Northern Ireland

The Northern Irish Massacre Britain's Army Were Never Held Accountable for

We spoke to director Callum Macrae about his new documentary, 'The Ballymurphy Precedent', and the decades-long fight for justice of the victims' families.

by Odràn Waldron
31 August 2018, 1:16pm

Screen shot via 'The Ballymurphy Precedent' trailer. 

"My mummy was brushing the front steps at the door when the soldiers were driving past, and they were shouting abuse at her – she was shouting back at them and they shouted, 'There's a bullet in here that's for you.'"

Speaking over the phone – recounting what she says in Callum Macrae's new documentary, The Ballymurphy Precedent – Briege Voyle remembers her mother, Joan Connolly, as "a saint; she made them [British soldiers] tea and sandwiches". Such a welcome for British soldiers from local Catholics was normal when they were first deployed to Briege's native Belfast in 1969, but eventually – as the realisation that the army were there to restore a discriminatory status quo dawned on Catholics – relations curdled to the point that soldiers were openly shouting threats in the street.

These threats would come to pass on the 9th of August, 1971, when Connolly was one of six people from Ballymurphy shot dead by the Parachute Regiment's 1st Battalion, the same battalion that would carry out Bloody Sunday in Derry just five months later. Eleven people would die across three days in what would become known as the Ballymurphy massacre.

Macrae's film is that rare and much appreciated thing, a documentary about the Troubles that presents a systemic analysis of Northern Ireland, the conditions that created both Ballymurphy, a Catholic ghetto in west Belfast, and the three-day massacre that would happen therein. It acquaints the viewer with the vital history: the partition of Ireland, the creation of Northern Ireland as a Protestant state for a Protestant people, the civil rights movement that ran parallel to Martin Luther King Jr's, the loyalist response – attacks and burning-out of Catholic estates – and finally, the introduction of internment without trial. That the viewer never feels lost between former Royal Green Jacket James Kinchin White speaking of being "very, very well received by the people", and Bobby Clarke telling the story of his own shooting – the first of the Ballymurphy massacre, and the only one that didn't result in a fatality – is evidence of Macrae's comprehensive storytelling.

The 9th of August, 1971 is better remembered as the day internment was introduced, and it's against that backdrop that the massacre happened and that Macrae hands the reins over to the families of the victims. Central to the documentary are the women of Ballymurphy, who, once relations had soured, swapped making tea and sandwiches for banging bin lids and blowing whistles as a warning that soldiers were coming.

Starting with the banging of bin lids at 4AM, as 600 troops stormed the area to arrest any males so much as suspected of IRA activity, it is a tear-inducing story. John Teggert describes witness accounts of his father Danny's body bouncing as each of the 14 bullets that killed him entered it, Patsy Mullan talks of his brother, Father Hugh, being left to bleed to death after he was shot twice while waving a white handkerchief and, after a riot broke out among Catholics protesting internment and neighbouring loyalists, Briege Voyle remembers being sent home by her mother, because "the Protestants will shoot you, but the army won't".

Those would prove to be the last words Joan Connolly ever spoke to her daughter. By the end of the three days of violence, Ballymurphy was a war zone; 7,000 people, including Briege, had left Belfast as refugees, taking asylum in army camps opened by the Republic of Ireland.

A memorial in Belfast.

The use of "precedent" in the title is pointed; the army claimed that the civilians they had killed in Ballymurphy were IRA gunners who had engaged them in battle. No evidence for this was found, just as no evidence was found when the same excuse was used after Bloody Sunday. Such repeated actions and excuses would suggest choreographed reaction from an army that felt free to fire upon whoever they pleased, an institutional rather than individual issue.

As Macrae told me: "It's not enough to simply identify a soldier who pulled the trigger and then blame them. These terrible events demand full disclosure, and that means looking at the strategies, looking at the policies, looking at what the commanders were saying and looking at what the government statutes were." Such root and branch analysis of the army was never carried out, and two of the key players identified in the film, Frank Kitson and Mike Jackson, would go on to become Commander-in-Chief of UK Land Forces and Chief of General Staff respectively.

Richard Rudkin, another former Green Jacket in the film, says that "if steps had been taken to look at what happened in Ballymurphy, admit what had gone wrong, Bloody Sunday would never have occurred". It is safe to say that Ballymurphy and Bloody Sunday completely changed the climate in the north; 1972 would go on to be the most violent year of the Troubles. Macrae says, "If you look at Ballymurphy and then Bloody Sunday, you begin to question the whole official version of what happened in Northern Ireland. You have to question Britain's part in converting a civil rights movement with the same slogans as Martin Luther King into 30 years of war."

If the actions of the Parachute Regiment and its subsequent cover-up in Ballymurphy set a precedent for what they did in Derry, then the Saville Report and its eventual exoneration of the victims of Bloody Sunday has set a precedent for what the families of the Ballymurphy victims can expect. A renewed inquest was promised in 2011 and after various roadblocks, such as the delaying of funding by former First Minister Arlene Foster, it is finally due to get underway in September.

Families of the Ballymurphy Massacre victims campaigning. Briege Voyle is third from right, holding a photo of her mother, Joan Connolly.

In the film, and in conversation with Briege Voyle, frustrations are expressed over the Ministry of Defence's obstructionism. "We asked that the weapons that had been used in the Ballymurphy massacre not be destroyed," Briege tells me. "They came back and said they had been destroyed, but that they had similar weapons. The MoD is going out of their way to put everything in front of us to stop us from getting to the truth."

The MoD's impediments go hand-in-hand with politicians such as Gavin Williamson calling for an amnesty for soldiers found guilty of murder during the Troubles. These calls anger Briege, who points out that an inquest exonerating victims doesn’t automatically mean murder charges are brought against soldiers; that it is the public prosecutor's responsibility to act on whatever the inquest might find.

Edwin Brammall, the former Chief of General Staff, has called investigations into soldiers "grossly unfair", a sentiment Theresa May agrees with. "Those soldiers might be old and frail, but they got to live a life. They destroyed our lives," Briege says, before detailing the alcoholism and PTSD experienced in her family since her mother's death. "The thing is, you have to remember," she tells me as we say our goodbyes, "the British Army were sent here to protect us and they ended up murdering us."

The Ballymurphy Precedent was released nationwide on the 30th of August. A shorter version will air on Channel 4 in September.

@odranwaldo