The British soldier who fired the rubber bullet that would kill 11-year-old Francis Rowntree in Belfast’s Divis Flats in 1972 has told an inquest by the Belfast Coroner’s Court that he has no regrets about his actions.
The man, a former Sargent Major whose identity is protected, testified via video from an undisclosed location and said that he does not remember the incident and “has nothing to be reproachful about.”
On April 20, 1972, Francis Rowntree was struck in the head by a rubber bullet as he was walking through the Divis Flats. He lost consciousness immediately and was taken by ambulance to the hospital where he died two days later from his injuries.
Many elements and claims about the case have yet to be clarified, including whether the bullet has been doctored to cause greater injury and whether it hit Rowntree directly or ricocheted towards him. It was previously concluded by Northern Ireland’s now defunct Historical Enquiries unit that he was an innocent bystander.
The man, identified as Soldier B, was on his first tour of duty in Northern Ireland when the incident took place but had 17 years of previous army experience. He has maintained that he suffers from heart and memory issues and has no memory of the shooting or of shooting a specific person, also claiming that it might not have been he who fired the fatal shot.
"After 44 years I find it almost impossible to remember any incident. I feel as though, for whatever reason, I am being targeted and I don't fully understand why,” he said in a cross examination by a Minister of Defense attorney.
He said that he was confident he had been acting in accordance with army protocol, adding "I do not have any concerns, I was doing my job as we did all the time."
In a statement given to the Royal Military Police on April 24, 1972, four days after the incident Soldier B reported that he had fired two rounds of rubber bullets into a rioting crowd and that one of the bullets might have struck an unidentified person who may have then been taken away in an ambulance.
He could not recall when he found out that a child had been killed in that shooting.
"There was talk of a child being injured and the name rings in my mind, he said. “I am not wanting to be evasive or anything of that nature. In my case this was one incident of many, many, many incidents over a four-month period.”
At a different point in the testimony, he added "I am not denying I hit somebody. Quite the reverse. I cannot say who I hit,” he said.
Asked if he had anything to say to the Rowntree family, he replied "There is nothing to say that the round I fired hit their son. If it did, for that I am very, very sorry. But there's no proof, to me, that's what happened.
"It was certainly not fired at somebody not rioting. Everybody there was deeply intent on making life deeply uncomfortable."
Speaking to reporters when the hearing was adjourned, Francis’ older brother Jim said "He said he feels persecuted but a child died and there has been 44 years of false allegations made against that child."