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Looking Back on the Unsolved Case of Northern Ireland's Springhill Massacre

Exactly 44 years ago, five people were killed – three of them children – on a west Belfast estate, in what's become known as the area's "forgotten massacre".

by Matthew Francey
09 July 2016, 7:00am

The Springhill estate under British Army occupation (Screenshot via)

As the world comes to terms with the Chilcot report's damning verdict of Blair's decision to send British troops to Iraq, you may find your mind wandering to other recent military interventions – some closer to home than the Middle East.

Exactly 44 years ago today, on a Sunday evening, children dashed about on the streets of west Belfast's Springhill estate while adults attended a function in the nearby community centre. Local residentPaddy Butler, a child at the time, was playing handball in the street with his friends. Speaking in 1999 documentary, Telling Our Story: the Springhill Massacre, he said: "We noticed three guys coming out of the house behind us, getting into a car and taking off. The car slowed up as another car came towards it, and the two cars stopped, as the occupants started talking to each other. When the cars stopped that's when the shooting started."

The events of the 9th of July 1972 would go on to be known as the Springhill Massacre. British Army snipers, stationed in a lumber yard adjoining the estate, allegedly opened fire without warning on the residential area for a total of 90 minutes. When the dust settled, five people had been killed, with a further two injured. The three dead civilians included a child and a priest. All the victims were unarmed.

Just six months earlier, Bloody Sunday – which claimed the lives of 26 civilians – had staked a claim as one of the gravest days in Northern Irish history. The Springhill killings are often referred to as the "forgotten massacre" that followed. But, although fewer people died, that evening in Springhill felt every bit as chilling, particularly as it occurred in a residential area – in the country's capital – without warning or reason.

This is everything that we know: Margaret Gargan, 13, was shot in head while talking to her friends. John Dougal, was 16, shot in the chest whilst attempting to rescue someone else. David McCafferty, 15, was shot in the chest and Patrick Butler, 39, in the head. Father Noel Fitzpatrick, 40, was shot in the neck.

Eyewitness reports from the time say that the priest and Patrick Butler attempted to get to Margaret. While reportedly waving a white cloth, Father Fitzpatrick stepped into the street. A bullet reportedly fired by a sniper struck him through the neck and exited his body, before fatally wounding him.

But after the incident, two conflicting narratives emerged. The residents' version of events largely fit a statement released by the Provisional IRA on the 10th of July 1972, which stated that Army snipers opened fire on the vehicles and surrounding area without provocation. The British Army statement contested this, saying there was a "heavy exchange of fire between IRA and troops. Some of the dead and wounded were undoubtedly caught in the crossfire."

Whoever opened fire first – or at all – the army's version of events began to crumble soon after the incident. In a 1973 enquiry, the army claimed that the killings had been carried out by loyalist paramilitaries rather than soldiers. The inquest found that seven soldiers claimed they'd opened fire and that all the dead had been killed by British Army bullets.

Families of some of those killed in Bloody Sunday, campaigning in 2014 (Photo via)

At the time the police – then known as the RUC – said there'd been no criminal investigation into the shootings because the area was too dangerous for police to enter. In contrast, Patrick Butler's daughter said that her father was "an innocent man" and that "because he had been shot by soldiers, RUC raided our house every week after he died, ransacked it at four or five in the morning."

Indeed, it was the treatment of the victims' families by authorities and the state that Springhill residents say has caused lasting hurt in their community. Quoted in a 1992 booklet made by families of those injured and killed in the shooting, Margaret's mother spoke about how the state compensated her for her daughter's murder: "I got £68, which didn't even bury her – the people in the Whiterock [army base] buried her. The army says they done it at the inquest. They tried to say she was a 21-year-old gunman because she had jeans on. There were no apologies or nothing. In fact, I never even got her clothes back."

Support group Relatives for Justice have spent well over four decades campaigning for the truth, but so far no arrests have been made, and no soldiers named. One popular theory centres on sniper Micheael Norman, believed to be responsible for at least three of the deaths, who was found dead in a car in London in 2005. Publisher Bob Smith has worked on a number of books on the Troubles including Killing For Britain, the memoir of a loyalist paramilitary who colluded with the British Army written by a man known as John Black. Bob told me that John claims his handler, a man he knew only as 'Mike', was the expert sniper.

Bob said he did his own research into 'Mike' and believes he was the same Michael Norman found in 2005. "Michael Norman was called to Bloody Sunday as an anonymous witness," he said. "When you think about it, how many people were expert marksmen of that age, of that rank, who were alleged to be at Bloody Sunday, New Lodge and Springhill? There was only one guy that's in all three places."

Whatever the circumstances of Michael Norman's death, and whether they provide any link to the events of the Springhill Massacre, his death will be little comfort to the victims' families. In 2014 the Northern Ireland District Attorney announced that an official inquest would begin. So far, those in west Belfast still wait for its results.

@matthewfrancey

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