The Belfast coroner today (May 11) ruled, in an historic verdict, that the ten people killed by paratroopers in Ballymurphy in August 1971 were innocents whose deaths had no justification. The ten died in the wake of an internment operation that was demanded by then Unionist premier, Brian Faulkner but opposed by the British Army’s top brass. Despite this opposition, the Generals’ soldiers then went on a rampage in the west Belfast housing estate. James Kinchin-White has dug deep into British files to find the evidence:
On Tuesday 11 May 2021, when Coroner, Mrs Justice Siobhan Keegan presented her findings of the inquest into the death of ten people killed in Ballymurphy, Belfast between 9-11 August 1971, it was almost a half century since news first emerged of the shootings.
The events occurred during the first days after the introduction of Internment without trial which had been set to commence on the 10th of August 1971, but was moved forward 24hrs because the GOC feared there could be a leak from the RUC that would allow suspects to ‘escape across the border’.
The operation, code named Demetrius, involved the entire regular Army garrison in Northern Ireland, some 50 Companies of the part-time Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) and members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). The start time, known as H Hour in military parlance, was set for 0430hrs, 9th August 1971.
Between February and March there had been much discussion within the UK Cabinet about the use of such a measure even though the decision was legally devolved to the Northern Ireland parliament at Stormont. But, by 1971, as the security forces struggled to control civil disorder and inter-sectarian conflict the civil police force simply did not have the resources to mount an internment operation without the support of the Army. Indeed, if the operation was to proceed, the Army would require additional reinforcements of several battalions.
Thus, although Stormont had legitimate control over security policy, the Army was accountable to Westminster through the Ministry of Defence for the implementation of the policy. The Unionist Prime Minister, Brian Faulkner was, therefore, obliged to seek approval from Westminster for the use of military resources to support a civil police Internment operation.
Yet, in the first half of 1971, the UK government had their own problems. On the one hand, the Conservative government led by Edward (Ted) Heath, inherited a range of domestic labour and economic problems. But, at the same time, they were involved with the later stages of processing Britain’s application for entry into the European Community (EC). It is clear from Cabinet records, that PM Heath and his ministers were fearful of assuming greater responsibility for the administration of NI and at the same time, concerned about the impact, at home and abroad, that supporting Interment might have on the UK’s political reputation.
The UK was already a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), but in order to proceed with internment, it would be necessary for the UK to derogate from the ECHR just at the point where it hoped to strengthen its ties with the European community. Consequently, Faulkner’s initial requests for Westminster’s approval to proceed with internment were declined.
Opposition to the proposal also came from the head of the Army, General Sir Michael Carver, Chief of the General Staff (CGS) and from Lieutenant General Sir Harry Tuzo, General Officer Commanding (GOC) Headquarters Northern Ireland (HQNI). Neither appears to have been against the idea of rounding up ‘hard core’ paramilitaries, and a range of preparations had been made should the Stormont proposal be accepted – but there had been no agreement on what to do with suspects after they were captured. Some headway was made to create hutted accommodation on the disused airfield at Long Kesh, but progress was delayed over arguments about funding. Carver and Tuzo were also concerned about the accuracy of the numbers of those identified by the RUC as candidates for detention – how many? And how did the police ‘arrive at these figures?’.
In the first week of August ’71, despite a deteriorating security situation with increasing shooting and bombing attacks by the IRA, the two senior soldiers reiterated their view that Internment could not be justified on military grounds. Nevertheless, on 5 August, Faulkner and his senior advisors, under mounting pressure from the Unionist party and the Protestant community, travelled to London to argue their case in a meeting at 10 Downing Street with the PM Heath, the Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling, and Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington. The CGS and the GOC were invited to present their assessment, but the two soldiers were overruled though it was made clear that the decision to proceed ‘was a decision made by Stormont’.
Despite their opposition, the CGS and GOC had ordered planning staff to prepare operational procedures to support such a decision if and when it was made. It would be on the backbone of existing military and police structures. HQNI’s three Army brigades, 39 Brigade (Belfast), 8 Brigade (Londonderry) and 19 Brigade (North Down and Armagh) had Tactical Areas of Responsibility (TAORs) closely defined on existing RUC police divisional boundaries. Operational orders were produced and units within each Brigade were issued with the same overall outline of the situation, their mission, and details of how their tasks would be executed:
The Provisional IRA believe that it is close to bringing down the STORMONT Govt. It has ordered a max effort – ‘one last great heave’ – to accomplish this. The Officials fear that the Provisionals may be successful and feel they cannot stand aloof in the final phase of militant terrorism and [exclude] themselves from the fruits of victory.
Sy [Security] Force activities over the past months have disrupted both factions of the IRA and isolated them from the [support] of the [general] public. Large scale sectarian rioting has been avoided but there is an increasing feeling of frustration and danger of Protestant backlash against the current campaign of bombing and shooting.
To arrest, detain and [interrogate] those listed in the Detention Lists with a view to their internment.
(1) General Outline: To seize simultaneously throughout NORTHERN IRELAND on D Day the max no [maximum number] of those on the Detention Lists.
(2) A purely mil [military] op initially, assisted only by Special Branch (SB) and of which the other branches of the RUC are on no account to be aware at this stage.
(3) Suspects are to be arrested, given not more than 20 mins to get dressed (under supervision)
(6) Internment takes place in 3 stages:
(a) Stage 1 – Arrest under Reg 10 of the Special Powers Act. Enquires carried out for 40 hours without further action.
(b) Stage 2 – Detention under a detention order made by the STORMONT Govt. This is to be completed by the end of the first 48 hrs.
(c) Stage 3 – Internment under a further order of the STORMONT Govt.
The Authority to arrest was provided to soldiers based on various regulations contained in The Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act (Northern Ireland) 1922. In the 19 Brigade area, responsible for County Armagh, there were 141 names on the Detention List. Information included first and last name, date of birth, address, and occupation – information that would, due to its detail, appear to have been collated from either a census or electoral register rather than from police or military intelligence. There was also a list of 57 vehicles, complete with registration numbers, that were said to be ‘associated with the personalities in the target list – perhaps drawn from the NI vehicle licencing authority.
Described by 19 Brigade as a ‘Disruption Operation’, ‘Linklater’ was the code name given to a series of search operations designed to ‘disrupt the IRA’ while ‘providing reassurance’ to the public. A soldier who served with 2 Para in Ballymurphy during the period, has told the author that ‘Linklater’ was a ‘deception’ operation to allow his battalion to identify who lived in the housing estates in his battalion area so that relevant occupants can be added to the Internment lists so they can be questioned, basically, about their neighbours.
2 Para had begun their NI Emergency Tour on 22 April 1971 attached to 8 Brigade, Londonderry. They were redeployed to 39 Brigade in Belfast on 4 June where they were assigned to the South West Belfast TAOR that included the Ballymurphy estate. The 2 Para Post Tour Report provides some insights into the situation in which they found themselves:
On Intelligence: This is of the utmost importance and is at present poor. Any effort given to collecting information cannot be wasted. The urban terrorist who looks exactly the same as the remainder of the population can only be intercepted by luck or by previous information of his intentions.
On Operations: During all operations the importance of variety and deception cannot be overstressed.
It would seem then, that there are grounds for asserting that given the strategic level lack of faith in the Internment lists provided via the RUC/SB (which appear to have been based on extant socio-political data), and the absence of intelligence experienced by units on the ground, it is likely that operation Linklater was a deception device used to provide Army units with details about local residential occupancy. This information was then used to legitimize the detention of innocent people whom they could subject to interrogation in order to get low-level or corroborative information about suspects who lived in the area.
In doing so, the Army effectively created the firestorm of protest that followed the illegitimate arrest of many ordinary people, and in doing so were clearly culpable for creating the circumstances in which innocent people were gunned down and killed.
At around 1:55pm today (GMT), the Coroner announced that all ten of the Ballymurphy victims who died between 9-11 August 1971 were innocent people, adding that there was no justification for their killing. Mrs Justice Keegan added that none of the deaths were properly investigated at the time.