Witnesses give evidence in the Paul “Topper” Thompson inquest

The wreaths laid at the monument to remember Paul included a wreath with a Bob Marley theme from his friends

Monday 5th June 2023

On the night of 27 April 1994, Paul “Topper” Thompson was murdered by UDA gunmen in Springfield Park. This area of nationalist housing lies adjacent to Springmartin, a loyalist area with a strong UDA presence. Over the years there had been many attacks by loyalists and a security fence had been erected after residents campaigned for some form of protection. Indeed, a campaign for a more secure brick wall had been conceded and it seemed that on the day of the shooting workmen had begun construction.

This was the focus of much of the evidence in Banbridge Courthouse on Monday 5th June, 2023, when local residents, including those active in the residents association at the time outlined their experience. It was telling that all spoke about how they were able to identify gunfire after the frequent attacks on their community. They also outlined how sensitive they were to any activity or alteration in the fence, which was their only protection from loyalist violence. One got a sense of a community under great stress and having to work very hard to get authorities to provide the basic protection they deserved.

The authorities in question were the Northern Ireland Office, the NI Housing Executive and the RUC. The former and the latter had counsel in the courthouse to take care of their interests in the matter.

They had their work cut out.

From early on that day, there was talk about the workmen, the building materials and a digger; and the important fact that a gate in the fence – which was supposed to be permanently sealed – was open, giving free access from Springmartin to Springfield Park. There had been no warning that the work was to start. Accordingly, members of the residents association agreed that phonecalls to the NIO, the NIHE and the PSNI would be made to clarify the situation.

Brenda Murphy and Collette McKee reconvened in the afternoon, by which time a number of suspicious individuals who did not seem to be part of the building team had been observed at the fence. This only made people more nervous. Brenda Murphy had spoken to a Sgt Sheldon, who had told her she was being paranoid. She had left a message with the Civil Rep at the NIO but had heard nothing back. More worryingly, Collette McKee had spoken to someone at the NIHE who said they had given no-one authority to be on the ground in question. Brenda Murphy said that she was going to prepare a leaflet to put round the houses warning people to be on full alert.

This then, was the picture on the night of the murder: the fence’s security compromised, proper authorities alerted and a community under great threat – and feeling so.

A taxi arrived at the end of the street – a cul de sac quite close to the fence – around 11.30pm. That was a surprise, as taxis had been reluctant to enter the vulnerable area. Everyone heard two or three bursts of prolonged gunfire. Remarkably, many of the residents went bravely towards the gunfire. They found an injured Packy Elley outside the car and Topper Thompson sitting in the passenger seat of the taxi, slumped over onto the driver’s seat. Brenda Murphy got there first, then Pat Hall, then Elizabeth Connolly (a trained nurse), then Collette McKee. Topper was dead before the ambulance arrived.

Then people became aware of soldiers arriving and a soldier assisted with first aid. Only then did RUC appear though the sequencing was different for some of the witnesses The police, however, were useless – a unanimous view. They arrived on the scene but didn’t assist with Topper, cross the wasteland or examine the fence, or seek to pursue the gunmen. Their only interest was whether the car was a taxi, and then pushing back traumatised residents. These were the same residents who sat unprotected despite warning the police of the possibility of an attack.

The anger simmered close to the surface as people recalled the events 29 years ago. When he began questioning Brenda Murphy, counsel for the PSNI attempted to draw out minor inconsistencies in her various statements and suggest she was mistaken about minute details. Brenda, then chair of the residents association, was full of scorn for his approach. In a series of statements, she was determined to make her points rather than allow her account to be nit-picked:

‘A man died in my arms because the police didn’t respond.’

‘Nobody done a thing. Nobody came up to have a look.’

‘What we never, ever, ever get is answers…is how is it possible – in the name of God – when the police knew the danger.’

She told the barrister he was, ‘representing an organisation that’s done nothing.’

‘It turned out what I was dreading was true’ – about the men at the fence being up to no good.

‘For once in 30 years I’d just like to know what they’ve (i.e., the authorities) actually done.’

‘I feel they’re doing everything to wriggle out of their responsibility. Surely they had a duty of care. Surely. Someone, answer that question.’

This latter was an explanation to the court as to why she left the witness-stand at one point when she could not stomach counsel’s approach. Upon her exit Brenda said she felt they were trying to bury what happened ‘like they buried that boy.’ She later returned and completed her evidence, apologising to the corner for losing her temper.

It has to be said, though, that she made her presence felt and got her views on the record.

The coroner thanked Brenda Murphy for returning and completing her testimony.

For other witnesses, it was counsel for PSNI, who tried to modify their certain view of the RUC’s inadequacy. It has to be said that, if the PSNI wish to defend the record of their predecessor force, they would be well-advised to instruct their counsel not to drip scorn on residents who feel they were denied protection they were entitled to. The witness record stands, however, that, on the night in question the RUC were useless.

Tuesday 6th June 2023

Police refused to help dying man: Day two of the inquest into the death of Paul ‘Topper’ Thompson

The inquest into the shooting of Paul ‘Topper’ Thompson continued for a second day.

Ms Gaynor Hall, a paramedic who responded to the shooting, was the day’s first witness. Upon arriving at the scene, Ms Gaynor attended to Packy Illey’s wounded leg before assisting Mr Thompson. She only recalled seeing police about five minutes after the ambulance arrived; and even then, they were supposedly ‘protecting’ the first responders from the public rather than assisting helping save Topper, and they never spoke to her while she was on the scene. Ms Hall also recalled something quite unusual: it seemed that a civilian car using its hazard lights led the ambulance to the scene of the shooting. After using its turn signal to instruct the ambulance to turn down a street, the car disappeared.

Mr Edward Duffy took the stand in the afternoon. A good friend of Topper and other young men who worked at the Grab-a-Cab, Mr Duffy frequently minded the phones at the depot while others were occupied. He was doing just that on the night of Topper’s death and says he will never forget the false call that brought Topper to his death. The call came from a private line and Mr Duffy didn’t recognise the caller’s voice. Because he called about a frequently requested route – from a Springfield Park woman’s home to the Royal Victoria Hospital – Mr Duffy assumed the call was legitimate. After learning Topper and Packy had been shot, Mr Duffy closed the taxi depot and rushed to the scene, passing a foot patrol leaving the police station while he was on his way. During his testimony he noted that, in retrospect, the foot patrol took a strange and unnecessarily long route to get to the site of the shooting.

The final witness, Mrs Elizabeth Donnolly, was a Springfield Park resident and trained nurse. She lived under constant terror that her children or family would fall victim to one of the frequent loyalist attacks. The danger became so normal that the community ‘lived in fear, but we just had to try and get on with life.’

Around 10 PM on 27th April 1994, Mrs Donnolly was in her yard when her security lights turned on and neighbours’ dogs began barking uncharacteristically loudly. Aware that neighbours had already phoned the NIO and RUC, she assumed that the British Army had been dispatched to patrol the peace line. She was sadly mistaken. When Mrs Donnolly heard the gunshots later that night she phoned emergency services before taking medical supplies and running immediately to the scene. It was common for residents to rush to each other’s aid in the aftermath of the frequent attacks, despite the possible danger to their own lives.

While she was trying to resuscitate Topper, Mrs Donnolly vividly remembers asking for a police officer’s help. He ignored her. When she asked a second time, he turned away from her completely.

When police officers arrived at her home to take a statement, she was afraid to share this information with them because ‘if you’d said anything bad about the police, you’d had it.’ Her fear was only exacerbated when police treated her aggressively despite her full cooperation. When counsel for the PSNI questioned her, Mrs Donnolly reiterated that police officers at the scene provided absolutely no help, and in some cases outright refused to help when asked.

Before the day’s proceedings ended, Topper’s brother Eugene expressed his gratitude to Mrs Donnolly and everyone else who tried to save his brother, for rushing to Topper’s aid even when they were afraid.

The second module is expected to conclude this week.