Why is a file on the killing of a Derry teen by plastic bullet so secret?

Paul Whitters was fatally wounded 38 years ago. His mother is appealing for answers

If there's one thing Helen Whitters knows for certain, it's that her son Paul would have had a family.

“Knowing the type of boy he was, I’m sure he would have got married and had children. He just loved children.”

The 15-year-old would happily take his toddler cousin to the shops in her buggy – “He didn’t care if it wasn’t macho” – and spent his evenings round at his girlfriend’s house. He loved the Boomtown Rats and was particularly proud of his collection of punk badges, which were used to decorate the black box he kept his cassette tapes in.

Paul was shot in the head with a plastic bullet fired by a member of the RUC during rioting in Derry 38 years ago today. He died in hospital 10 days later after his family made the decision to turn off his life-support machine.


Why should a file on the death of my 15-year-old child, which happened almost 40 years ago, remain classified for another 40 years?

“You miss him all the time,” says Helen. “Even things like technology – Paul was always curious about new things, so every time someone gets a new phone you’re thinking, Paul would have had that as well.

“He’s not here to see the latest innovations, which he would have loved, and of course at any family events he’s just missing from our lives.

“I was deprived of my son, and of future grandchildren, but [my younger children] Aidan and Emma don’t know how deprived they were because they didn’t know him. He’s a big loss to them as a brother.”

Nobody has ever been charged in connection with Paul’s death. In 2007 a report by the Police Ombudsman, Nuala O’Loan, found it had been “wrong and unjustified” to fire at Paul, and the shooting was “clearly not consistent with RUC rules”. She also found that his death had not been properly investigated.

But his family still do not have the full picture. In the National Archives in London lies a file with Paul's name on it. The document – titled "Paul Whitters: Killed by a Plastic Baton Round, April 1981" – is closed until 2059.

“I find this deeply shocking,” says Helen. “Why should a file on the death of my 15-year-old child, which happened almost 40 years ago, remain classified for another 40 years?”

Appeal to Bradley

On the anniversary of Paul being inflicted with the fatal injury, Helen today writes to the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Karen Bradley, appealing directly to her to "urgently" review the file's status and to provide her, as Paul's mother, with an unredacted copy of the file.

In her letter Helen writes: “I brought Paul into this world. When this file is opened on January 1st, 2059, I will not be alive. No one will still be alive who actually knew Paul as the lovely, handsome, caring, intelligent young man that he was.

“Your government does not have the right to withhold this from my family. You do not have the right to withhold this from his two brothers and sister.”

The file's existence was uncovered by the Pat Finucane Centre, a human rights organisation that supports the Whitters family. It has also found files relating to other victims of plastic bullets in the North, including 11-year-old Stephen McConomy, which are closed until 2071.

“It is extremely unusual that there would be a file relating specifically to a named individual,” says Paul O’Connor, director of the centre.

“Helen has deliberately chosen not to put in a Freedom of Information request, which might result in a heavily redacted file being made available.

“Instead she is making a direct appeal as Paul’s mother to the Secretary of State to release the file to Paul’s family. This is a file which is named after her son, and it is her right as a mother to access the information in it.”

‘Bigger picture’

Paul and his older brother Desmond were born in Scotland; six years after his death, she moved back to Glasgow with her two youngest children: Aidan, who had been only a baby when Paul died, and Emma, born two years afterwards.

“I thought the two of them needed the bigger picture of the world,” says Helen. “I didn’t want them to be defined by people always saying, ‘That’s that wee boy’s sister’, or ‘That’s Paul Whitters’s brother, do you remember him?’

“They had the right to live their own lives.”

Helen, now 72, lives in Glasgow, where she spends much of her time looking after her two grandchildren. She continues to campaign on her son’s behalf.

“What could there be in this file about a 15-year-old schoolboy? Is it because there’s stuff in the file, nothing to do with Paul perhaps, that they don’t want publicised?

“If we don’t do our best to get these things opened up to the public, people will never understand.

“Even people here where I live haven’t a clue about what happened in Northern Ireland – they wouldn’t believe the half of it. It’s important that they know what happened and about how people were treated when it did happen.”

Paul would be 53 if he were still alive. “He might well have been a proud and loving father and husband,” Helen writes. “Who knows what he might have achieved?

“I owe it to him to ensure that his file is not allowed to gather dust in a vault in London simply because it is seen as too embarrassing for the establishment.”

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times