1 October 2010
The Springhill Massacre, 1972
ACQUELINE BUTLER was only a toddler, the youngest of six children, when her father, Paddy, was shot dead by British paratroopers in what has come to be known as ‘The Forgotten Massacre’.
“I was only 18 months old when Daddy was killed. I never knew him, only through stories and photographs.
“Mum had five other children all under 15. All she ever said was that he had just eaten his dinner and was in his slippers when Fr. Fitzpatrick came to the door and asked if Daddy could show him the way as someone had been hurt and needed the Last Rites.
“Daddy slipped on his new shoes and went out the door, shouting that he wouldn’t be long. And that was it.
“Mum was told he died instantly. The coffin had to be closed because of his injuries, so she never really got to say goodbye. She used to say, ‘How could someone go out the door and never come back? How could that happen?’
“She never got any explanation.”
Between 1970 and 1973, the British Army killed 150 people but the circumstances of those killings have never been investigated. Within months of being deployed, the British Army made an informal agreement with the then RUC Chief Constable, Graham Shillington.
Shillington agreed to allow the British Army to take sole charge of investigating the killing of civilians by British soldiers. Not surprisingly, the British Army’s own Military Police didn’t bother to investigate, often not even taking statements from the soldiers involved. Soldiers were never cross-examined and little or no forensic or ballistic evidence was gathered.
Their ‘investigations’ came to be known as “tea and sandwich enquiries” after the manner in which the military would deliver their account of events to the RUC.
The Saville Report noted the way in which military police questioning was conducted was “managerial” rather than investigative. The agreement wasn’t formally revoked until 1973 and its ethos remained long after.
he killing of civilians in Ballymurphy and later Springhill were not only never investigated but also most families were never officially informed that their fathers, mothers or children had been shot and killed. Their deaths were regarded by both the British Army and the British state as inconsequential and, worse still, their loss as worthy of derision.
After Joan Connolly had been shot dead by British paratroopers in Ballymurphy in 1971, soldiers routinely taunted her children by singing “Where’s your mama gone?”, the chorus of a Number 1 pop song of the time, outside the family home. Other families suffered similar harassment after Bloody Sunday in Derry. Springhill was no different.
“Although Daddy was an innocent man, because he had been shot by soldiers, the RUC raided our house every week after he died, ransacked it at four or five in the morning. Mum didn’t understand that either. She used to say, ‘How could they do that to us after killing Daddy?’
“Every time there was a knock on the door, she would shudder and think of the day Daddy went out and never came back.”
It was a warm summer’s evening on July 9th 1972 in the Springhill district of west Belfast. It was quiet. In fact, it had been quiet for days. With talks between the British Government and republicans underway, the IRA was on ceasefire and the British Army had agreed to stay out of nationalist areas.
But everything was about to change.
At 5pm, the first shots heralding the resumption of hostilities were fired in Lenadoon. At 9pm, the IRA Army Council announced the British Army had broken the truce without warning and as a consequence the IRA ceasefire was over.
At 9.50pm, British paratroopers opened fire in Springhill. Within the first ten minutes five people (three teenagers, a father of six and a priest) had been shot dead. Two other teenagers were seriously injured.
The paratroopers were deployed in sandbagged sniper positions on top of the wall of a local timber yard. The first shots were fired at passengers in two cars.
Nineteen-year-old Martin Dudley was shot in the back of the head as he left the vehicle. Other passengers were pinned down as the soldiers continued to fire at anyone who moved.
Seventeen-year-old John Dougal was shot dead and his companion, Brian Pettigrew, seriously injured by a second British Army sniper as they went to the assistance of Martin Dudley.
Thirteen-year-old Margaret Gargan was shot dead in a hail of bullets fired by a third British Army marksman. She had been returning home from a community centre where she helped out.
Fr Noel Fitzpatrick, the second priest to be shot dead by the British Army in west Belfast, was killed as he went to administer the Last Rites to the dead and dying.
Thirty-eight-year-old Paddy Butler died after he was hit by the same bullet that killed Fr Fitzpatrick.
Fifteen-year-old David McCaffery was shot dead as he attempted to pull Fr Fitzpatrick and Paddy Butler out of the line of fire.
The Paras continued firing for the next 90 minutes, bringing murder and mayhem to the streets of Springhill and terror into the homes of dozens of trapped families.
One eyewitness described residents being “pinned down everywhere”.
“If there was a target, they [British snipers] shot at it; if not, they just shot into the houses,” she said.
Another resident described her home as “riddled with bullets”.
“I was lying on a mattress with my one-year-old granddaughter and a spent bullet lying right beside her head. No one could get out.”
nitially, the British Army claimed to have shot a number of ‘gunmen’ during a prolonged gun battle with the IRA. But as soon as the details began to emerge it was clear this had not been the case. For a start, all the victims had been unarmed and posed no threat whatsoever to the soldiers who shot them.
Other cover stories began to emerge.
It was suggested that those who had been killed had died in “crossfire” rather than being deliberately targeted by the soldiers who shot them. That didn’t hold up either.
With the innocence of the victims becoming recognised, the British Army finally attempted to claim the killings had been carried out by loyalists. This lie was subsequently shelved after the inquest established that all the dead had, in fact, been killed by British Army bullets.
“Mum never spoke a word of anger about it but those men who killed my father were cowards. They were firing at unarmed people who had no means of self-defence. They should admit that now.
“What I would like is for someone to say sorry, to accept that they did wrong and killed five innocent people that day. We want the real facts to come out.”
Within weeks of the Springhill killings, the British Government authorised a mass military invasion and occupation of nationalist areas in Belfast and Derry, deploying over 20,000 troops, hundreds of armoured vehicles, tanks and helicopters.
In the Springhill and neighbouring Ballymurphy districts, on July 31st 1972, Operation Motorman brought onto the streets hundreds more British paratroopers, recorded by one of their commanders as determined to “pump lead into any living thing and watch the blood flow”.