More than 30 former soldiers are willing to assist an inquest examining the deaths of 10 civilians shot by troops in west Belfast almost 50 years ago.
The figure was revealed as Belfast Coroner’s Court was told Army veterans were being encouraged to throw letters from the Coroners Service in the bin.
Ten people, including a Catholic priest and a mother-of-eight, were were killed during three days of gunfire involving members of the Parachute Regiment in August 1971. Another man died of a heart attack following an alleged violent confrontation with the troops in the west Belfast estate.
The incident has become known as the “Ballymurphy Massacre”.
At a preliminary hearing in Belfast’s Royal Courts of Justice, Sean Doran QC, counsel for the Coroners Service, said letters had been sent to 60 potential military witnesses.
Some 32 had indicated they were prepared to help, while seven were “reluctant” to assist, the court was told.
Mr Doran said: “The core group comprises a pot of 60 witnesses. Responses have been received from 46 witnesses. It has been confirmed that five are deceased.
“Of the 41 responses from those who are alive, 32 of them have said they are prepared to assist.
“Seven are reluctant. Two say they are unwell and perhaps too unwell to assist.”
Lawyers for the Coroners Service have interviewed and taken statements from two military witnesses.
A further two interviews have been lined up and six have yet to be arranged.
However, Michael Mansfield QC, who is representing a number of victims’ families, described as “serious” reports that a veterans group had urged ex-soldiers to bin correspondence from the coroner.
There is a risk potential witnesses could be influenced, he said.
Mr Mansfield said: “Putting it shortly, we would submit on behalf of the families that this report, assuming it is accurate, reveals a totally unacceptable situation and it is reprehensible whereby an organisation, namely the Justice for Northern Ireland Veterans, is telling people not to co-operate and put the letters in the bin.
“We would ask that this be addressed and dealt with.”
Judge Siobhan Keegan, who is presiding over the high profile case, said enquiries about the validity of the claims would have to be made.
But she added: “If this is right, it is a total disrespect that somebody would say put the inquest letters in the bin.”
Mrs Justice Keegan also told the court she would write to the MoD and any other organisation regarding the matter.
“If I feel I have to send correspondence to any other organisation other than the MoD I will,” the judge said.
Mr Doran said: “Perhaps and open and public response from the MoD might be appropriate in this case.”
Meanwhile, the families’ request for an independent “tracing agency” to track down potential witnesses was also raised during the hearing.
Mrs Keegan said she would keep the issue “under review”.
Soldiers claimed they had come under attack and returned fire. But the Ballymurphy families have demanded an acknowledgement that their loved ones were wrongfully killed.
In 2010, then-prime minister David Cameron apologised for the actions of the paratroopers on Bloody Sunday after a long-running public inquiry by Lord Saville found the shootings had been unjustified, as the victims posed no threat.
But the Government has rejected calls for a probe – on a smaller scale – into the events in Ballymurphy, insisting it was not in the public interest.
A fresh inquest has been scheduled to start in September.
Mrs Keegan told the court she wanted to ensure it stayed on track.
“My imperative is to try to effectively case manage.
“There is quite a lot of preparatory work to be done in this case, so that is why I want to keep a close eye and handle on it.”
Earlier, the judge had issued a stern warning for legal representatives to resolve outstanding issues causing delay.
She said: “The people at the back of the courtroom have waited a very long time to get an inquest — 47 years.
“And all I get now are problems – and there are problems in this case, but I see nothing by way of purposeful conversation about solutions.”
Victims’ relatives staged a protest outside the court, and were joined by a number of Sinn Fein elected representatives.
Speaking afterwards, John Teggart, whose father Danny was among those killed, welcomed the “firm hand” taken by the judge.
The case has been adjourned until next month.