept the argument made by some that the campaigns and advocacy by victims and survivors in Northern Ireland in some way delays or undermines the work of reconciliation. The work and advocacy of so many of those who lost their loved ones, including the Ballymurphy families, is about bringing truth to light and bringing accountability. I have met many of those working for victims who are at the very forefront of the work of reconciliation, who show dignity and generosity and vision for the future. It is all the stronger because it comes from a deep-seated determination that such violence should never be allowed to re-emerge on this island again.
The Good Friday Agreement has allowed communities in Northern Ireland to come together in a spirit of empathy and reconciliation. This was evident again in the past week, as politicians, community leaders and citizens from all communities came out to welcome the inquest report and stand in solidarity with the Ballymurphy families. Let us continue to move forward, utilising the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement, to deliver further reconciliation and ensure that other families, across all communities, like those in Ballymurphy, have their day when the truth finally emerges and is publicly acknowledged.