Belfast Judge Offers Hope to Springhill/Westrock Families Seeking Truth Before Deadline

By Brian Dooley

I was in court today in Belfast with families of five people killed in 1972 by British soldiers in the Springhill/Westrock area of the city.

Like many conflict-related deaths, much of what happened that July evening is a mystery, and the families have been campaigning for years for answers. Terrible new British legislation, about to come into law once signed by the king (we don’t know when that will be), will stop these and other families from recourse to the courts unless their inquests are completed by May 1, 2024.

The pressure is on to get inquest dates set early enough for the hearings to be completed before May 1.

Much to the relief of the Springhill/Westrock families, Judge David Scoffield ruled this morning that hearings of civilian witnesses should begin “after Halloween” and that military witnesses –former British soldiers — would be heard after Christmas.

This makes a May deadline possible, though not guaranteed. “My message to everyone is I want everything done as quickly as we can,” Judge Scoffield said. Relatives were hugely relieved, some in tears, at the announcement.

This has been a decades-long struggle to find out who killed local priest Father Noel Fitzpatrick, Patrick Butler, and children John Dougal (aged 16), David McCafferty (15), and Margaret Gargan (13), and why.

Patrick Butler’s granddaughter Natasha Butler was in court today with a dozen other relatives from the various families. For years, she has been a leading figure in the families’ campaign for answers. “It’s a bit emotional and overwhelming to hear this,” she said. “It gives us hope. It’s been such a long struggle for many of us, and there’s still a long way to go. But today gives us belief it can finally happen; we can finally get the truth.”

Judge Scoffield, sitting under a huge carving of the United Kingdom’s lion and unicorn heraldry in the wood-paneled King’s Bench Room Number One, repeatedly told the court that the dates he has set make it possible to meet the deadline, but that there is no guarantee.

This and all the other conflict-related inquests already underway (many more haven’t even started) must meet the May 1 deadline or they will be stopped. So too will all criminal and civil proceedings in conflict-related cases.

The new law will also offer immunity to soldiers and others who committed murder and other crimes during the 1969-1998 period of conflict. It is opposed by victims’ groups, all the major political parties in Northern Ireland, and the Irish government.

Human Rights First also opposes the legislation. We have been engaged with issues in Northern Ireland since the 1980s, including monitoring attacks and threats to human rights lawyers. I am representing Human Rights First on a review by an international panel of experts assessing impunity for British state forces during the conflict. We expect to publish our findings in the coming months.

Immediately after this morning’s hearing, the families’ lawyer Padraig O Muirigh explained to relatives the likely next stages, offered them a quick reality check, and told them that while this is good news, there will be days with setbacks.

Delays are possible. Lawyers for the British security forces argue they might need more time to prepare. The British authorities have a long history of dragging out and obstructing conflict-related investigations.

A red digital clock on a desk in Judge Scoffield’s courtroom (the original analog clock, high on the wall, is broken and stuck at 8:44) acts as a constant reminder that time is running out.  Proceedings this morning began at 9:38 and ended at 10:16.  

There are just 240 days until May 1, 2024. The race is on.



  • Brian Dooley

Published on September 15, 2023


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