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Film review: The Ballymurphy Precedent

31 August 2018

Stephen Brown reviews a film about a shocking episode of the Troubles

A still from the documentary The Ballymurphy Precedent

A still from the documentary The Ballymurphy Precedent

THE film documentary The Ballymurphy Precedent (Cert. 15) tells the story of the shooting of ten unarmed Roman Catholics, and the death of an 11th, at the hands of the British Army in Belfast between 9 and 11 August 1971. The killings include that of 38-year-old Fr Hugh Mullan while he was going to the aid of Bobby Clarke, a wounded man. Another civilian suffered the same fate during a similar rescue attempt. Worst of all, perhaps, one man was shot 14 times, mainly in the back.

Finally, in 2016, the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, Sir Declan Morgan, recommend an inquest into these killings. The First Minister, Arlene Foster, delayed the necessary funding, an act deemed illegal by the High Court. The case is now due to begin this September. The final words of this film come from a victim’s relative: “We will have our day in court.”

The director of The Ballymurphy Precedent is Callum Macrae. He presents the incident as one of the most significant events in the Troubles. Yet few have heard of it, despite its preceding Bloody Sunday, whose incident happened five months later in Derry and involved the same 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment. To put things in context, this coincided with the inauguration of Operation Demetrius, during which 342 IRA suspects were interned without trial.

Feelings among Ballymurphy’s Catholic residents ran high. Macrae’s previous film, No Fire Zone, investigated the killings of thousands of Tamils in the Sri Lankan civil war. He won several awards for its accuracy and compelling narrative. This time, and rather nearer home, he focuses a journalist’s eye on a shocking episode, offering new evidence. Underlying everything we see and hear is a battle for truth. The fact that much of the bloodshed occurred within yards of the local Roman Catholic church adds a salutatory dimension.

The film doesn’t give that much attention to how frightening an atmosphere it was for often very young British soldiers. As one interviewee says, in that situation, everyone is perceived as a potential gunman. Shoot first; ask questions later. It’s the antithesis of what Christians, Catholic or Protestant, believe about peacemaking. Prevention is better than cure. We are in the business of building up the common life and all that makes for peace. Ulster did not have a common life. The film quietly insists in asking the question Why not? In whose interests was it to maintain two potentially warring communities? Certainly not the victims’.

In that respect, the figure of Fr Mullan epitomises the notion of breaking down walls of antagonism. He was a curate from Corpus Christi chapel who had spent his day persuading the Catholic community not to respond to Loyalist taunts from the neighbouring estate. Before attempting to help Clarke, he telephoned the Army base to explain this. Despite waving a white flag, he was shot in the back after anointing Clarke. He was heard praying. It would be good to think that he was saying “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

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