Soldiers who fired rubber bullets during Troubles not responsible for civilian death, inquest finds

Soldiers under investigation over the shooting of a man in Northern Ireland almost 50 years ago were cleared of wrongdoing on Wednesday – after a coroner ruled he was likely killed by flying masonry.

It had always been believed that Thomas Friel, 21, had died from head injuries caused by a rubber bullet during rioting in Londonderry in May 1973. But a fresh inquest concluded he was probably hit by masonry thrown as a missile, causing him to fall to the ground, striking his head and causing brain damage. Friel, who was “highly intoxicated”, died in hospital four days after suffering head injuries.

The inquest had heard that British troops had been given orders to fire baton rounds after being stoned by youths. One veteran – identified as Soldier B – told the inquest after he was asked if there was anything he would like to say to Friel’s family: “I’m sorry it happened, I wish it hadn’t happened.”

Another veteran – Soldier D – told the inquest he was being treated for cancer of the liver and kidney and could not recall what orders he had given on the day.

21-year-old Thomas Friel, who died during a night of riots in Londonderry in 1973

The new inquest had been ordered by Northern Ireland’s attorney general in 2014 after evidence emerged suggesting that the Ministry of Defence knew of the lethal capacity of rubber bullets.

The Conservative MP Johnny Mercer, who quit as defence minister over the ongoing criminal inquiries into veterans who served during the Troubles, said on Wednesday: “These investigations are increasingly looking like a farce. To put these old men through this hell – for what? We are moving from the bizarre to the ridiculous. I’m embarrassed for the justice system in Northern Ireland.”

Coroner Joe McCrisken said he was “satisfied to the required standard” that Friel had “sustained three separate injuries to his head."

He explained: "The first injury, to the left side of the forehead, was caused by, in my view on balance, a missile, a piece of masonry, something of that nature during the disturbance.

"I am satisfied that Thomas Friel was highly intoxicated when he arrived at Creggan Heights… I am satisfied that while in Creggan Heights he was with the crowd who were involved in stoning the army patrol.

"It is more likely than not that this injury to the front of his head caused him to fall to the ground… I am satisfied it was of sufficient force to cause Thomas Friel to fall to the ground, possibly unconscious, but he fell, struck the left side of his head and face… this accelerated fall on to probably the road surface caused the left sided fracture of his skull… bleeding and brain damage, to the left and right side.

"There was a third injury to the top of the skull, perhaps caused by a fall or perhaps caused by a missile."

Mr McCrisken said the scene was likely to have been "fast paced, frenzied and chaotic".

He added: "At least two, and probably more than two, rubber batons were discharged striking at least two people.

"I am not persuaded based upon the evidence that I have heard that Thomas Friel was struck with a rubber baton round. It is of course possible that he may have been, but I do not consider this as the most likely scenario based on the evidence which I have heard."

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The coroner described a local background of "savage violence" as "essential to understand what happened".

He added: "The passage of such a period of time is bound to have affected the recollections of those who witnessed and participated in the events of the tragic night.”

The coroner recognised the "resolve and determination" of the Friel family, waiting almost 50 years for a fresh inquest into the death

Friel’s family, who long campaigned for a fresh inquest, contending he was injured by a rubber bullet fired by a soldier, are being supported by the Pat Finucane Centre.

The centre tweeted that the family will consider the findings.

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