Forty-five years ago today the Parachute Regimen of the British Army was sent to Belfast to take part in Operation Demetrius, the fancy codename the government used for internment. They were to detain and arrest anyone who they thought was either involved in or supporting the Provisional IRA, but sending the Paras in to do this was rather like setting off a grenade to stop a fist fight. Over the next few days in the Ballymurphy area alone, eleven civilians were killed. Many who were killed were just trying to get away from the trouble and some were shot while helping others.
The first six deaths happened on August 9th, 1971. Three of the victims were standing near an Army base when they were shot. Noel Phillips went to the area to see what was going on and was shot in the backside. When he cried out Joan Connolly, a mother of eight, went to him. Joan was shot in the face as she tried to help the wounded man. Despite her terrible wounds, she may have lived if she’d been given medical attention. Residents claim she called out for help many times but no one could safely get to her and the soldiers ignored her pleas and fired again. Joan’s autopsy report notes that she died of blood loss from multiple gunshot wounds. Joseph Murphy did not die right away either. He and other victims were taken into the army base presumably for treatment, but later he claimed he had been beaten, tortured, and shot again by the Paras while inside. He died a few weeks later directly because of the injuries he received that day. Noel Phillips was finished off at close range by one of the soldiers when they were collecting the dead and injured.
Two of the other three victims killed that day were also rushing to the aid of others when they were gunned down. Francis Quinn and Father Hugh Mullen were shot for being Good Samaritans, while they were tending to others who were already wounded. The priest was carrying a white cloth and he had even telephoned the nearby base to tell them he was going out to help one of the wounded – but the Paras shot him anyway. Daniel Teggart was shot over a dozen times and according to witnesses, he was already laying on the ground when most of the bullets hit him in the back.
Over the next couple of days five more people were shot or killed in Ballymurphy alone. Edward Doherty and John Laverty died in the streets where they were shot. John McKerr and Joseph Corr died of multiple bullet wounds within weeks and Paddy McCarthy died of a heart attack shortly after an altercation with the soldiers, who allegedly stuck an unloaded gun in Paddy’s mouth and pulled the trigger.
To this day, none of the soldiers have been arrested or held to account for any of their actions during the onset of Operation Demetrius. It is believed that many of the same men were also involved in Derry’s tragic Bloody Sunday killings a few months later. Operation Demetrius is widely seen as a complete failure and a blatant example of discriminatory action against Nationalists. All it brought was strife, trouble and death at the hands of the Paras in Belfast and Derry. In both areas, relatives have been fighting for forty-five years to get information about the deaths of their loved ones and for those in Ballymurphy, an investigation into the killings. Sir Declan Morgan, the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, agreed that they deserved an inquest and tried to set one in motion. He had a comprehensive five year plan to deal with over fifty legacy cases from the Troubles, including the Ballymurphy Massacre. This plan never came to fruition, primarily because the First Minister used her influence to make sure that these inquests didn’t receive any funding. The families are still waiting and hoping for answers that are long overdue.