LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson apologized Wednesday for the deaths of 10 civilians during military operations half a century ago in west Belfast, a day after a coroner’s court determined that they were innocent victims.
Johnson told the first minister and deputy first minister of Northern Ireland in a telephone call that the events of August 1971 in the Belfast neighborhood of Ballymurphy were tragic.
“The prime minister apologized unreservedly on behalf of the U.K. government for the events that took place in Ballymurphy and the huge anguish that the lengthy pursuit of truth has caused the families of those killed,” the prime minister’s Downing Street office said..
The killings occurred as the British Army confronted protesters during the early days of the sectarian conflict that became known as The Troubles.
High Court Justice Siobhan Keegan ruled Tuesday that all of the victims were “entirely innocent” and weren’t engaged in paramilitary activity at the time they were shot. The dead included a mother of eight, a Catholic priest and a World War II veteran.
Their families had fought for decades for a new inquiry to clear the names of their loved ones after earlier inquests proved inconclusive, fueling suggestions that the victims were somehow responsible for the shootings.
John Teggart, whose father was one of those killed at Ballymurphy, said Johnson’s decision to deliver his apology to political leaders was “an insult” to the families of the victims.
“The apology was to third parties, it wasn’t to the Ballymurphy families,” he told the BBC. “That’s not acceptable to the families and never will be.”
The new verdict comes as former soldiers press the UK government to ensure they aren’t prosecuted for conduct decades ago when they were sent to enforce the peace in Northern Ireland.
More than 3,000 people died during decades of violence between mostly Catholic supporters of unification with the Republic of Ireland and mostly Protestant backers of continued ties with the United Kingdom. The Troubles ended after all sides in the conflict signed the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which created a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland.
“The prime minister restated the government’s intention to deliver a way forward in Northern Ireland that focuses on reconciliation, delivers for victims of the Troubles and ends the cycle of reinvestigations,” Downing Street said. “He stressed the importance of working hard to keep the gains made through the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and of all parties doing their utmost to help the victims’ families find out what happened to their loved ones, so that future generations are not burdened by the past.”
The shootings occurred from Aug. 9 to Aug. 11, 1971, amid protests over the government’s decision to implement a new policy allowing suspected militants to be interned without trial. As soldiers moved into Ballymurphy to arrest suspected members of the Irish Republican Army, they clashed with protesters.
Keegan’s ruling was a harsh indictment of military conduct during the protests, finding that the victims weren’t acting in a threatening manner, the state had failed to justify the shootings and that investigations had been inadequate.
The new inquest was ordered in 2011. It ultimately heard more than 100 days of testimony during hearings that stretched from November 2018 to March 2020.