Northern Ireland news

Ballymurphy families prepare for another season of suffering as inquest finally begins

Families of those killed at Ballymurphy in 1971 make their way to court in Belfast on Monday for the first day of the inquest. Picture by Hugh Russell

THEY arrived in hope. They arrived in expectation. They arrived in numbers. The Ballymurphy families and their supporters are no strangers to the concourse outside Belfast courts but the size of the crowd assembled on Monday was among the largest yet.

Between 60 and 70 people were gathered more than an hour before the historic start of the inquest into the 1971 deaths of 10 people, killed in gunfire during three days of shootings in west Belfast.

Family members held pictures of their loved ones and, along with supporters, displayed their banner calling for justice which has become as familiar at Laganside Court as the black railings outside during their years of demanding the truth about the massacre. The flamboyant figure of Michael Mansfield QC, his distinctive white mane of hair augmented with a dove-grey fedora, mingled in the chilly Irish November morning with political representatives from Sinn Féin, the SDLP, People Before Profit and Alliance. Then, one by one, they filed inside to hear coroner Mrs Justice Keegan launch the proceedings.

Counsel for the coroner Sean Doran QC explained that the joint inquest into the 10 deaths – including that of a priest trying to help a wounded man and a mother-of-eight – would be broken down into “five incidents that occurred in Ballymurphy over a three-day period”.

However, he cautioned that, almost five decades after the killings, fulfilling the function of the court of inquiry would be “difficult and complicated”.

The 47 years have been hard on the families as well as the judicial process. Middle-aged parents have become elderly and frail. Young spouses are now pensioners. Babes in arms are middle-aged men and women.

They filled the jury box of Court 12 and packed the press gallery where they sat impassively, listening intently to every word of Mr Doran’s opening address.

Despite the sheer number of people in Laganside’s largest court, for more than five hours the only sound was the barrister’s dry and business-like account of three days of carnage. As the brutal details of how each of their loved ones perished were outlined, trembling lips were folded stoically, one shaky hand pressed repeatedly against a furrowed brow, silent tears wiped away, hands were reached for and grasped blindly. And still the coroner could have heard a pin drop.

The day that the Ballymurphy families had fought so long for was finally here – welcome, but also another season of suffering.

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