Northern Ireland news

Ballymurphy inquest: Loyalist go-between bid to cross-examine witnesses 'outrageous'

Relatives of people killed in Ballymurphy in 1971 hold photos of the victims 
David Young, Press Association

A BID by a loyalist paramilitary go-between to gain special status at a high-profile Troubles inquest has been branded outrageous and preposterous.

A barrister for relatives of those killed in shootings in Ballymurphy, west Belfast, in 1971 accused the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) of seeking to subvert the coroner's probe into the deaths.

Soldiers have long been held responsible for killing ten people in Ballymurphy but the accepted narrative became clouded earlier this year when former UVF members came forward to claim their organisation was also involved.

Loyalists have asked an interlocutor to present evidence that a UVF sniper shot some of the victims to the coroner's court ahead of a fresh inquest in the autumn.

At a preliminary hearing in Belfast today, a lawyer for the go-between - known to the court at 'witness x' - made a formal submission urging the granting of Properly Interested Person status.

Such status would enable the interlocutor to access confidential files related to the inquest and cross-examine other witnesses due to give evidence.

Karen Quinlivan QC, representing several of the Ballymurphy families, said the bid had "absolutely no merit".

"The application being made really is an outrageous application," she said.

"A person who's not a witness to anything, didn't witness any event and wants to give multiple hearsay accounts - essentially gossip among loyalists about Ballymurphy - and try to present that as evidence."

The UVF men claim one of their members was responsible for shooting some of the Ballymurphy victims from a nearby loyalist estate. It is understood the man named by the organisation is a now deceased member called Tommy West.

Ballymurphy in west Belfast in 1971

Barrister Richard McConkey, representing the interlocutor, said the UVF should be encouraged to participate.

He said the former UVF "volunteers" were unwilling to give evidence themselves for fear of exposing themselves to potential criminal prosecution.

Mr McConkey said there was a "tension" between their desire to get the "truth" out and their right not to self-incriminate themselves. As such, he said they would only provide evidence through witness x.

The barrister dismissed the suggestion the claims were "gossip". He conceded it was hearsay evidence but stressed that hearsay could be tested in court.

"This is the first time that the UVF have engaged with the process relating to an inquest," he said. "And, respectfully, that is something that should be encouraged."

Ms Quinlivan claimed the UVF was trying to avoid proper scrutiny of its claims. She said if the interlocutor was granted access to case documents, the loyalists could "tailor their evidence to whatever agenda they seek to advance".

"Witness x is not a witness, he is simply a person communicating gossip," she said.

The barrister said giving the special status would put the UVF in a "better position to effectively subvert this inquest".

She added: "If they want to engage they can do it properly.

"The court is being invited to assist people to avoid criminal prosecution and the reach of the law. That is preposterous."

Presiding coroner Siobhan Keegan told the court the issue was "not straightforward". She asked for further written submissions from the legal parties and said she would rule on the application next month.

A Catholic priest and a mother-of-eight were among those killed during three days of gunfire involving members of the Parachute Regiment in August 1971.

Another man died of a heart attack following an alleged violent confrontation with the troops in the west Belfast estate.

The shootings took place as the army moved into republican strongholds to arrest IRA suspects in the wake of the introduction by the Stormont administration of the controversial policy of internment without trial.

The new inquest is due to start in September, with the next preliminary hearing set for July 11.

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