How an Unsolved British Army Massacre Led to Bloody Sunday and Inflamed The Troubles
Filmmaker Callum Macrae’s eye-opening new documentary ‘The Ballymurphy Precedent’ examines the British Army’s 1971 massacre of 11 innocent Catholics in Northern Ireland.
SHEFFIELD, England — Joan Connolly was 45 years old and a loving mother to eight children when she died. Her final act was reaching out to help an injured teenage neighbor.
The young man had been shot in the west Belfast suburb of Ballymurphy on the first day of Britain’s 1971 internment campaign that identified and locked up IRA suspects without trial.
Joan Connolly was about to become collateral damage.
Gunmen from the British Army’s Parachute Regiment opened fire on unarmed civilians in a field in Springfield Park. When a 19-year-old went down screaming amid a hail of bullets, Connolly heard his anguish and called out that she was on her way to help.
“My mammy walked out into that field thinking, ‘I’m a woman; they would not shoot me,’” said her daughter Briege Voyle. “My mammy was shot in the face.”
Voyle was recounting the massacre in a film that will be released in Britain and Ireland later this month called The Ballymurphy Precedent.
Over three days in Ballymurphy, 11 Catholic residents died, including a priest who was administering the last rites for another victim, when he too was shot dead by the British.
No one has ever been held accountable for the deaths.
British Army spokesmen at the time claimed that they had been engaged in a brutal gun fight with IRA sympathizers. No weapons or terror links were ever found, but the British continued to insist that they had done nothing wrong. An inquest into the deaths is scheduled to finally open on September 10th this year—47 years late.
The Ballymurphy Precedent, which debuted at the Sheffield Doc Fest, makes the case that the total lack of fallout from the massacre led British paratroopers stationed in Northern Ireland to believe they could shoot unarmed residents with impunity.
Six months later, the same regiment shot 28 civilians during a march against internment in the city of Derry. That second massacre became known as Bloody Sunday. Just like they had at Ballymurphy, members of the Parachute Regiment claimed they had been shot at first. But this time eyewitness accounts were bolstered by journalists who were reporting on the march at the time and the shooting attracted global media coverage.
It became one of the most notorious early flashpoints in the Troubles, helping to inflame a conflict that would go on to dominate the next quarter of a century.
“If the truth comes out about Ballymurphy the story of Bloody Sunday might have to be re-written,” the film concludes.
Of course, it is far too late to halt the disastrous ramifications of the Ballymurphy and subsequent Bloody Sunday massacres but the families of the victims are still desperate for the truth to be made public. For years, they were forced to endure the legacy of British Army claims that their loved ones had been terrorists. One of the Ballymurphy families received an anonymous letter that read: “May your husband and his sub-human pals roast in hell.”
John Teggert, whose father was among the victims, told The Daily Beast that the film, which uses thousands of pieces of evidence to pull together a compelling narrative, was a crucial milestone.
“It’s going to help us, it’s going to help us on the journey to the truth,” he said. “It can exonerate the victims in a lot of people’s eyes.”
The film recreated those three bloody days in Ballymurphy using drone-style footage familiar from modern TV news reports. The locations and times of the deaths were painstakingly recreated using evidence from eyewitness reports collected by the families themselves, coroners’ reports and official accounts, as well as the memories of survivors.
The director Callum Macrae, whose Emmy-nominated film No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka was hailed as a breakthrough in proving that war crimes had taken place during the Sri Lankan civil war, said he hoped the evidence in The Ballymurphy Precedent would have a similar dramatic impact on public awareness of what happened over those three terrible days.
A year after No Fire Zone was screened at the United Nations Human Rights Council, the UN Commission on Human Rights voted to open an international inquiry into the civil war.
The Ballymurphy families believe this film can also force change. “I do hope so,” Macrae told The Daily Beast. “Film can have an enormous impact.”
One of the Ballymurphy survivors whose searing account is told in the film is Bobby Clarke. “I zigzagged,” he said, about his dash across the field before it became a warzone. “Whether they shot me because I zigzagged or that saved my life I don’t know.”
He was the first person to be shot, the bullet pierced his back and he fell, but was not seriously injured. Father Hugh Mullan saw that one of his parishioners had been shot, so he grabbed a Babygro to use as a white flag and walked towards Clarke.
“I said, ‘Father, I’m not going to die.’ He said he‘d administer my rites anyway.”
When he got to within 15 yards of Clarke, the priest, who was waving the white flag, was shot. “He’s crying out in pain—he took about 20 minutes to die. He just bled to death,” Clarke says in the film.
John Teggert’s father, Daniel, was felled in that same field. “My daddy was lying there out in the open and his body bounced with every bullet that went into him. They shot him again, and again.”
In total, the autopsy found 14 bullet wounds.
“It's not hatred, but the anger is always there—the anger motivates you as well,” Teggert told The Daily Beast, describing a campaign for justice that the families began in 1998.
“If you look at the history of how The Troubles started in ’71—11 people murdered. If you look at the year earlier, the army were our friends—there to protect us.
“That hate grew out of this incident but not only that—it gave the go-ahead for the soldiers to do this again and get away with it.”
The inquest is due to open at the Belfast coroner’s court next month but Macrae and the families are skeptical that it will begin on time because the Ministry of Defense (MOD) has reportedly failed to enlist enough of the soldiers who were involved.
After the coroner had sent formal letters to 60 potential army witnesses, the Justice for Northern Ireland Veterans group urged former soldiers to throw their letters in the trash. The judge ordered the MOD to tell the veterans group to desist but MOD officials claimed they didn’t know how to reach the group.
“The MOD are going to extraordinary lengths to delay it,” said Macrae. “They are waiting for people to die and people are dying, lots of witnesses are dying.”
“The longer they hope they can delay it, they think it will fade into the mists of time but it won’t for these people. The hurt for the families still goes on and it remains a block on genuine peace and reconciliation which is why it’s so important that we tell this story and there’s a proper inquiry.”
No matter the status of the inquest, the film will be screened across Britain and Ireland in the coming weeks and then on national television on Channel 4.
The very first screening was in a small church in west Belfast in June, where 120 family members and close friends of the victims gathered to see their story told on screen for the first time. Teggert said it was “fantastic” but there was “hardly a dry eye in the house.”
Two days later, Macrae was reflecting on that night after the festival premiere in Sheffield.
“It really was extraordinary,” he told The Daily Beast, as tears welled up in his eyes once again. “I was hiding in the background thinking, ‘I’m the only person here who is not allowed to cry.’”