Football disaster inquiry model could be used to investigate past

10 people were shot dead by the British Army in Ballymurphy in August 1971 /

By Niall McCracken

CONTROVERSIAL killings from the Troubles could be investigated by using the same inquiry that helped families bereaved in the Hillsborough football disaster, according to an architect of the model.

Queen’s University Belfast professor Phil Scraton was a prominent member of the panel tasked with looking at the circumstances and aftermath of 96 deaths which occurred as a result of a stadium crush during the 1989 FA Cup semi-final.

The Irish Government has backed calls for the same inquiry model to be used to examine the deaths of 11 people killed by the British army in Ballymurphy in west Belfast in August 1971. The British government is expected to announce its decision on this proposal soon.

Professor Scraton said the Hillsborough model – seen as faster and more cost effective than other inquiries – could unlock cases from the Troubles, but would require “a complete buy in” from the security forces on releasing documents.

“From my point of view I really fundamentally believe that the Hillsborough Model has a real important contribution to make in investigating the past in Northern Ireland," he said.

“The development of that model has a resonance for so much of the past here and the one that is central to my work at present is the development of the approach from the Ballymurphy families to both the British and Irish governments.

“Backing from both Governments would create an opportunity to revisit all of the documents that are still available.”

Campaigners for what has become known as the Ballymurphy massacre said the use of the Hillsborough template could address the families’ concerns. The Ballymurphy families have been campaigning for an independent investigation funded by the British and Irish governments.

However critics of the model have said that its powers are limited in relation to disclosure, summoning of witnesses, and remit in general.

John Teggart, whose father Danny died after being shot 14 times by troops in Ballymurphy, said bereaved relatives could now be entering the “endgame” after a 40 year search for the truth.

After Taoiseach Enda Kenny announced his backing for the Ballymurphy families, there is increasing speculation about whether or not the British Government will also publicly endorse the plans.

In a statement to The Detail a spokesperson for the Northern Ireland Office said the Secretary of State would be “writing to the Ballymurphy families with her decision in due course”.

But while government has previously cited “time and money” as the key obstacles to allowing any further public inquiries into Northern Ireland’s past, supporters of the Hillsborough template have said it removes both of these stumbling blocks.

“HIS BODY BOUNCED WITH EVERY BULLET”

Over three days in August 1971 eleven people were killed by the troops in the Ballymurphy area. Ten of the victims were shot to death, while another was wounded and died of a heart attack.

Eleven families lost loved ones and a total of 57 children were bereaved.

Mother of eight Joan Connolly was among the civilians shot dead by the Parachute Regiment. Eye witness accounts compiled by the families detail how she was shot in the face when attempting to aid an already injured man.

Further accounts detail how local parish priest, Father Hugh Mullan, approached an injured man waving a white baby grow and was fatally shot in the back when returning to safety.

The events unfolded hours after the gvernment introduced a policy of internment – the controversial detention of paramilitary suspects without charge or trial.

At the time army officials claimed troops opened fire in response to shots from republican paramilitaries – though this was rejected by the bereaved.

Families of the victims say the case raises serious questions over the human rights record of the army in Northern Ireland.

A number of investigations into the event have proved unsatisfactory for the bereaved families and they have taken their campaign for an independent investigation to Europe.

Legal representatives of the Ballymurphy families have openly questioned the fitness of the Historical Enquiries Team (HET), after the UK’s top policing watchdog, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, found it had serious shortcomings.

In November 2011 the families welcomed the Attorney General’s decision to re-open inquests into the deaths but raised concerns about the limitations of an inquest to investigate “the context, circumstances and aftermath”.

In June 2012, the former Northern Ireland secretary of State, Owen Paterson, turned down the campaigners’ request for an inquiry saying it was “not in the public interest”.

In recent years they have been lobbying both the British and Irish governments for the appointment of an independent panel to instead examine all documents relating to the deaths of their loved ones.

Its focus would include the investigation of the role of the British Government, British Army, criminal justice agencies such as the RUC, the Coroner’s Office and the significance of the media.

Campaigners said the struggle to uncover the full facts of what happened has taken its toll, but they remain determined to pursue the issue.

Graphic accounts of the events in Ballymurphy have been recorded and John Teggart recalled how his father was killed.

“One of the eye-witness accounts, that saw my father get shot, said his body bounced with every bullet," he said.

“That’s 14 bullets passing through his body from a distance of 50 yards across the road.

“I was 11 years of age at the time and we have been campaigning ever since.

“All we ever wanted was an independent investigation; the families have never campaigned for a public inquiry.”

Mr Teggart said he first became aware of the existence of the independent panel model when a number of the families were protesting outside a Conservative Party conference in the aftermath of the Hillsborough report.

“When we started looking into its terms of reference, they were almost identical to what we’d been campaigning for all these years.

“We believe the Hillsborough Model is our best chance of achieving some kind of closure”.

NOT AN ‘OPEN ENDED AND COSTLY INQUIRY’

The Bloody Sunday Inquiry cost £191 million and following the publication of Lord Saville’s report the Prime Minister publicly stated that there would be no more “open-ended and costly inquiries”.

A Westminster Select Committee which is currently examining the 2005 Inquiries Act has a remit to “restore public confidence in the inquiry process particularly given the concerns and controversies generated by the conduct of inquiries such as the Bloody Sunday Inquiry and other earlier pre-2005 Act inquiries”.

The Bloody Sunday report was commissioned in 1998 by the then Prime Minister Tony Blair and published its findings 12 years later.

In contrast to Lord Saville’s Inquiry, the British Government commissioned a non statutory independent panel model to investigate the circumstances of the Hillsborough Disaster.

It began its work on February 2010 and the report was published in September 2012.

The Hillsborough model has been heralded by some as a less costly but effective alternative to a public inquiry.

The approximate cost of the research element of the Hillsborough Panel is between £350,000 and £500,000.

The panel’s final report detailed 153 key findings over 395 pages and revealed new information which highlighted serious flaws in previous investigations and resulted in the quashing of the 96 inquest verdicts in the High Court.

The panel comprised of nine members who each brought a specific area of expertise to the table.

Phil Scraton, Professor of Criminology in the School of Law at Queen’s University Belfast had previously authored a book on the disaster and was director of the Hillsborough Project.

He was appointed by the British Secretary of State to lead the panel’s research and was the primary author of its report.

Since the Hillsborough report’s publication, Professor Scraton has worked with the Ballymurphy families in developing plans to set up a similar structure.

He is one of the proposed members of the seven member Ballymurphy panel, with families also hoping that former police ombudsman Nuala O’Loan would chair any probe. Civil rights lawyer Gareth Pierce has also been named by the families as a potential panel member.

Professor Scraton believes the model has a role to play in addressing Northern Ireland’s wider legacy issues.

He said: “From my point of view I really fundamentally believe that the Hillsborough Model has a real, important contribution to make in investigating the past in Northern Ireland.

“The development of that model has a resonance for so much of the past here and the one that is central to my work at present is the development of the approach from the Ballymurphy families to both the British and Irish governments.

“Backing from both governments would create an opportunity to revisit all of the documents that are still available.”

Professor Scraton maintains that the key strength of the panel model is that it is completely unlike a public inquiry.

He said: “If you take a formal public inquiry like Lord Saville’s on Bloody Sunday, this drew on the different sides of the arguments and became a forum for lawyers representing different sides and putting forward the evidence.

“Our panel model is completely different in that we were tasked with reviewing all of the documents that had amassed over the years, nearly two million. Accessing them, going through them and then coming up with a report on the disaster itself.

“In order to do that we had to have a panel that brought an eclectic mix of different disciplines to the table; a whole range of experts in everything from medical experts to Freedom of Information legislation”.

END GAME

Members of the current Westminster Committee tasked with looking at the role of public inquiries have praised the Hillsborough model for the fact that it did uncover “vital evidence, previously suppressed”.

However MPs have also raised concerns about the fact that its powers are limited in relation to disclosure, summoning of witnesses, and remit in general.

Since the publication of the Hillsborough report new relevant documents have emerged that were not submitted as part of the panel’s research.

Professor Scraton acknowledges that co-operation from key agencies is essential for the model to work, particularly in Northern Ireland.

He said: “The one caveat in using a Hillsborough type model to resolve historical cases here is whether or not the security services would actually agree to make their documents available, whether the military would agree to make their documents available and that is crucial.

“There has to be a buy in of all those agencies to reveal all documents that currently are available.”

However with Irish Government backing already secured and a decision from the British Government pending, John Teggart says the model is the families’ most realistic chance at getting to the truth behind the events.

He said: “We would hope that once the British Government makes a decision, it will be a positive one and the Ministry of Defence would follow suit and make a statement of their intention to cooperate fully with the panel proposals.

“It has been tried, tested and it’s cost effective and getting the backing from the Irish Government was a big step for our campaign.

“The Secretary of State told us that we’d have a response by January 2014 and we’re now into February. I believe this could be an end game for the British Government in terms of addressing many of the issues that remain unresolved in relation to what happened over three awful days in August 1971."