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Tuesday 24 April 2018

Witness could shed new light on death of schoolboy shot by British Army rubber bullet in 1972

David Young

Confusion surrounds the identity of an unknown teenage witness who could shed new light on the death of a schoolboy shot by a British Army rubber bullet, a coroner has been told.

Lawyers for the family of Francis Rowntree, who sustained fatal injuries when he was struck by a projectile fired by a Royal Anglian Regiment soldier in west Belfast in 1972, have been trying to trace the 14-year-old boy who at the time gave an anonymous account of the incident to an anti-plastic bullet campaign group.

They are hoping he can give evidence to a new inquest into the schoolboy's death.

The legal team thought they had established the onlooker's name and had been trying to locate him in Wales, where he had since moved.

But it has now emerged that individual may not have been the person who spoke to the campaigners.

Lawyers have unearthed an old police statement given by him at the time and it outlines a very different account from the eyewitness who spoke to the campaign group.

They now think another witness to the shooting may have been the person who talked to the campaigners and are keen to trace him.

Eleven-year-old Francis was hit by the rubber bullet as he played with friends at the Divis Flats complex close to the Falls Road in April 1972.

He died four days later from injuries including a fractured skull.

Controversy surrounds the shooting, with disputed claims on whether the young boy was fired on directly, or hit by a ricochet, and if the bullet had been doctored to make it potentially cause more injury.

Fiona Doherty, representing the family, told coroner Jim Kitson at a preliminary hearing in Belfast that relatives were considering making a direct appeal to the community in west Belfast to help find the witness, who would be in his 50s now.

"If the person still resides in the area maybe a local paper or an appeal from the family may be profitable," she said.

Noting that the individual may well have moved from Belfast, Mr Kitson suggested that the police could potentially have a role in an appeal as they had more of a capacity to spread the message throughout Northern Ireland and beyond.

"My concern is they don't live locally," he said.

"They may have moved out of the area or out of Northern Ireland."

Ken Boyd, representing the PSNI, said the police, in principle, would be willing to assist with an appeal.

But referring to traditional distrust for the police among some people in west Belfast, Mr Boyd cautioned that their involvement could actually be counter-productive.

"What occurs to me is the person involved may not necessarily respond to a police appeal," he said.

Mr Kitson responded: "I am aware of issues around that."

But the coroner said it was important to circulate any appeal widely.

"There is nothing to be lost by throwing the net as wide as we can, there's only gain," he said.

Previous proceedings had heard that one of the soldiers involved in the incident was in very poor health and would not be able to attend the inquest.

The schoolboy's death was among 14 controversial killings during the Troubles for which Attorney General John Larkin had ordered new inquests.

Proceedings were due to begin last November but were dramatically halted when Northern Ireland's senior coroner John Leckey questioned whether the Attorney General had exceeded his powers.

The Rowntree family and a number of others launched a legal challenge against the suspension and it was subsequently lifted in February.

Mr Kitson set the next preliminary hearing date for mid-October.

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