British Army Killings

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Michael Donnelly

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Michael Donnelly 21 years, Cavendish Street, Falls Road, west Belfast, struck by a plastic bullet fired by a member of the British Army’s Royal Artillery Regiment. The shooting occurred at Leeson Street in the Lower Falls Road in the early morning of 9 August 1980, he died shortly afterwards.

Michael was the eldest in a family with seven children. He was well known in west Belfast because of his job as social worker and was associated with the Crescent Youth Centre and the Community Centre in Ballymurphy area. He was very popular with young people, not only in the west of the city but also in other areas of the city, and regularly crossed the sectarian divide to take part in fund raising for the needy in local communities. He was also involved in projects aimed at assisting those in the ‘Third World.’

During the late evening of 8 August 1980, bonfires were set alight in many nationalists’ areas of the city to commemorate the ninth anniversary of the introduction of internment, which was phased out in December 1975, but remembered annually in street protests until the late 1980s. After the bonfires were set alight in the Falls Road area rioting broke out between local youths and British troops, which went on for several hours. While the rioting was going Michael was in the Ballymurphy looking after a group of handicapped children in a community centre. It was late in the evening when he left the centre to make his way to south Belfast, where he recently got himself an apartment after moving out of his parent’s home in Cavendish Street. However, because of the trouble in the Falls Road area and in several other areas of west Belfast public transport had been suspended, forcing him to make his way home on foot through the affected areas. When he reached the lower Falls Road rioting was in progress, and unable to get through he took cover in the Lesson Street area. After sometime when all appeared to have quietened down Michael decided to resume his journey home. Lesson Street was almost deserted as he made his way up the street towards the Falls Road, where large forces of British soldiers with armoured cars were parked. Michael was alone on the footpath, and was only a short distance from the top of the street when a plastic bullet was fired hitting him on the chest. When the bullet struck him he turned and ran for a distance and then collapsed. He died a short time later before reaching hospital.

Michael’s family confirmed he had been on duty at a community centre and was returning home along Leeson Street when he was hit on the chest by a plastic bullet fired at close range. His mother, Mrs Mary Donnelly said, ‘He had just come from the Ballymurphy Community Centre where he was a social worker on duty last night. He was definitely not involved in anything. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.’ Mrs Donnelly said she heard of her son’s death at 6.30am on 9 August.

An inquest into the death of Michael Donnelly was held in March 1981. Several military witnesses and civilian witnesses attended the hearing.

A Major in the Royal Artillery Regiment giving evidence said he personally gave the order to fire on rioters. He said that once the order is given individual soldiers were to use their own discretion. He said the police had called the army in when the situation got out of control. He said 65 ‘rubber’ bullets were fired in the immediate area of Leeson Street with 14 hits claimed. He added that ‘No one in my troop fired at anyone who was not throwing petrol bombs or bricks.’ Other British soldiers give evidence supporting the Major’s story.

A civilian witness, Mr Kevin Nolan, said that he saw Michael Donnelly innocently walking along Leeson Street when hit by a ‘rubber’ bullet (during the proceedings the term ‘rubber’ bullet was mistakenly used instead of ‘plastic bullet’). Mr Nolan said the man was not rioting and was alone at the time.

Mr Nolan’s account of the events in Leeson Street contradicted those given by military witnesses. He said, ‘Half way up Leeson Street ‘rubber’ bullets were being fired by the army at youths who were running down the street. I stood in a hallway of a door, which was open, to take cover. Thirty or forty people were in the street at the time. Later about 3.50 am Michael was walking up Leeson Street going towards the Falls Road. People were in their doorways but not on the street watching. At that stage Michael was 15-20 yards from the army, who were at the junction with the Falls Road (with Lesson Street) and one of them opened up with a ‘rubber’ bullet. I saw the soldier who fired the bullet. It struck Michael on his chest. I noticed at the time there was a flash from the gun as it went off. At that time only one bullet was fired. Michael seemed to spin and do a ‘U’ turn and ran off down the street. But he fell about 10 yards further down before I could get to him. The army then fired two or three ‘rubber’ bullets at me. A girl was standing at a doorway, and I asked her to help me. We more or less trailed him inside, he was unconscious.’ Mr Nolan said he stayed in the house about five minutes trying to help Mr Donnelly. When all was quiet again he left the house carrying Mr Donnelly in his arms. He went with him in an ambulance to the Royal Victoria Hospital. The ambulance men said they thought he was dead. This was confirmed at the hospital when a priest spoke to Mr Nolan.

Cross-examined by a lawyer for the British army as to why he did not report it to the RUC, Mr Nolan said he did not like going into RUC stations. A detective inspector from Springfield Road RUC Barracks, who was in charge of the investigation into Mr Donnelly’s death, told the inquest that the Director Public Prosecutions had directed there should be no prosecution in relation to the incident.

The coroner in his finding of fact said that Michael Donnelly had been killed by a baton round, and warned people if there are riots they should stay off the streets.

Speaking after the inquest Michael Donnelly’s father said his son ‘was not rioting, the army were telling lies.’

Sometime later the Donnelly family took the British Ministry of Defence to court and were awarded £8,500 by Lord Justice Kelly, who accepted the rioting had ended before the victim was hit. He added that the plastic bullet round was not fired in suppression of a riot but at a time when it was ‘uncalled for and unjustified.’

No British soldiers were ever charged in connection with the killing of Michael Donnelly.

The names and circumstances of the death of the victims referred to on this website comes from court documents, witness statements, official reports, and respected human rights and civil liberties organisations such as Amnesty International. Allegations of the British Army Force Research Unit collusion in the murder of UK citizens, including the murder of human rights lawyer Patrick Finucane comes from the British Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens who conducted the official enquiry into British Army Collusion.

If any reader of this website wishes to challenge or correct the accuracy of any statement made on this website they should email [email protected]
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