I went along to Conway Mill last Saturday night, to hear George Galloway. He spoke at Queen’s University some years back with force and eloquence for nearly two hours on the subject of the Iraq invasion, a small figure prowling the stage without notes, full of anger and eloquence. In Conway Mill he stayed put at his lectern but the anger and eloquence still featured.
His talk ranged widely - from Frank Cahill, since this was the Frank Cahill Memorial Lecture he was delivering, to Neil Lennon, to Karl Marx, to Che Guevara. Oh, and most memorably, to George Orwell in his novel Burmese Days. The book’s protagonist, John Flory, is increasingly disillusioned with his part as a minor official of the British Empire in Burma. In conversation with a local woman, he uses the word ‘imperialism’ and the woman asks him what it means. Flory’s reply is simple: “Imperialism is when you go to other people’s country, kill them and take their things”. The evening would have been worth it for that quotation alone.
But Galloway was there primarily on behalf of the Ballymurphy families who lost loved ones during those three terrible days in August 1971. In the audience we were sitting beside a woman who had lived through those days. Her main complaint to us - and to Galloway during question time - was that none of the media then would listen to the families’ side of the story. Galloway promised that he’d use his Twitter account with its quarter million followers, the British House of Commons and every other means available to him to see their story was told. “I promise you, inside two to three years, everyone will know the story of the Ballymurphy families. And you can hold me to that”.
Part of the pain for families - and I don’t pretend to understand it - is that their loved ones have been misrepresented and the truth concealed. I was in Derry’s Guildhall Square the day David Cameron apologised for the killing on Bloody Sunday of fourteen people by the same Parachute regiment that wrought such havoc in Ballymurphy. The square erupted in cheers when Cameron finally made his apology on the big screen. At Conway Mill on Saturday, the woman beside us told Galloway of the pain and frustration people suffered through consistent misrepresentation of what had happened during those three days.
So I decided to check what some of the papers actually had been saying at the time.
The News Letter talked about Fr Hugh Mullan, one of the eleven people killed.
“The priest was fatally wounded during this gun battle...Fr Mullan was said by a close friend to have rushed to the dead man’s side as shots were still being exchanged”.
The paper also spoke of how “the troops were unable to relax for a moment. Every few minutes a volley of shots rang out from the direction of Ballymurphy”.
That was the News Letter on 10 August 1971. On the following day, the paper described how Ballymurphy “was again in the grip of snipers firing at troops” and how there had been a find of “two dead snipers in Ballymurphy.”
On 12 August 1971 the paper reported that “the army fought a fierce three-hour gun battle with up to twenty gunmen at Ballymurphy early yesterday morning, killing two of them and seriously wounding a third”. The paper details how the British army came under “repeated sniper gunfire and at the height of the battle, twenty gunmen were involved in the assault on the soldiers”.
For its part, The Belfast Telegraph spoke of a “two-hour gun-battle with troops at Ballymurphy early this morning”. The paper quoted a captain of the Parachute regiment who spoke of “as many as twenty gunmen... using Thompson sub-machine guns, pistols and rifles...We killed two of them and recovered the bodies. We got another gunman and I think he’s dying”.
A single dissenting voice gets space, and that’s down towards the bottom of the report.
“Local residents claim that troops fired indiscriminately. One woman whose son had come home from the Army in Germany said “Bullets smashed into the wall of my home, and when I went outside I was hit with a rifle by one of the soldiers. Nobody in our area was shooting at all’ “.
Like the reporting of Bloody Sunday in Derry some months later, the media presented the August events in Ballymurphy as the Parachute regiment responding to sniper fire from the IRA, and those killed as part of that IRA assault. Few now would argue with the local woman: “Nobody in our area was shooting at all”. But her truth is near-buried under a mountain of British army untruths. If journalism is the first draft of history, we may pray that the final draft sticks closer to the terrible facts.