Former British soldier gives evidence on 1971 killing

 Henry Thornton, who was shot and killed by a British soldier in August 1971
 Henry Thornton, who was shot and killed by a British soldier in August 1971

A former British soldier who witnessed a member of his unit shoot dead an "innocent" father-of-six more than 40 years ago said yesterday he was "positive" his position was being fired upon.

In what is believed to be one of the first instances of its kind, the ex-paratrooper took the stand at an inquest to recall the events of August 7 1971 when Henry Thornton, from Crossmaglen in south Armagh, was killed.

The 29-year-old victim, who stayed in Belfast during the week to carry out construction work, was travelling in a van along Springfield Road at around 7.30am when he was shot in the head by a member of the 2nd Batt Parachute Regiment, who was stationed at Springfield Road Police Station.

The inquest into the workman's death, which began in Belfast yesterday, heard evidence from a witness identified only as 'Soldier C'.

Speaking from behind closed curtains, just yards from where Mr Thornton's widow Mary and other family members were sitting, he said was on duty in a sangar at the police station at the time of the shooting.

He said the van being driven by Mr Thornton was travelling along the Springfield Road towards the Falls Road, and he noticed it because it was travelling slowly before there was a "burst of speed".

The former soldier gave evidence that at one point the vehicle was driven "towards my sangar" before it continued along the road.

He also said he saw what he believed to be a weapon in the van and then two "loud" bangs and smoke, which he maintained were gunshots.

He said a member of his unit - identified as Soldier A, who is now deceased - gave chase to the vehicle, before firing two shots.

Both hit Mr Thornton, who died as a result of being shot in the head.

No evidence was ever found of a gun in the van.

Following the killing, trouble broke out in the area. Two days later, 11 people were shot dead by the British army in the Ballymurphy area.

More than four decades on, Soldier C yesterday maintained that two shots had been fired from the van and dismissed allegations the vehicle had simply backfired.

"There's a distinct difference between a backfire and a gunshot," he said.

Under cross-examination he denied he had told "lie after lie" to cover up what had really happened.

The court also heard yesterday from Mr Thornton's widow, who said she wanted "justice" for her husband.

She told the court he was "innocent and shouldn't have been shot".

"All I want is the truth. I suffered and my six children suffered."

On the day her husband was killed, Ms Thornton said she was left with just £5 in her purse to feed her children.

She recalled that among her husband's possessions was one of their children's hair clips which he carried with him.

"My husband was never involved in anything," she said.

"My husband never went anywhere. He never even went for a drink because we couldn't afford it.".

Mrs Thornton confirmed she was sent a letter in 2012 from the Ministry of Defence which referred to Mr Thornton was an "innocent man" and apologised for his killing.

The inquest is due to continue today.