Silverbridge widow pleads for justice for innocent husband

November 30, 2015

The inquest into the killing of a Silverbridge man by a British Army soldier more than 40 years ago opened last week with an emotional plea from his widow for justice for her innocent husband.

Harry Thornton, from Tullydonnell, was shot dead by a paratrooper who opened fire as his van drove close to a police station in the Springfield Road area of West Belfast in August 1971. The 29 year old father-of-six died instantly after a member of the Parachute Regiment, known in court as “Soldier A”, fired two shots that hit Mr Thornton in the head.

The killing sparked the worst period of rioting ever experienced in Belfast which led to the Ballymurphy massacre two days later, where 10 people were shot dead by the army.

His widow, Mary Thornton was the first person to take the witness stand on the opening day of the inquest last Tuesday, where she gave a moving account of the heartbreak she and her six young children endured after the death of her husband.

Mrs Thornton explained that her husband spent much of the week working in Belfast, returning to Crossmaglen at the weekends.  She repeatedly told the court that her husband was “not involved” in anything political and poignantly referred to him as “a big soft child” who just wanted to play with his six children.  She broke down as she recalled seeing a group of people, led by her parish priest, approaching her house on the morning her husband was killed.

“I got this awful feeling something was wrong,” she said before telling the court she wanted justice for her husband.

“He was innocent and they shot him … I suffered, and my six children suffered,” said Mrs Thornton, who revealed she had been left with £5 in her purse “to feed six children.”

The court also heard that, in 2012, Mrs Thornton had received an official letter of apology from the Government confirming that her husband had been an “innocent man”.

The inquest, which is set to continue this week includes the testimony of 28 witnesses, 15 of which have security force backgrounds.

The evidence of 4 of the witnesses who are now deceased is to be given in the form of a statement.

The court also heard from a former soldier in the Parachute Regiment who witnessed the now deceased “Soldier A” shoot Mr Thornton dead.  The man, referred to only as “Soldier C”  denied making up his own version of events as he told the inquest that he believed a passenger in the van that Mr Thornton was driving had pointed a weapon out of the window of the vehicle and that two shots had been fired.

He added that he did not believe the two bangs he heard were the van backfiring. The former paratrooper’s testimony was questioned by counsel for the Thornton family who cited previous incidents where the soldier had made false statements as evidence of his “manipulation of the truth.”

Speaking to the inquest on Thursday, Mr Thornton’s former workmate, Arthur Murphy, who was the passenger in the van on the morning of the shooting,  refuted Soldier C’s testimony, describing it as “pure lies.”

“We had no weapons, we’d nothing. We were just working men,” he said.

Mr Murphy said the vehicle had backfired twice as it passed the police station and that he “heard a bang” and looked to see his workmate had been shot.   He described being taken into the barracks and beaten by RUC officers sustaining injuries to his head and body.

The court heard that two RUC officers who had been charged with assaulting Mr Murphy were later acquitted at a trial in 1972 but that nine years after the incident, Mr Murphy was awarded compensation for the injuries he received in the barracks.

No weapon was ever found in or around the van, and neither Mr Thornton nor Mr Murphy had ever been involved with any paramilitary organisation.

Welcoming the long awaited inquest into Harry Thornton’s death, Sinn Féin MLA Megan Fearon said she is “disgusted that the British soldiers involved are sticking by their ludicrous story.”

“Their claims of a visible weapon have never been plausible; not when they shot Mr Thornton in cold blood and certainly not when they dragged his surviving passenger from the van and subject him to a ferocious beating despite there clearly being no weapons in or near the vehicle,” said the south Armagh MLA.

She said the case highlighted the attitude of British troops towards the nationalist population at the time, in particular the Paratroopers who, she said  “would go on to have a particularly inglorious record in Ireland, with massacres in Derry and Belfast to their name as well as the murder of 12-year old Majella O’Hare in south Armagh.”

Offering her sympathies, support and solidarity to the Thornton family, the Sinn Fein MLA said she hoped that the outcome of the inquest will declare once and for all Mr Thornton’s complete innocence and give his family “the truth and justice that they deserve.”