Ballymurphy families angered by Boris Johnson apology letter

Families say apology should have been made in House of Commons in person

Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis has issued a statement in the House of Commons, apologising on behalf of the British government for the events in Ballymurphy 50 years ago in which 10 innocent people were killed. Video: UK Parliament TV

 

The families of the 10 people killed in Ballymurphy in August 1971 were left angered by the timing and content of a letter of apology by British prime minister Boris Johnson.

In the letter, seen by The Irish Times, Mr Johnson said he wanted “to express personally how sorry I am for the terrible hurt that has been caused to you and all of the other families who lost loved ones in Ballymurphy in August 1971.

“For what happened on those terrible few days in Ballymurphy, and for what the families have gone through since you began your brave and dignified campaign almost five decades ago, I am truly sorry.”

He also said he recognised no words of apology could make up for the “lasting pain” endured by families, and thanked them for their “dignity and strength.”

The solicitor for the families, Pádraig O Muirigh, broke down as he read it out, saying he had been left upset by the “disgraceful conduct” of the British prime minister.

A car passing through Ballymurphy with a white flag bearing victim Edward Doherty’s picture. Photograph : Liam McBurney/PA Wire
A car passing through Ballymurphy with a white flag bearing victim Edward Doherty’s picture. Photograph : Liam McBurney/PA Wire

John Teggart, whose father was killed by a soldier at Ballymurphy, said the main emotion from the families was anger. He said: “There is no mention of a massacre, there is no mention of the Paras.

“If this was to be done right he would have sat back, took his time, consulted with the families before he put that out.

“The manner in which he has done it is totally unacceptable to the families.”

The families held a meeting with Sinn Féin President Mary-Lou McDonald. Speaking afterwards, Ms McDonald said the families had “articulated their very great anger with the botched way in which the British prime minister has approached the issue of an apology.”

Describing the families as “heroic, nothing short of that”, she said Boris Johnson needed to recognise what happened to the families.

She said the families “have their truth now and I know that they are intent on receiving justice.”

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Secretary statement

Earlier on Thursday, the Northern Secretary said in a statement in the House of Commons that the UK government “profoundly regrets” and is “truly sorry” for events in Ballymurphy.

He also apologised for the way in which “investigations after these terrible events were handled, and for the additional pain that the families have had to endure in their fight to clear the names of their loved ones since they began their campaign almost five decades ago”.

Mary Kate Quinn, the niece of one of the victims, described Mr Lewis’s statement as an “insult” and said he was “more concerned about laying the groundwork for amnesty legislation” than delivering a genuine apology to the families.

“He spoke of answers and reconciliation, but not accountability or justice,” she said.

Mr Lewis was challenged in the Commons by the shadow Northern Secretary, Louise Haigh, and by MPs over Mr Johnson’s failure to deliver the apology in person.

“In the aftermath of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, [the then prime minister] David Cameron came to this House and apologised in a statement – he didn’t brief apologies through disputed calls with politicians, he took full responsibility,” Ms Haigh said.

“Where is the prime minister today and why has he not publicly apologised to the Ballymurphy families and this House?”

Mr Lewis said Mr Johnson had given an “unreserved and public apology”.

Alliance MP Stephen Farry asked Mr Lewis to confirm “the scope of this apology” and whether it included “how the British army libelled many of the victims by calling them IRA gunmen and also how the ministry of defence and indeed some individual soldiers frustrated the process of justice over many years”.

Mr Lewis said the apology covered not just the “dreadful incident, the tragedy we saw in Ballymurphy in 1971, but the period since and what those families and the victims have had to go through, absolutely.”

A coroner ruled on Tuesday that the victims were “entirely innocent.” Nine of the 10 had been shot by the British army, she said, and lack of evidence as a result of the failure to carry out a proper investigation at the time meant that it she could not reach a judgement about the tenth.

Ten people were shot and fatally injured in the Ballymurphy area of west Belfast amid the serious violence which took place after the introduction of internment without trial on the morning of August 9th, 1971.

‘Path forward’

In his statement, Mr Lewis also referenced the UK government’s new proposals to introduce a statute of limitations on Troubles-era prosecutions and to address the past by focusing instead on an information recovery process.

“With each passing year, the integrity of evidence and the prospects of prosecution do diminish,” he said.

“This government wants to deliver a way forward in addressing the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland, one that will allow all individuals or families who want information, to seek and receive answers about what happened during the Troubles, with far less delay and distress.

“We want a path forward which will also pave the way for wider societal reconciliation for all communities, allowing all the people of Northern Ireland to focus on building a shared, stable, peaceful, and prosperous future.”

 

Those comments were challenged by MPs from parties including Labour, the SNP, SDLP and Alliance.

“The best interests of truth and reconciliation and the wider public interest are not served by seeking to put a time bar on the pursuit of justice,” said the SNP MP Richard Thomson.

Asked by the former Northern secretary, Julian Smith, if Mr Lewis would commit to undertaking “comprehensive discussions with victims groups and victims directly,” he said the UK government had been “engaging across civic society with victims groups and representatives as well as the Irish Government”.

“We will be looking to engage very, very directly and very deeply over the period ahead in order to see if we can find a way forward for everybody.”