Soldiers involved in killing “dead or untraceable”, inquest told

December 1, 2014

An inquest into the murder of a Silverbridge man more than 40 years ago has heard that most of the British soldiers involved are either dead or cannot be traced.

A preliminary hearing into the murder of labourer Harry Thornton was told by Ken Boyd, a lawyer for the Ministry of Defence (MoD), that one soldier considered a witness was dead and three others could not be located.

The Historical Enquiries Team (HET) had previously investigated the killing but was unable to trace the soldiers involved.

Just one soldier has been identified, however it remains unclear if he will give evidence at the full inquest, which is scheduled to commence next autumn, the hearing was told.

Another potential witness was found by the MoD through its pension records but this is still subject to an identification process, while a number of personnel records are being recovered at the request of coroner Jim Kitson.

Mr Kitson has described the issue around locating three of the soldiers as “a logjam in the river”.

“All efforts should be, and I am quite sure are being, made by your clients [MoD] to remove these obstacles and identify these people,” he remarked.

Harry Thornton (28) was shot dead by a paratrooper when the engine of his 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 and this claim was discounted.

An eyewitness claimed to have seen Mr Thornton being shot 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 night for guns in Belfast since the outbreaks of 1969”.

A date for October 2015 has been set for the full inquest to begin.