New inquest opens into army killing of Silverbridge man

July 7, 2014

A preliminary inquest hearing into the murder of a Silverbridge man by the British army more than forty years ago opened last week in Belfast.

Harry Thornton, a 28-year-old married labourer, was shot dead by a paratrooper when the engine of his Morris A55 van backfired while driving past the Springfield Road RUC barracks in west Belfast in August 1971.

The army initially claimed that two shots had been fired at them from the vehicle, however no weapons were found in the van.

An eyewitness claimed to have seen Mr Thornton being shot in the throat by an army marksman leaning out of a window above the barracks.  His passenger was dragged from the vehicle and brought to the barracks where he was severely beaten before being released a few hours later.

The killing sparked the worst period of rioting ever experienced in Belfast and was described at the time as “the worst nights for guns in Belfast since the outbreaks of 1969”.

During a subsequent inquest in October 1971, two unidentified soldiers insisted they had seen what appeared to be a weapon protruding from the open driver’s window and heard two shots and saw smoke.  This inquest returned an open verdict, however the Coroner pointed out that, at the time, Northern Ireland law did not permit a verdict of justifiable homicide.

In June 1972 two RUC officers were acquitted of assaulting Mr Thornton’s passenger and in 1974 the Ministry of Defence awarded his widow a payment of £27,000.

Harry Thornton’s murder prompted a dramatic increase in IRA membership in the south Armagh area where, up until then, it had been relatively low.

The opening of the new preliminary hearing has been adjourned until 11th September to allow for an update to the case.