NEARLY half a century has passed since British troops went into Northern Ireland, triggering the start of the troubles, internment and the formation of the Provisional IRA. Some 3,600 people were killed in the ensuing carnage as sectarian violence raged.
Although peace – occasionally uneasy – now presides, the legacy that the Troubles left behind still lingers like unspent atomic fuel rods. Issues remain unresolved. Actions remain unexplained. Questions remain unanswered.
Some people are still desperately searching for the truth. For closure.
Channel 4’s documentary The Ballymurphy Precedent focuses on the eleven deaths that occurred between August 9 and 11 1971 in a west Belfast neighbourhood. Nine men – including a priest, waving a white flag – and a woman, shot by British troops. One other man who died of a heart attack after being confronted by hostile troops.
At the time, the deaths went largely unreported or were explained away by the presence of Republican gunmen in Ballymurphy, a Catholic enclave. It is only recently that those who lost loved ones in the shootings have come together and sought explanations for the killings. At the heart of the documentary is the question: Was what happened at Ballymurphy a precursor to Bloody Sunday in January 1971 when 14 civilians lost their lives in Derry as British troops (the same regiment that was employed in Ballymurphy) opened fire on them indiscriminately?
Directed by Callum Macrae (who cut his teeth on Channel 4’s Dispatches series), the documentary uses reconstructions of the Ballymurphy shootings to highlight the indiscriminate nature of the killings. He also draws upon a raft of interviews from those who lost their brothers, fathers or mothers as a result of the shootings– as well as people who witnessed what happened. Some of the interviews are harrowing as loved ones talk about the dark days of 1971 on camera for the first time. Tears flow, faces collapse riven by long-standing grief. Rivers of tears, not blood.
Unlike Derry in 1972, there was no photographic evidence of what happened in Ballymurphy – hence the reconstructions and hence the difficulty campaigners have had in getting their voices heard. But as the documentary highlights, the relatives seeking the truth are nothing but resilient. Through doggedness, they have managed to pick holes in the statements given by troops in the aftermath of the shootings. Indeed, for the most part, the troops were shooting at each other rather than a perceived enemy. They have also recovered autopsy reports suggesting that some of the victims may have laid badly injured for a while before being finally dealt a fatal bullet.
With an inquiry into the Ballymurphy deaths imminent, The Ballymurphy Precedent’s release is timely. But it is not without its flaws. By looking at those three days through the eyes of the victims, it lacks balance. There is no more than a bland statement from the armed forces.
But as Macrae said in a Q&A at Curzon Soho after the film’s premier on Thursday September 30 (hosted by Jon Snow who cut his teeth as a cub reporter in Belfast), the documentary’s mission is to ‘provide balance to the official view’. To let be heard the voices of those who lost loved ones. People like the stoic Briege Voyle who lost her mother Joan in the shootings – and who at the Q&A pleaded for the truth to be told.
Indeed, Macrae admitted he had not heard of what had happened at Ballymurphy until four years ago. The more he learnt the more he realised the significance of Ballymurphy to what happened months later in Derry.
One delight of the documentary is archive film of the thousands of brave Catholic women who stood up to the soldiers – and who banged dustbin lids to warn their men that troops were on the way. Brave, not frightened to hurl an insult or two, and who were steely defiant.
In introducing the documentary, Channel 4’s Dorothy Byrne (head of news and current affairs) described The Ballymurphy Precedent as one of the most ‘significant’ documentaries that the broadcaster had ever commissioned. If it helps establish the truth, she will be right. A just rectification of history.
The film is at selected cinemas. A shorter version will run on Channel 4 on September 9.