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‘Truth is out at last’ – Harry Thornton’s widow speaks out after inquest concludes

THE widow of a Silverbridge man shot dead by a member of the Parachute regiment as he sat in his van outside a Belfast police station more than 40 years ago says she feels the “truth is out at last” about the killing of her husband.

Mary Thornton welcomed the findings of a fresh inquest which concluded last week with coroner Brian Sherrard ruling that the shooting of her husband Harry Thornton in August 1971 was not necessary, reasonable or proportionate.

The 29-year-old father of six was shot as he was driving to work with colleague Arthur Murphy in the early morning of 7th August 1971. Mr Thornton died almost instantly after he was shot twice through the rear of his work van shortly after it had backfired outside Springfield Road police station in west Belfast.  The police station had been a target during the Troubles.

A Parachute Regiment soldier, known as Soldier A claimed he thought shots had been fired and ran after the van before firing at the driver.

Delivering his findings at Belfast Coroners’ Court on Tuesday, Coroner Brian Sherrard said that while Soldier A may have believed shots had been fired, he should not have opened fire.

The coroner said that Soldier A would undoubtedly have known that firing two high-velocity bullets at the driver of the vehicle “was likely to result in the driver’s death.”

“There is no evidence that Soldier A considered a less forceful response to the situation than the death of the driver,” he added, reiterating that at the time of the shooting, Soldier A was not under attack and that “other options to stop or pursue the vehicle were available.”

“In such circumstances the shooting of Mr Thornton was neither a necessary nor a reasonable nor a proportionate response to the situation Soldier A either actually encountered or thought that he encountered,” concluded Mr Sherrard.

The coroner also dismissed a claim by a second soldier, known as Soldier C, that he had seen a gun being fired from the vehicle, and he described as “implausible” evidence given by Soldier C that the van drove towards the post in which he was situated at an angle and speed that gave rise to concern.

“There was no weapon found in the vehicle when it was searched shortly after the shooting. Neither were any cartridge cases located,” he said.

“The van was in view of witnesses over the entire duration of events. There is no evidence of anyone taking anything from the van or any item leaving the van. Neither is there forensic evidence of a gun being present or discharged.

“I conclude that Soldier C is incorrect in his recollection and interpretation of events.”

Speaking outside the court last Tuesday, Mrs Thornton, along with her solicitor Pádraig Ó Muirigh said the world had now seen that her husband was innocent.

“It means what I knew all along, that my husband was innocent, he was taken away from me, taken away from his six children and it’s good to know now that the world can see that he was innocent,” she said.

“My husband was like a big child at heart, he loved his children, the eldest was only 10 and the youngest wasn’t a year old, for them to ask where their daddy was, it was an awful thing, how could I try to explain.

“I just said ‘God took him up to heaven’”.

The coroner’s findings were delivered in preliminary format pending a decision on whether the identity of Soldier A will be made public.