Northern Ireland

Henry Thornton inquest: Three soldiers cannot be found

Rioting that followed the death of Henry Thornton
Image caption The death of Henry Thornton sparked serious rioting in Belfast

A coroner has expressed surprise at the failure to identify three soldiers who could hold vital information about the killing of a labourer in 1971.

Henry Thornton, 28, of Crossmaglen, County Armagh, was shot in the head after his van backfired outside a police station in west Belfast.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has not tracked down three key witnesses, known as B, D and E, a court was told.

A long-awaited inquest into his death is scheduled to begin in October.

Mr Thornton was in a work van with a colleague when he was shot on the Springfield Road in Belfast. His death sparked serious rioting.

Last known address

Coroner Jim Kitson told the preliminary hearing: "It is surprising that the MoD have three soldiers present in a police station and do not know who they are."

A fourth witness, possibly a police officer referred to as X or Major M in some court papers, was asleep on the second floor of the station when he heard loud bangs, it was claimed.

He has also not been traced and may live abroad, the court was told.

A barrister for the Coroners Service said the testimony from D and X was particularly important for the forthcoming inquest.

He said all avenues should be explored, including trawls through military pension records and reports by the Historical Enquiries Team.

Mr Thornton's widow and son were in court for the proceedings.

Fatal shot

A barrister for the Thornton family said he was surprised that no-one knew where the witnesses were.

"This was a fatal incident and statements were taken, and they would have been told 'you are going to have to attend a coroners court'," he said.

The court was told that the soldier who fired the fatal shot, known only as A, may have died in Angola.

Problems with the legibility of some sensitive material disclosed by the MoD were also raised during the hearing.

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