The British Government, The Troubles, and The Ballymurphy Inquest

The British Government, The Troubles, and The Ballymurphy Inquest

Today in politics has been a difficult one. In the same day:

  • The Queen confirmed what was leaked last week, that all prosecutions prior to 1998 and related to the Troubles will, in future, be banned under a statute of limitations
  • The Ballymurphy Inquest found that 10 people shot dead by the British Army in Belfast in 1971 were innocent and unarmed - none of those killed were members of a 'paramilitary organisation', had a weapon or posed a threat and all but one were killed by the British Army with unjustified force, the inquest was told

A brief history lesson

For those of you who don't know, or need a refresher, when Northern Ireland became separated from the rest of Ireland in the 1920s, you were left with two sides to Northern Ireland: the majority were Unionists, or Loyalists, who were happy being part of the UK, and Nationalists, and the rest were Republicans, who wanted independence from the UK and for Northern Ireland to join the Republic of Ireland.

Catholics faced a lot of problems in Northern Ireland, like getting jobs and homes, which led to protests against the separation and protests in response from the Unionists. As the years went on the tension got worse and more violent - the Troubles.

The British Army was in Northern Ireland from 1969 until 2007 - the army's longest ever deployment. They were initially sent there under Harold Wilson's government, said to be in the country to 'keep the peace' and to prevent conflict between Catholics and Protestants. In reality, they were in Belfast and Derry because the Unionist government, which had been in control of Northern Ireland since it was created in 1921, had requested them. The government's own police had failed to put down an urban insurrection of the Catholic people of Derry, and the government was close to being defeated.

Despite warnings from Whitehall officials to British ministers that if the army was sent to Northern Ireland, they would likely become involved in repression aimed at the Catholic population which would ultimately lead to retaliation, this was ignored. They told ministers 'history demonstrates the failure of English intervention in Irish affairs' - and yet.

British troops were mainly in conflict with the Irish Republican Army (IRA), set up with the belief that all of Ireland should be an independent republic free from British rule, as well as other Republican groups. One of the worst instances of conflict between the British Army and civilians is Bloody Sunday, a massacre in Derry' s Bogside where when British soldiers shot 26 civilians during a protest march against imprisonment without trial.

In 1998, after close to two years of talks, the Good Friday agreement was signed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, resulting in a new government between the Unionists and Nationalists, devolution from the UK government to the Northern Irish Assembly, and ending the worst of the violence.

There's obviously a lot more history to this, and the conflicts between Ireland and England are centuries long - but this is the crucial overview to have going forward.

Queen's Speech

In the Queen's speech today, she said:

Measures will be brought forward to strengthen devolved government in NI and to address the legacy of the past.

But what does this actually mean? Accompanying government papers say a 'legacy package' will be introduced to 'deliver better outcomes for victims, survivors and veterans, focuses on information recovery and reconciliation, and ends the cycle of investigations'.

So all prosecutions prior to 1998 will be banned under a statute of limitations, and 'information recovery' will be the focus for the families of those killed. Part of the motivation for this comes from a 2019 manifesto promise from Boris Johnson, where he pledged to end 'unfair' prosecutions of Army veterans who were in Northern Ireland.  

This has had a lot of strong opposition, with Taoiseach Michéal Martin saying that 'any unilateral move around Troubles-related prosecutions of veterans would be a "breach of trust"', and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill saying the proposals are 'an insult to victims', and that 'at its core this is about the British state closing down any prospect of a meaningful investigation of its role in the conflict'.

Ballymurphy Inquest

To coincide with this, the Ballymurphy Inquest has today found that the 10 people killed by the British Army in Belfast in August 1971 were innocent civilians. Especially significant is the fact that the massacre was carried out by members of Britain’s Parachute Regiment less than six months before Bloody Sunday.

John Teggart, the son of victim Daniel Teggart, said:

"During the inquest we had to sit through 100-days of evidence. It wasn’t easy, in fact it was awful. What gave us the strength to get through was the knowledge that every day of evidence was another blow to the MOD.
"It has taken us 50-years to get to this point. We are just ordinary families from Ballymurphy but we have held the British Government and Ministry of Defence to account. We hope today will give strength to all other families. It can be done, don’t give up, you will succeed.
“These lies end today with Justice Keegan’s verdict.
“We have corrected history today. The inquest confirmed that the soldiers who came to the area, supposedly to protect us, but they turned their guns on us."

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill described the massacre as 'state murder' covered up by the British government.

The Guildford Four

I recently watched In the Name of the Father for the first time, a film about the Guildford Four, four people falsely convicted of the 1974 Guildford pub bombings. Those convicted were tortured into signing false confessions, using sleep deprivation, intimidation and threats against their families. A key factor in the confessions was the fact that strengthened anti-terrorism laws had passed allowing the police to hold suspects without charges for up to a week, rather than 48 hours.

One of the Guildford Four was a man called Giuseppe Conlon, who had travelled from Belfast to help his son, Gerry Conlon, in the Guildford Four trial. Giuseppe, who had suffered with lung problems throughout his life, died in prison in January 1980. Despite 22-year-old Joseph O'Connell admitting he had carried out the Guildford bombing, the Guildford Four and Maguire Seven (who were falsely charged with making explosives) remained in prison until they were released or their convictions were quashed in 1989.

My point is that, in the Guildford Four trial, Mr. Justice Donaldson lamented the fact that capital punishment had been abolished and that they weren't being tried for treason. He said:

"If hanging were still an option, you would have been executed."

Just read that again. If hanging were still an option, they would have been executed. Four innocent people, in what was seen as a questionable trial with shoddy evidence, would have died for something they didn't do. For something that happened somewhere they'd never been.

What does all of this actually mean?

I hoped by writing 1,000 words on these three topics I would have something insightful to say that hasn't already been said. But I'm just as disheartened about what I've heard from the government, just as much as I was when I first saw the manifesto promise. I wish I could say I was surprised, but I can't be. As an Irish woman, I grew up hearing stories from my grandad about the struggles Irish people faced after the British invasion of Ireland. I know that everyone living in Ireland in the second half of the twentieth century was affected by the Troubles, that my ancestors and those of every Irish person faced discrimination from the British when they came to the UK looking for work. Throughout history, Irish people have been stereotyped as violent, as alcoholics, as barbarous and uncivilised. Benjamin Disraeli called the Irish a 'wild, reckless, indolent, uncertain and superstitious race'; Julie Burchill wrote in The Guardian in 2002 that Ireland is synonymous with 'child molestation, Nazi-sympathising, and the oppression of women'; jobs would say 'no Irish need apply'. Even as recently as March of this year, news broke that Pontins had a blacklist of common Irish surnames to prevent Gypsies and Irish Travelers from booking at its parks.

Hibernophobia is nothing new, and it's clearly not going anywhere any time soon. But I wish the British government would work to improve relations, to show its dedication to bringing about justice for those persecuted by the British Army, and to recognise the damage the new statute of limitations will have for the families of those who died at the hands of British soldiers.

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