Francis Rowntree Inquest Update

Francis Rowntree
Francis Rowntree
Francis Rowntree

Soldier B’s evidence 26th April 2016

Soldier B is giving his evidence via video link from a location in Britain. The families’ solicitor Padraig O’Muirigh and barrister Fiona Doherty had argued that the Rowntree family should be able to see Soldier B when he is giving his evidence. However, the coroner Brian Sherrard has ruled that he will not allow the Rowntree family to see Soldier B.

Soldier B is swearing on the bible that he will tell the truth when he gives his evidence about his involvement in the incident whereby Francis Rowntree was killed by a rubber bullet that he fired. Soldier B’s statement, that he made in 1972 to the RMP, is read out in the court. He says he was one of a number of soldiers in an army personnel carrier. He was protecting the Royal Engineers in the Divis area who were removing a barricade. He said there was a crowd of youths rioting and they were throwing bottles stones at his vehicle. Soldier B said he was concerned about blast bombs being thrown by the rioters at the vehicle. Soldier B said he fired one baton round from the back of the army vehicle that did not hit anyone. He fired another baton round into a crowd of youths and he saw a youth fall. Soldier B claimed it was one of the youths who had been rioting and throwing missiles at the vehicle. Soldier B said he fired a rubber bullet out of one of the side hatches of the army vehicle. He said that the rubber bullet had not been tampered with and that he was in charge of the distribution of bullets and guns to other members of the company.

Mr Henry barrister for the coroner begins his questioning of Soldier B

Soldier B said he had no recollection of the incident when Francis Rowntree was killed. He said there were many incidents during his tour of duty in Belfast at the time. He said there were lots of incidents every day he was in the Divis area. He went on to say he could not even remember making the statement to the RMP at the time regarding the Rowntree killing. Soldier B said he had been a soldier for 17 years up until the time when he shot Francis Rowntree. Soldier B said he checked his service book to see what dates he had been in Belfast and exactly when he started his tour, which was at the start of April 1972.

Soldier B was stationed in Germany before he came to Belfast. He was stationed in Germany for less than 2 years before he went to Belfast. Barrister for coroner asks soldier B what training he had been given before he went to Belfast regarding the use of rubber bullets. Soldier B said he cannot remember receiving any training in the use of rubber bullets. He has no memory of what was a safe distance to fire a rubber bullet or that they should be struck off the ground when being fired. He is asked about whether there was guidance or advice as to what targets he should fire at when firing rubber bullets. He is also asked if he was aware of any of the dangers associated with the firing of rubber bullets. Soldier B said he cannot remember being told or advices or guidance given in the use of baton rounds. He claims that he may have been given training or told something about the rubber bullet weapon but he cannot recall now as it is over 40 years ago when he used them.

Mr Henry, counsel to the coroner, asks Soldier B about the vehicle he was in. In particular, he asks him was he in a Humber Pig vehicle or a Saracen. Soldier B said he was in a Humber Pig vehicle when he was in Divis area. Soldier B said he would have gone out on patrol with different soldiers each day. He said he was never given any advice as to how he should fire rubber bullets. However, he said that most of the time he would have fired out of the side hatches of the vehicle.

Soldier B is shown pictures of British army vehicles and is asked is it a similar vehicle that was used when he was in Divis in 1972. He is also asked did he fire rubber bullets out of hatches similar to the hatches on the vehicle in the picture. Soldier B said that he fired many rubber bullets from the army vehicles but he could not put a figure on the number of bullets he fired. He is asked by the barrister did he have difficulties trying to fire rubber bullets out of the hatch given the size of the hatch and also trying to aim at rioters. Soldier B said that the task would be difficult but not impossible – there was the fact that he was wearing a flap jacket helmet with visor and the restrictions on space in the back of the vehicle that would make the firing of the gun difficult but not impossible. Soldier B is asked about the type of gun that he was firing at the time. He said the one he used was called a, Federal Riot Gun, and they also had some Webley Modified Guns. However, it was mostly the Federal Riot Gun that he brought out on patrol.

Soldier B is shown a picture of the interior of a Humber Pig. He is asked about the seating that would typically be in the back of the vehicle. Mr Henry said he was asking questions about the interior so that an impression could be formed as to what the conditions were like when a soldiers was going to fire a rubber bullet. Soldier B said he could not recall much about the interior of the vehicles and what position he would have been in when he was firing rubber bullets out of the hatches. It was a matter of adapting to the conditions and getting on with the job and not paying too much attention to details.

Mr Henry asks Soldier B can he remember making more than one statement to the RMP in 1972. And whether or not the statement read out to the court has in anyway jogged his memory.  Soldier B says he cannot remember that statement to the RMP. He concedes that he did make a statement at the time but can’t remember the details of the statement.

Mr Henry asks Soldier B did he remember the death of Francis Rowntree at the time and that he may be responsible for killing the youth. He remembers being told about a youth being killed but does not remember much else about the event. He says this was just one of many incidents that happened at the time and he cannot recall any specific details of the incident where Francis Rowntree was killed.

Mr Henry asks Soldier B about the doctoring of bullets by soldiers. Soldier B said he had recalled that there had been articles in newspapers at the time, which claimed that soldiers were doctoring bullets. He is asked if he ever doctored rubber bullets. He says he did not engage in the doctoring of rubber bullets.

Soldier B is asked if he was given any orders on the day of the incident about firing rubber bullets. Soldiers B says he was not given any orders on the day but he was instructed when out on patrol that his job was not to allow rioters to get too close to the vehicle in case they had blast bombs, petrol bombs.

Soldier B is asked what options were available to him when rioters got too close to the vehicle. He says that they could use CS gas but the problem with CS gas is that it could affect people living in the flats and houses surrounding Davis. It was therefore only rubber bullets that were the only weapon he had to deter rioters.

Fiona Doherty counsel for the Rowntree family begins her questioning of Soldier B.

Ms Doherty asks him has he any recollection of what happened that day. Soldier B said he couldn’t remember anything about the death of an 11-year-old boy. Fiona Doherty asks him can he remember anything about his conduct and behaviour on the day and if he did anything wrong that day. He says he does not believe he did anything wrong on the day.

Fiona Doherty asks him was he the company sergeant major at the time of the incident. He is asked how long he was the company sergeant major. Soldier B says he was sergeant major for over 2 years. Fiona Doherty asks him what were his duties when he was company sergeant major. Fiona Doherty asks him about any training that he and his company partook in before he came to Belfast. He is asked about company and brigade standing orders at the time and did he have access to them. He says he did have knowledge of company standing orders but cannot remember brigade standing orders. Soldier B is shown a document that refers to orders that were given to soldiers when they came to the north of Ireland.

Sub Unit Attachment Commander document and a reference to the use of force the use of baton rounds CS gas water cannon. If force is to be used it must be minimum force and the crowd in a riot situation should be warned before force should be used. Fiona Doherty refers to the evidence of Major Veitch who said that warnings were not given on most occasions and asks soldier B did he ever give a warning before he fired rubber bullets. Soldier B says he can’t remember whether he gave a warning on occasions before he fired rubber bullets. He agreed with the evidence of Major Veitch that it was not always possible given the situation in Belfast in 1972 to give warnings.

Fiona Doherty asks him about the section in the document about crowd situations and where it explains that in crowds there may be bystanders such as women and children who are not involved in rioting or causing trouble. Soldier B is asked about the crowds in Divis and did he distinguish between those rioting and bystanders as was outlined in army protocol documents. Soldiers B said he did not make a distinction between bystanders and rioters as far as he was concerned everybody in the crowd was a rioter.

Fiona Doherty refers to the reference in the document that says about the use of baton rounds against women and children. She states that it says baton rounds should not be used against women and children. Soldier B says that when he was in Divis he and his company were under constant attack from rioters and that they had to use baton rounds to defend themselves. He says he cannot even remember whether he seen the rubber bullet gun or got training in its use before he came to Belfast.

Fiona Doherty asks Soldier B who was allowed to use the rubber bullet gun in the company. Soldier B says generally any of the soldiers in the company were allowed to use the gun as it was there for use by any soldier.

Fiona Doherty shows him another army/MoD document. It refers to weapons used or available to the army. It refers to restrictions in the use of baton round guns. In particular, it says when firing the gun, they should be fired at the ground and not directly at rioters. It also says that any baton rounds that are fired should be recorded. Soldier B says he cannot recall any instructions about firing baton rounds on the ground but he can recall that he had to record the use and firing of baton rounds.

Fiona Doherty shows Soldiers B another document on the use of rubber bullets and the distance they should be fired from a distance of 30 yards.

Fiona Doherty refers to section in document that says about the problem of accuracy with the weapon and that if used it should be volleys of shots rather than single shots. It also refers to soldiers must give warnings to crowds and if rubber bullets are to be fired they must be fired at the ground.

Fiona Doherty asks Soldier B was he aware of the dangers of firing rubber bullets and that they could serious injure or kill people. Soldier B says he was not aware of the dangers of firing rubber bullets. Fiona Doherty asks him how he can state that he was not aware of the dangers when he states that he cannot recall much detail from back in 1972 and the events surrounding the death of Francis Rowntree.

Fiona Doherty asks Soldier B if he can remember the death of Francis Rowntree and is he aware that this inquest is an investigation into the death of a young boy in 1972 and that the Rowntree family are in court today looking answers to how their brother was killed. Soldier B insists that he does not recall the incident, as it was over 40 years ago and a lot has happed in those years and I just can’t recall the details.

Fiona Doherty asks him about the helmet he was wearing on the day and that he had his visor down to protect his face. Soldier B’s statement said he was observing the situation from one of the hatches whether it was the hatch on the side of the vehicle or the ones at the rear of the vehicle he cannot remember. Fiona Doherty asks him about the statement and the reference to someone being quite close to the vehicle and that he decided it was necessary to fire a baton round to drive them back. He also says in his statement about the possibility that someone so close to the vehicle could have put a blast bomb into the vehicle through the hatch. Soldier B agrees with Fiona Doherty that that is why he fired 2 baton rounds and why he never gave a warning.

Fiona Doherty asks Soldier B did he fire rubber bullets directly at rioters rather than at the ground as was stated in army guidelines. Soldier B says he fired the rubber bullets directly at the rioters. Fiona Doherty asks Soldier B why did he fire at a crowd some 45 feet yards away when there were rioters closer to the vehicle. Soldier B says it was not possible to get a shot at those close to the vehicle and that is why he fired at those further away. Fiona Doherty asks Soldiers B why he fired at those furthest away when they would not have posed the same threat as those closest to the vehicle. When he opened fire the second time the crowd were about 20 to 30 feet away from the vehicle and he describes this crowd as a ‘milling group’.

Fiona Doherty says the word milling in soldier B ‘s statement denotes confusion and that Soldier B is not sure what is going on at the time. Soldier B refuses to comment on the word milling used in his statement.

Fiona Doherty puts it to Soldier B that when he fired the second rubber bullet the crowd were not posing any threat and the justification for firing had receded or that the story he put forward in his statement is a fabrication to mask what really happened on the day.

Fiona Doherty puts it to Soldier B that he is not able to say what the person he fired the second rubber bullet at was throwing or what threat he posed to the vehicle. Soldier B disagrees with Fiona Doherty.

Soldier B asks Fiona Doherty whether or not it’s certain that the shot he fired was the shot that hit Francis Rowntree.

Fiona Doherty continues to question soldier B after a short break. She asks him about the RMP investigation that was carried out after Francis Rowntree was killed. She refers to the issue raised by the RMP of the army vehicle being used as a static gunship in such a way to attract fire from gunmen operating in the Divis area and away from the Royal Engineers who were trying to clear a barricade. Soldier B says he does not believe this was the case and would not describe the situation as such.

Fiona Doherty goes on to refer to sections of the RMP investigation referring to the crowd how close they were to the vehicle and the fact that Soldier B fired at the closest thickest part of the crowd. The RMP investigation goes on to say that Soldier B had a confused image of the group that he fired on the day Francis Rowntree was killed.

Fiona Doherty refers to the RMP statement and other soldiers in Soldier B’s company who fired rubber bullets that day at crowds giving details of how many they had fired in Divis on the same day Francis Rowntree was killed.

Soldier B questions whether or not he was the one who hit Francis Rowntree that day with a rubber bullet given that other soldiers were firing rubber bullets as well.

Martin Wolfe QC for the MoD objects to Fiona Doherty’s line of questioning as he states Soldier B has given an account of events on the day as best he can remember the events 40 years ago. And it is not fair to try and state that it was Soldier B’s rubber bullet that killed Francis Rowntree. Fiona Doherty states that the MoD case is that it was Soldier B that fired the shot and that he fired it at rioters who were attacking the army vehicle.

Fiona Doherty asks soldiers B has he anything that the regrets that happened on the day and has he anything to say to the Rowntree family who are in court today. Soldier B says it is not clear whether his shot hit Francis Rowntree on that day and that if it was his shot then he regrets that. However, he says everyone on that day was a rioter and he was justified in firing a rubber bullet that day. Fiona Doherty asks him where in his statement that it states that everyone was a rioter on the day. Soldier B is not able to explain why it doesn’t say that in his statement.