Northern Ireland

Ballymurphy inquest: Ex-IRA prisoner tells of Army shooting

John McKerr's three daughters Agnes, Anne and Mo holding a photograph of their father Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption John Kerr's daughters Agnes, Anne and Mo have attended the inquest into their father's death

A second person has told the inquest into the deaths of 10 people at Ballymurphy how they witnessed several shootings and deaths over three days.

Robert Russell said he saw an Army officer order a soldier to shoot at John McKerr in west Belfast in August 1971.

He was 13 years old at the time and was standing a few feet from the soldier.

He later went on to be one of the republican prisoners who broke out of the Maze Prison in September 1983.

The victim of the 1971 shooting was 49-year-old John McKerr, a former soldier with the Scottish Fusiliers, who had been working as a joiner at Corpus Christi Church on Westrock Drive in west Belfast.

Mr Russell told the inquest on Monday that he had passed in between two ranks of paratroopers nearby and had reached a junction near the shooting.

He recalled deliberately walking in the centre of the road so that if anyone shot at the soldiers he was less likely to be hit himself.

'Hand on holster'

He described seeing a soldier with the red beret of a paratrooper crouching down, when an officer across the road asked him to shoot another man.

He said the officer was carrying just a sidearm and had his hands on his hips and gun holster.

Mr Russell explained that the officer shouted to the soldier, saying: "Shoot that bastard there."

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Robert Russell - pictured in 1991 - is an ex-republican prisoner who escaped from the Maze Prison

Mr Russell glanced round, he said, thinking that the soldier was going to shoot at him.

Instead he saw the soldier staying down on one knee and firing at a man he believed was locking the gates of the chapel after a funeral.

He did not see the man fall.

He then ran to the home of a relative a few dozen yards away and took cover there.

As the court heard, Mr Russell's account differs from those of some other witnesses who do not remember so many paratroopers in the area, nor do they remember Mr McKerr opening or closing the chapel gates.

Questioned by a barrister and the coroner, he denied exaggerating, misremembering, or inventing his version of events.

Robert Russell confirmed to the court that he had been one of the republican prisoners involved in the Maze escape in 1983 and was later sentenced to five years for his part in it.

He agreed with an assertion by a barrister for the Ministry of Defence that he was not "entirely well-disposed towards the British Army".

His own brother had been shot a few days earlier.

'Bullet never mentioned'

The court also heard from Anne Ferguson, a daughter of Mr McKerr.

She had been living in England but had returned to Belfast after hearing her father had been shot.

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption The Army would not accept culpability for John McKerr's death, said one of his daughters

She told the court that she visited him in the Royal Victoria Hospital in the city.

She described how a nurse told the family that a bullet had been recovered from her father's head wound and passed to the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Mrs Ferguson later remembered that her brother was angry because the bullet was never mentioned again and was not discussed at the inquest into her father's death in 1972.

She also remembered a senior Army officer with a short cane or swagger stick visiting the family home to see her father's body.

At the time she thought little of it, assuming he was visiting because they were an Army family.

'In the hands of God'

Mr McKerr had served in the World War Two and had lost a hand.

His family says he had been "a proud member" of the British Legion.

Mrs Ferguson said the visiting soldier said he was very sorry about the shooting but that the Army was not accepting culpability.

She said her mother never received any help from the Army or the British Legion after the killing and told her family the matter was now "in the hands of God".

She told the court: "My mother was never angry about who did this to my father."

She described her mother saying: "Whoever did it, they'll have to meet their own maker and deal with it."