Shooting of West Belfast boy probed by the HET

‘British Army shot my brother in the back and then lied’

By Gráinne Brinkley

T HE brother of a Ballymurphy boy who was shot in the back by a British Army sniper 35 years ago  has appealed for witnesses to come forward as the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) looks into his death. Paul ‘Jason’ McWilliams was just 16 years old and on temporary release from St Patrick’s Training School on the Glen Road to attend his grandmother’s funeral when he was killed near Corry’s timber yard close to his home in Springhill Avenue on August 9, 1977 – the week of Queen Elizabeth’s silver jubilee.

The circumstances of young Paul’s death sparked controversy at the time. A  statement issued by the British Army shortly after the killing claimed he had been throwing petrol bombs near Corry’s timber tard during serious rioting and that he was shot after being warned twice by British soldiers. That’s a claim strongly denied by the McWilliams family.

In response to that  statement, Sinn Féin claimed they had two eyewitnesses who said there had been no “serious rioting” in the area at the time of Paul’s death and that the teenager had been shot in the back as he tried to get through a gap in a fence while attempting to escape British Army bullets. The eyewitnesses also claim that, contrary to the statement issued by the army, no warnings were ever given to Paul before he was shot in the back.

Speaking this week about his brother’s killing, Thomas McWilliams, who was only 10 when Paul was killed, appealed for anyone with information on the murder to come forward.

“Paul’s nickname was Jason, and he was a very popular lad and well liked in the area where we lived,” recalls Thomas, one of 11 children in the McWilliams family.

“Ballymurphy in the 1970s was dominated by army bases and fortifications.  There were constant armed foot patrols and raids on people’s homes.  Like a lot of young people there at that time, Paul was always being stopped, searched and abused by British soldiers, so that’s why he joined the IRA.  A year before his death he was arrested for rioting and convicted of riotous behaviour and was placed in St Patrick’s Training School.”

On the death of his grandmother in early August 1977, Paul was given temporary release from the training centre to attend her funeral, but stayed out an extra day to take part in the annual commemoration events to mark the introduction of internment.

“He had been due to go back to St Pat’s on August 8,” said Thomas, “but he stayed out an extra day. In those days the commemoration usually began with the lighting of bonfires followed by the banging of binlids and the blowing of whistles at the stroke of 4am. The protestors would then march to the army fortifications and street violence usually erupted between the soldiers and local youths.”

After the post-protest rioting had subsided, Paul was making his way back to the family’s Springhill Avenue home with his brother Christopher.

“As they were walking a single shot rang out from a soldier from the Light Infantry Regiment positioned in Corry’s timber yard, hitting Paul in the back,” said Thomas.

“When the ambulance arrived to take Paul to the Royal it was stopped at the bottom of the Whiterock Road by a party of RUC members and army officers who checked the vehicle, delaying it for several minutes.  Paul died before he got to hospital.”

Thomas said he can still hear his mother’s scream when she was told her son was dead.

“It’s a memory I will take to my grave,” he said. “I can just remember the feeling of pure and utter sadness.  Our father had just died the year before from lung cancer.  My mother had just buried her mother so she was finding it difficult enough to cope with my father’s death and now she had to bury her mother and son. She was never the same after he died and she often blamed herself for it happening – she used to say if only she had made him go back to St Pat’s on August 8 he would never have been killed. She suffered greatly at the hands of the British, even before Paul died, as she had four sons and a daughter interned without trial.”

The 1979 inquest into Paul’s death returned an open verdict.

“None of the soldiers involved in the death attended the inquest, a military representative just read out statements from them,” said Thomas.

“None of the clothes Paul was wearing when he was killed were ever returned to us, nor were his possessions, despite our requests.”

Around a decade later, the family’s emotional wounds were reopened with the publication of a book recalling the experiences of British Army personnel during the conflict in the North.

In the 1998 book, ‘Brits Speak Out’, a former member of the Light Infantry Regimen, Bob Harker, who was stationed in Ballymurphy at the time of Paul’s death, referred to the teenager’s murder in his contribution to the book.

“He [Bob Harker] revealed the scene inside the barracks after Paul was shot,” said Thomas. “He said a British soldier who was a member of his section had been shot dead on the same morning as Paul in retaliation for his death.

“The regimental colonel visited the barracks shortly afterwards and was wearing full ceremonial uniform as the Queen was to the visit that week as part of her silver jubilee tour and they were toasting her arrival. Bob said the colonel’s opening remarks to the soldiers were, ‘Well, chaps, it’s a sad thing we have lost one of our soldiers today, but we had a good kill this morning.’”

Since last September, Thomas has been engaging with the HET in its reinvestigation of his brother’s killing.

“It has been a very emotional and tiring process,” said Thomas.

“Paul was shot on the last jubilee visit of the Queen in August 1977 – 35 years ago this week – and he was shot in the back with his hands in the air, according to his post mortem records. The Ministry of Defence and the British Army claimed he was throwing petrol bombs yet not one shred of evidence links Paul to any petrol bombing.

“He was just five feet two inches tall and seven stone in weight when he was killed, so anyone with eyes in their head could clearly see they were looking at a boy and not a man.”

Thomas said nothing would give his family more satisfaction than to see the soldier responsible for the shooting of Paul brought to justice.

“We’ve been able to see the inquest records and the statements given by eight soldiers at the time of the inquest and they all sound like they come from the same person,” said Thomas.

“It turns my stomach that they have been able to hide behind the Ministry of Defence for 35 years for what they have done, with no proper action taken against them.

“Currently the HET is re-interviewing seven of the soldiers involved, but the solicitor for the one who pulled the trigger has stated he is not medically fit to give a statement. The HET will challenge this.”

Anyone who thinks they may have information on the shooting of Paul McWilliams is asked to contact Thomas McWilliams on 07803541554 or call the HET on 028 9258 9258.

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