21 November 2002 Edition
New Lodge Six Inquiry
BY FERN LANE
Almost 30 years after the killing of six men by the British Army and the UDA in the New Lodge area of Belfast, a community inquiry has been established in an attempt to properly investigate the shootings. The inquiry was set up by the New Lodge 6 Massacre - Time for Truth Committee with support of dead men's families and will be headed by a three distinguished human rights barristers; Gareth Peirce, Professor Colin Harvey, head of the Human Rights Centre at Leeds University and Ed Lynch of the American Lawyers Alliance. The author Don Mullan, who was instrumental in establishing the Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday, is to chair the inquiry.
On the night of 3-4 February 1973, during one of the most bloody periods of the conflict, the six men were killed in a series of drive-by shootings and by snipers positioned on two blocks of flats in the New Lodge area.
The killings began at 11.30pm, when James Sloan and James McCann were shot by the occupants of a car, who opened fire on a group of young people outside Lynch's Bar. Four others were injured. According to eyewitness reports a British Army Saracen was parked nearby but did nothing to apprehend the gunmen or to assist the injured.
As local people came on to the street after hearing the shooting, they came under intense fire from both the UDA shooting down Edlingham Street and by the British Army positioned on top of what were then the Templar and Alamein flats. Tony Campbell was shot dead as was Brendan Maguire, who had gone to Campbell's aid, and John Loughran. The sixth victim was Ambrose Hardy, shot by a British Army sniper as he ventured out of a building holding a white cloth above his head. It was only after Hardy had been killed that the IRA began to return fire and the area cleared.
The British Army statement that followed the killings was characterised by the usual blend of flagrant untruths, distortion and evasions. It claimed that there had been a "severe gun battle" with the IRA and that the army had engaged and killed six gunmen - including Sloan and McCann who had been shot by men in civilian dress - and had wounded another. The following day it falsely claimed that forensic tests had proved that the men were armed.
The New Lodge Six Committee, which has campaigned for a proper investigation into the killings and which has initiated the inquiry, believes there is evidence that the UDA and British army were working together on the night of 3-4 February, as they had done on many other occasions. They also believe that the occupants of the car who shot Sloan and McCann were British Army personnel, possibly members of the so-called Military Reconnaissance Force or MRF, which is why no attempt was made by the army to make an arrest. The unit, referred to as the 'Military Reaction Force' by one soldier, is also believed to have been involved in a number of other drive-by shootings in Belfast at around the same time. The killings also occurred as the Queen's Regiment, which had been posted in the area since October the previous year, prepared to leave, having threatened locals that they were going to "get" them before going.
Paul O'Neill, Chair of the Committee, told An Phoblacht that as the 30th anniversary of the killings approached, the New Lodge community and the men's families felt that the time was right to initiate this inquiry. "We want to try and get an acknowledgement from the state that what happened that night was wrong. We feel it's our duty to do something now before the opportunity is lost forever; some of the people who witnessed the events have died and others have moved away, so we need to act now.
"Our hope is to get the truth of what happened that night out into the public domain and get an apology from the British state. The families of the men who were shot, and local people, are adamant that none of them was armed. The British Army statement that they were had stood, despite the compensation paid to the families and despite the inquest finding no evidence."
Although over 50 witness statements have been already taken, any remaining witnesses are being urged to come forward and contact the New Lodge 6 Committee at the Ashton Centre on (028) 90742255 to provide a statement.
The public inquiry will be held at St Kevin's Parish Hall, North Queen Street, Belfast on Friday 22 and Saturday 23 November.
Donations towards the cost of the inquiry can be sent care of the Ashton Centre, 5 Churchill Street, Belfast, (028) 9074 2255. Make cheques payable to New Lodge 6 Committee.
The IRA issued a statement following the shootings saying:
"At 11.15pm on 3 February, a car came down the Antrim Road and directed fire from a sub-machinegun at a group standing at the New Lodge Road, killing two people and wounding several.
"People who congregated in the New Lodge Road upon hearing the shooting came under concentrated fire from British Army snipers on the roof of the flats and also from loyalist gunmen. In the second shooting four men were shot dead and others were wounded.
"The IRA at no time were involved in offensive action and it was only after the deaths that they fired at the two groups (British Army and loyalists) to give cover to enable the dead and wounded to be attended to.
"The British Army have speedily issued their usual claim to have shot gunmen. We are adamant that none of those killed or wounded were in possession of firearms at any stage. The people of the New Lodge Road can bear witness to the veracity of our claims."