Update on the Ballymurphy Massacre Inquests
by Caseworker Mary McCallan
RFJ attended this morning with the families from the Ballymurphy Massacre for a preliminary hearing in relation to their inquests. The key issues needing to be addressed in this case are the disclosure of materials, the tracing of witnesses and the provision of expert forensic and ballistic evidence. All are paramount to whether this group of inquests will function properly, and whether they will be able to proceed in September 2018.
Over the years, material relating to these cases has been scattered within a variety of State archives. Some material was held with the Public Records Office (PRONI). This has been disclosed to the Coroners service, then reviewed by Counsel and a coroner. The families were advised the material is now ready for collection by their representatives. Further archive searches are being undertaken by members of the Coroners team for material that may be present in the National Archives at Kew and in PRONI. These are due to be completed by Mid-March.
The HEAD database, the main analytical database for the HET, had several reference numbers within it relating to police and military archives. The MoD have conducted a search of their “Central Criminal Records Information Office” or CCRIO, but everything found has already been disclosed to the parties. We question the utility of the MoD searching Criminal records given that no soldiers have ever been held to account in relation to this case. There is some further disclosure to be made by the PSNI Legacy Support Unit (LSU), which will be ready by March. It was confirmed that checks will be made on the recently located military database held by PSNI.
39 folders of ciphered HET material exist. Ciphering is the process whereby the names of individuals are removed from the papers and replaced with a code, to obscure the identity of those involved in an incident. The HET material appears to have been poorly ciphered, as all references to Military personnel were marked with an M. It was not possible for the families or their representatives to tell when individual soldiers were being referred to. The PSNI LSU will provide a disk to the families’ representatives with the 39 folders on it, and better ciphering. This should enable the families to identify how many military personnel were involved and their roles in each of the deaths. A sample grid was provided to the representatives and the families to demonstrate the layout of this information.
Mr Rooney, on behalf of the MoD advised that when the disk is provided the ciphers will range from M1 to M918. That’s 918 military personnel who potentially have information about the events at Ballymurphy and the deaths of the thirteen victims, although it was pointed out not all these personnel will be direct witnesses to events.
Personnel files from 9 military witnesses were provided to the Coroners Counsel. Material from 7 of the files was found to be relevant to the cases. This has been extracted, redacted and will be made available to the parties.
There was some concern by the Coroner about the timetable for disclosure of sensitive material, as no specific date was given in court. Her Honour Mrs Justice Keegan wanted a concrete date in relation to when the material will be disclosed. She stressed this is not something that can be put on the long finger. Counsel for the MoD advised that provisional dates in March have been obtained for the review of this material by the Chief Constable and the Defence Minister. It will become clear after this if the MOD intend to make an application for Public Interest Immunity (PII), meaning they would seek to withhold some information on the grounds of National Security.
There was discussion of correspondence from Padraig O’Muirigh solicitors, who represents most of the families in this case. He has asked for the redactions which had been applied to documents provided so far to be reviewed, as from the families’ perspective, they appear to be unnecessary.
The Coroner asked the families to outline which specific redactions they take issue with. Fiona Doherty, on behalf of the families advised that they have raised their concerns in general terms, but that it may be difficult for them to address specific redactions as they don’t know the nature of the underlying material. The Coroner provided four weeks for the parties to highlight the specific issues and suggested there may be a need for a joint meeting to address this issue.
Tracing of MOD witnesses
The Coroners office were suggesting a three-stranded approach to the tracing of military witnesses as follows:
- A “core group” of 69 military witnesses whose identities and contact details are known, confirmed as being in Ballymurphy at the time and who are regarded as being capable of giving assistance to the Inquests. This is based on individuals the MOD and HET have traced. Letters are being issued to the group asking recipients to respond by the 8th A Solicitor has been appointed to take statements over March and April, although it is anticipated this will take longer and go on beyond April.
- Any military witnesses who come forward as a result of a public appeal
- Letters will be written to all military personnel identified as capable of giving assistance but who are outside the core group.
A protocol for the taking of statements from military personnel had been agreed, but Counsel was at pains to point out this protocol related solely to this set of inquests, was not procedurally binding and was being implemented to make the process more expeditious. Counsel for the families advised that they have specific representations to make about this protocol which they will send in writing.
Mr Rooney for the MOD said that he can see merits in the witness tracing approach adopted. The Coroner pointed out that thus far, this is work that has been undertaken by the Coroners Service and asked what methods the MoD were using to try and trace witnesses. There was mention of updating spreadsheets, but it was clear the MoD are not intending to do a lot to trace military witnesses.
The families have also been seeking the cipher lists which were used in the original inquest and the armoury logs, which record the ammunition and weapons used by each solider. These records would make the identification and tracing of soldiers directly involved in the deaths, such as the shooters, much easier. An affidavit supplied by an MOD witness states that searches are ongoing, but these documents have not been located. The Coroner expressed her disappointment that she did not get better information from the MoD about what has happened to these documents and advised that she will keep this matter under review.
Counsel for the families, Karen Quinlivan, indicated that she was seeking formal rulings in relation to the case as a result of what had been heard in court. In relation to three stranded process, it was stated that this approach has been adopted without corresponding with the interested parties and it is an approach they are unhappy with. The families are not content with how things are being done thus far and urged the Coroner to rule on three key issues, namely the appoint of a tracing agency to track down military witnesses, the calling of an MoD witness to explain the absence of the cipher and armoury logs, and engagement with the HET investigators who worked on the case.
Ms Quinlivan argued on behalf of the families that resources should be put into identifying the remaining 918 military personnel who potentially hold information about the case, rather than interviewing the 69 who have already been identified. A number of regiments were present in the area at the time and could have relevant information. It was also pointed out that this core grouping was put together from information provided by the MoD and the HET. The families are not confident that the underlying work was done with the necessary diligence. No methodology has yet been put in place to identify the remaining personnel from the 918 or the key individuals involved in the incidents such as the shooters. Ms Quinlvan argued the scale of the task presented is too much for the Coroners service to undertake alone. An example was given of another recent inquest, where 6 witnesses were traced in a year by a member of staff as an example of the limited resources available. It was pointed out that the Bloody Sunday Inquest had faced similar, if more difficult problems due to the volume of soldiers that needed to be traced. A tracing agent was employed, and a very high degree of success was achieved.
Ms Quinlivan pointed to the collective experience of Counsel instructed for the families, and to the Coroner. Having dealt with a number of legacy inquests over the years, as well as the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, examples were given of cases relating to people killed at the hands of the British Army, where the cipher lists have existed and been made available. So far, there is no satisfactory explanation as to why they have not been provided in this case. She went on to say that it is hard for the families to believe that the MoD are incapable of identifying who was in which regiment, and who was in Belfast on the relevant days, or that they have lost the cipher lists in relation to all thirteen deaths. The Royal Military Police, who would have had responsibility for taking statements from soldiers and providing information for the original inquests, should also have a record of who they spoke to. The families want an MoD witnesses to be called to detail what has been done and what are the obstacles.
The HET appear to have been able to find more witnesses than the MoD, and the Coroners Service, and the families felt it was worth someone lifting the phone and speaking with the HET investigators in this case to see what methods they used to find people.
It was agreed that the families representatives would set out their concerns and arguments in writing within the next week, and Mrs Justice Keegan would make a formal ruling on whether or not to appoint a tracing agent, to call a witness from the MoD who will be able to provide information about what has been done to locate the cipher lists and armoury logs, and engage with the HET investigators around their witnesses tracing methods.
In relation to civilian witnesses, a witness event was held on the 1st February 2018. Attendance was described as modest, with a small number of individuals attending. Defence Counsel advised that they Coroners service indicated that there are 111 civilian witnesses in theses cases. 12 people are now deceased, but the Coroner is still seeking to make contact and confirm the availability of all the other civilian witnesses. Details of the appeal and how to contact the Coroner can be found here: https://www.lawsoc-ni.org/cornoners-service-appeal-for-information-ballymurphy-inquest
RFJ would encourage anyone who has information in this case to come forward. It was stated in court that some witnesses have had difficulty getting through on the telephone number provided by the Coroner. If you need any assistance contacting the Coroner, feel free to contact us and we will assist you.
Ballistics and Forensics information
Forensic Science Northern Ireland (FSNI) had provided target dates for completion of the reports in relation to these cases. It was made clear FSNI cannot provide one overarching global report, and instead would provide reports on a rolling basis. The first report is due to be delivered by the end of April, with other reports released at intervals up until the middle of September. Mr Dornan stressed this timetable is provisional, and that if questions arise from the first report it will delay the remaining reports.
Ms Quinlivan stated this timetable does not facilitate the next of kin. She pointed out that some of the reports are due to be delivered by the time the earlier inquests have begun, and that this is unsatisfactory. If the families have concerns about the information provided, they will need to obtain Legal Aid, instruct an expert and wait whilst the work is conducted, before providing it to the Court and other parties. The expert for the families would have a very short window to undertake the preparation of a report by comparison to FSNI. The Coroner acknowledged the concerns but felt this was something that could be dealt with and should not delay the hearings.