Northern Ireland

British soldiers used shot Catholic man's skull as ashtray

Henry Thornton
Henry Thornton

The family of a man whose skull was used as an ashtray by members of the Parachute Regiment after he was shot dead have spoken of their "deep distress."

Henry Thornton (28), from south Armagh, was killed as he travelled along Belfast's Springfield Road in August 1971.

Details of the disturbing actions of British soldiers were raised this week at an inquest into the killing of 10 people over three days in Ballymurphy in west Belfast in 1971 by the Parachute Regiment.

Former Paratrooper Henry Gow told the coroner's court how a colleague recovered part of the skull of another man killed in the area, Henry Thornton, and used it as an ashtray.

Gow had previously recounted the grizzly episode in his autobiography Killing Zone, which he wrote under the name Harry McCallion and which was published in 1995.

Mr Thornton died almost instantly when British soldier Allan McVittie fired twice at the van he was driving close to the former Springfield Road RUC station. McVittie has since died.

A father-of-six from Silverbridge, Mr Thornton had been working in Belfast and was living temporarily in the city when he was killed.

During questioning this week Mr Gow said that a 'sweepstake' was run by his unit to reward soldiers who "got a kill".

Henry Gow, whose company of the Parachute Regiment was not involved in the Ballymurphy shooting,s said the winner "got the pot" and would use the money to "go for a piss-up".

The Thornton family lawyer Pádraig Ó Muirigh last night they were aware of Henry Gow’s evidence.

"The allegation that the remains of their loved one was treated in such an undignified manner is a source of great distress to them," he said.

"This revelation and others such as a sweeptake being organised for soldiers who ‘got a kill’ are deeply disturbing but nonetheless indicative of the culture that prevailed in the Parachute Regiment."

Mr Ó Muirigh added: "A litany of murder and brutality has followed this regiment in their various tours of duty whether in the Ballymurphy area, Shankill Rd, Ardoyne or the Bogside in Derry.

“The Parachute Regiment have had a bloody and dishonourable record in the north of Ireland which has come under further scrutiny at the Ballymurphy Inquest.”

An inquest into Mr Thornton's killing heard that he and another man had been driving to work when their van backfired prompting McVittie to open fire.