Report damns response to New Lodge killings

It is 30 years since six unarmed men were shot dead by either loyalists or the British army during a 90 minute killing spree in the New Lodge district of Belfast. Since then, the case of the New Lodge Six has met with a wall of official silence. Moya St Leger reports on the outcome of a recent community inquiry into the killings

ON THE night of the 3-4 February 1973 a terrible event took place in the New Lodge district of Belfast. Six unarmed men were shot by the British army, possibly with the assistance of local loyalists.

Even more shocking is the fact that no proper inquiry into these killings took place until 30 years later, and even that had to be organised not by the responsible British authorities, but by the local community.

The New Lodge Six community inquiry into the killing of Jim McCann, Jim Sloane, Tony Campbell, Brendan Maguire, John Loughran and Ambrose Hardy was held on the 22 and 23 November 2002 in St. Kevin’s Hall, Belfast.

For two days an eminent panel of jurists chaired by Don Mullan heard moving testimonies from witnesses, many of whom were relatives of the dead.

The jurists, human-rights solicitor Gareth Peirce: professor Colin Harvey, head of the human rights centre at Leeds University law school: US civil litigator Ed Lynch: solicitor Kate Akester, chair of mental health tribunals, London, and Belfast solicitor Eamann McMenamin, have now published their final report. Their findings are devastating.

In his introduction to the report, Don Mullan comments: “The fact that almost thirty years later the community of the New Lodge found it necessary to establish a community inquiry into the shooting dead by British security forces (with possible loyalist paramilitary collusion) is a shameful indictment of he democratic state -- a state that has demanded, and demands, high standards from its citizens, but which has failed to uphold and protect basic civil and human rights of some of those citizens”.

After thirty years the families of the six men killed are still waiting for justice. During the inquiry, jurists remarked on having heard nothing about these deaths at the time. In 1973 the New Lodge community had encountered so much contempt by the state and its allies in the British press that for thirty years no one there believed that they would ever see justice done.

Directly after the November hearings the panel issued an interim statement admitting its deep shock at “the state’s total failure to investigate the killings”. The panel also noted that there was “no evidence to indicate that any of the deceased and wounded were armed at the time of their shooting or acting in a manner which might have been interpreted as a potential threat to the security forces”.

The final report recommends further action to be taken by the British government to provide an effective investigation into the killings in compliance with its obligations under Article Two of the European Convention of Human Rights.

“We confirm that the official response to the killings including the investigation by the British Forces, the RUC and the inquests amounted to a breach by the British state of the Article Two rights of all deceased, ”the report concludes.

It goes on: “We further find the British state continues to breach the Article 2 rights of the deceased. Despite the passage of almost thirty years since the fatal killings in this case, we hold that it is neither impossible nor impracticable to hold such an investigation and accordingly the breach continues.”

Such an investigation should be carried out by “an outside police agency, totally independent of the RUC, PSNI and the Ministry of Defence, in a manner similar to the Stalker/Sampson inquiry”, it recommends.

The coroner’s inquest system in Northern Ireland is also severely criticised. However, the report concedes that the need for a “radical overhaul” of the system is now accepted by the British authorities.

The panel’s wide-ranging criticisms are all are aimed at creating complete transparency in cases of such breathtaking injustice as the case of the New Lodge Six. Among the panel’s suggestions is the creation of the post of army ombudsman in view of the failings of the internal investigations by the British army.

Regarding the need for changes to civil litigation, the panel recommends that “the British government take steps to legislatively introduce exemplary and/or punitive damages in cases where the deceased was the victim of arbitrary and unconstitutional actions by the state or its agencies.”

Legislation which would allow the next of kin of a deceased to “bring libel actions for damages against the media for deliberately of recklessly maligning a deceased person particularly when same is for the purpose of sensationalism and/or profit,” is also recommended.

It is to the great credit of the nationalist community in the north of Ireland that they learnt to organise themselves in their quest for justice. The New Lodge inquiry has been a prime example of this.

In summing up the aim of the inquiry, Paul O’Neill, chair of the New Lodge committee stated: “it our hope that ultimately the New Lodge Six community inquiry and report will play its part in moving us closer to the day when the British state will acknowledge its pivotal role in the conflict that destroyed the lives, the hopes and the dreams of so many”.

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