Ballymurphy inquests: Meeting of minds never likely between British army chiefs and relatives of those killed
IT was to be, according the Ballymurphy families, an important day for the long-running inquest into the deaths of their 10 relatives over three days in 1971.
The retired head of the British army General Sir Mike Jackson had flown into Belfast to give evidence in person before Mrs Justice Siobhan Keegan at Laganside Courts.
Now 75 years old, his former ramrod straight military bearing reduced by the marked stoop of old age, wearing a grey jacket with a neatly knotted striped tie and white checked shirt, he entered the courtroom to take his place in the witness box.
There was a heavy police presence outside the court and the general, weather-beaten from decades of overseas deployments, had been whisked into the compound through the adjacent Musgrave PSNI station.
Ostensibly that operation was for security reasons, but it also allowed him to avoid the bank of press photographers and camera crews outside.
Both the press box and the public gallery were packed to capacity, with many seats in the latter filled by relatives of the Bloody Sunday victims who had last seen Sir Mike when he gave evidence at the Saville Inquiry.
One of the most well known officers in the British army after serving in Kosovo and as commander during the Iraq and Afghan wars, in August 1971 he was a captain in the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment based at Palace Barracks in Holywood.
It was his role as "a hybrid of community relations and press officer" that the families believe make him the key man in "starting the narrative that the victims were gunmen".
They stared at him, unblinking and impassive, from their seats in the jury box as his attention was drawn to their attendance by coroner's counsel Sean Doran QC.
In a Belfast Telegraph article published on the day of the shooting a "Parachute Regiment captain" - presumed to be Sir Mike - is quoted as saying after "his men fought a two-hour gun battle with as many as 20 gunmen who were using a Thompson sub-machine gun, pistols and rifles: `We killed two of them and recovered the bodies... we got another gunman and I think he is dying'."
The inquest has heard that no weapons were found on or near John Laverty and Joseph Corr, the dead men to which the statement referred.
Acknowledging "it is very likely I was the source to this `no name' journalist", Sir Mike nevertheless insisted that he could not remember giving the briefing, adding "I'm not the only person in Northern Ireland at this time to have talked to the press".
However: "In retrospect of course I should have said alleged (gunmen)."
Addressing the court in deep resonant tones, he remained relaxed during proceedings, with Michael Mansfield QC observing during a particularly pithy exchange between the pair: "You smile?"
It was the public gallery's turn to laugh later, when the general insisted the British army "don't do conspiracies".
A meeting of minds was always unlikely, but by lunchtime the families were dismissing his evidence as "the same old story".
"He said he should have said allegedly (gunmen) shot dead," Eileen McKeown, daughter of Joseph Corr, said.
"If he had put `allegedly' my mother might not have got the hate mail from my father's workmates in Shorts when he died."
Rita Bonner, John Laverty's sister, added: "There was a conspiracy to hide the death of everyone of our loved ones."