Truth to Power
Few films I’ve watched in my life have moved me quite as much as Callum McCrea’s ‘The Ballymurphy Precedent.’ McCrea wisely lets those who were there and suffered grievously to tell the story of the massacre of ordinary working class people by out of control elements of the British Army in the summer of 1971. When the film ended there was spontaneous applause in the Glasgow Film Theatre. That applause was of course for those brave relatives of the deceased who not only endured the loss and trauma of the events of that awful weekend but then had to endure their relatives being branded as terrorists by a compliant media which printed the army’s version of events with barely a question asked. That applause I heard in the cinema was also for the fact that at last a filmmaker had the balls to tell truth to power about the actions of forces of ‘law and order’ during the troubles.
Those of you who saw the film at the cinema or on Channel 4 this week couldn’t fail to see that a huge injustice had taken place. To see counter insurgency tactics used so brutally on the streets of Belfast was horrifying. The people of Kenya, Aden, Iraq and a score of other places once under the imperial grip of the UK would have recognised what occurred in Ballymurphy. The government’s decision to use shock troops in a policing role was always likely to end badly but what occurred there was simply disgraceful as was the cover up which followed.
Those of you who read my articles will know that I’m not a supporter of any group which engages in violence to attain its ends. All sides committed acts in those sad years that simply cannot be justified but there is increasing recognition that the Security forces were culpable too. In the end the innocent are the ones who suffer most. Of course, one can easily see how a people denied basic civil rights and justice and suffering periodic pogroms would in the end seek to defend themselves when the forces of law and order wouldn’t. It’s ironic that the Paras’ brutality in Belfast and a few months later in Derry was the biggest factor in many choosing to take up arms against them and all they represented. Indeed Gerry Adams was quoted as saying that the impact of Bloody Sunday, ‘Saw money, guns and recruits flooding into the IRA.’
The human stories behind those 11 innocent victims though really got through to me. Joan Connolly, a mother of 8 and grandmother- shot in the face as she sought to help another victim. She might have lived if they’d given her first aid but they left her in a field for hours to bleed to death. Father Hugh Mullan, parish Priest at Corpus Christi Church, shot also as he was attempting to help the injured. Danny Taggart, a father to 13 children, shot 14 times. Joseph Murphy, father of 12 children, shot by soldiers and claimed on his deathbed that they took him into custody and shot him again. A claim not corroborated until his body was exhumed in 2015 and a second bullet found. What was the justification for this killing spree? There is zero evidence that any of the victims were involved with paramilitaries and not a single weapon or shell casing was found despite soldiers claiming hundreds of rounds had been fired at them.
All of this horrendous violence was entirely predictable when the Government ordered the army onto the offensive against the very people who thought they had come to protect them. The army were viewed as having taken sides and despite pious bullshit about upholding the law and keeping the two sides apart, were in reality adding to the oppression of the Catholic community as they sought to intimidate an entire population. The Falls curfew in 1970 saw them clear the area of any watching journalists before they saturated an entire area with tear gas and began carrying out brutal house to house searches which saw vandalism, looting, assaults, humiliations and destruction. They shot over 60 people of whom 4 died.
Internment without trial arrived a year later and despite some brutal killings by Loyalist groups was exclusively targeted on the nationalist community. That weekend in August 1971 saw 17 civilians killed by the army, 11 of them in Ballymurphy and many of the internees faced brutal and degrading treatment at the hands of the military which the European Commission on Human Rights called torture. Bloody Sunday followed a few months later and in July 1972 the Army used gas and rubber bullets to clear a path through a Catholic area of Portadown for an Orange Parade. The parade took place with 50 uniformed and masked UDA men accompanying it. Indeed the army carried out joint patrols with UDA units in those days. The same day as that march in Portadown, the army shot dead five Catholics in Belfast. One of them was a 13 year old girl; one a Catholic Priest, two of the others were teenage boys aged 15 and 16. To many it seemed clear that the Army saw an entire section of population as the enemy. The British media, to their shame, never seriously challenged the army’s version of events to any great degree and no one was held to account for some disgraceful crimes. They thought they were untouchable and that is unacceptable in any society which values the rule of law.
There are many more incidents and actions I could list from collusion with Loyalist death squads like the Glenanne Gang, a group made up of military personnel, Police officers & loyalists, thought to have murdered over 70 mostly innocent people but anyone interested in the chronology of carnage can trace these events online. What often died with those innocent people was truth.
It remains difficult for some in the UK to envisage that their security forces could behave so badly. Surely the propaganda about 'our brave boys' keeping the two tribes of warring Paddies apart was true? The Irish have been lampooned for centuries as drunken, aggressive, feckless and disloyal, such stereotyping has a long lasting effect. The 1980's saw cartoons appear in UK newspapers which were clearly falling back on old, racist stereotypes. It sought to absolve Britain of any blame in what had occurred in Northern Ireland since partition in 1922. Yet successive UK governments had allowed political gerrymandering and discrimination to fester in the six counties until people had enough and said no more.
Following the collapse of the Apartheid regime in South Africa the new government set up the Truth and reconciliation Commission tasked with uncovering exactly what went on during the often brutal struggle against the white dominated government. Victims and perpetrators gave evidence and there was at least an attempt at restorative justice. It was far from perfect but it allowed a post conflict society to confront the past with some honesty and a will to forge a better future for all South Africans. Such a process may well have served the people of the troubles in Ireland but it seems things remain too raw to uncover many as yet hidden truths.
There were dreadful acts committed by all sides during those bitter years and there was barely a family in the six counties which was unaffected by the events unfolding around them. This article isn’t about apportioning blame; there are far superior minds to mine who can judge what went on more clearly, rather it is about remembering the innocents caught up in a war; those killed on all sides, who were guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Those left to grieve must also look to find some form of justice and perhaps truth about how and why their loved ones died.
Joan Connolly’s daughter, Briege Voyle, reminds us of a universal truth which echoes through all of our human conflicts…
‘Everybody’s pain is the same. A soldier gets shot, his parent’s, his family’s pain is the same as mine. What makes people think that their pain is any worse than mine or any less than mine? We’re all suffering the same thing. So the truth needs to be told. That’s the only way you can draw a line under the past; tell the truth.’
I hope those who suffered such injustice in Ballymurphy all those years ago find some truth. It’s the least they deserve.