Newspaper for Crossmaglen, South Armagh, Newry and Down.

Harry Thornton’s widow welcomes naming of his killer

“He was just an ordinary father who lived for myself and the children”: Mary Thornton, widow of Harry, whose killer’s identity was revealed in court on Wednesday.

The naming of a British soldier who shot dead Silverbridge man Harry Thornton more than 45 years ago has offered a sense of closure for his bereaved family, his widow Mary has said.

Speaking outside Belfast Coroners’ Court on Wednesday, Mary Thornton welcomed the move by Coronor Brian Sherrard to reveal the identity of her husband’s killer – the now-deceased Sargeant Allan McVittie, a soldier with the Parachute Regiment.

A father-of-six, Mr Thornton was shot as he drove his van to work with his colleague Arthur Murphy along Belfast’s Springfield Road on the morning of 7th August 1971.  He died almost instantly after McVittie opened fire on the van shortly after it had backfired outside Springfield Road police station.

The inquest into the murder of the 29-year-old labourer found that McVittie’s actions were “not necessary, reasonable or proportionate” despite believing that shots had been fired from the vehicle.

Acknowledging that the paratrooper had chased after the van with the “honestly held belief” that shots had been fired at the police station, the coroner said his decision to open fire was not justified, even if the occupants had been armed. He added that there were other non-fatal options available to the soldier.

“There is no evidence that Sergeant McVitie considered a less forceful response to the situation than the death of the driver,” he saidl..

“The shooting of Mr Thornton was neither a necessary nor reasonable nor a proportionate response to the situation that Sergeant McVitie actually encountered or thought he encountered.”

Mr Sherrard confirmed that the lifting of the anonymity order would not set a precedent and that each anonymity application had to be looked at “on its own merits.”

He also praised Mr Thornton’s family for the dignity with which they had conducted themselves throughout the lengthy inquest proceedings.

Mary Thornton said the proceedings had brought some closure for the family, in particular her children, and welcomed the publication of the killer’s name.

“The way I look at it is, he shot him, so why not?  He should have been named,” she said.

Speaking of her six children, she added: “They grew up without their daddy and it was hard on them too – it was troubled times.  They couldn’t understand why he was shot. He was just an ordinary father who lived for myself and the children.”

The coroner dismissed evidence given during the inquest by a second soldier, known as Soldier C as “implausible” and said he was “inaccurate in his recollection and interpretation of events”.

Soldier C claimed that he told Sergeant McVitie that the van had driven towards the police station’s security checkpoint at speed and that he had seen smoking weapons protruding from the windows of the van.  The coroner confirmed that “there was never any weapon”.

A lawyer for the Ministry of Defence passed on his condolences to Mr Thornton’s family.