Brother of girl shot by British soldier ‘devastated’ killer may be granted amnesty

We will oppose plans for soldier amnesty in any way we can, says Michael O’Hare

Michael O'Hare, founder of Troubles, Tragedy & Trauma. He is the brother of Majella O'Hare, aged 12 years old, who was shot dead by the British Army in 1976, at home in north London. Photograph: Joanne O'Brien

Michael O'Hare, founder of Troubles, Tragedy & Trauma. He is the brother of Majella O'Hare, aged 12 years old, who was shot dead by the British Army in 1976, at home in north London. Photograph: Joanne O'Brien

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A man whose 12-year-old sister was shot dead by a British soldier in Co Armagh 45 years ago is “shocked and devastated” that her killer may be granted an amnesty.

Michael O’Hare was 25 when Majella, who was on her way to Confession, was hit in the back when paratrooper Michael Williams fired his gun after she passed a checkpoint near the family’s home in Whitecross on August 14th, 1976.

O’Hare described a plan by the British government to give an amnesty to paramilitaries and British soldiers for crimes committed during the Troubles as “abandoning the people”.

“To see the breath being squeezed from the search for justice, to see that just being strangled for so many thousands of people, it’s just devastating.”

O’Hare, who has lived in England for some 40 years, has campaigned for Majella’s case to be reopened for more than a decade. He says the “dishonest” official narrative is a source of “immense suffering and pain” for his family.

Their father, Jim O’Hare, was working nearby and heard shots and ran to the scene. Alice Devlin, a nurse, came upon him kneeling over his dying daughter as army officers tried to push him away.

Devlin described the soldiers’ treatment of Jim O’Hare at the time as “aggressive” and “abusive”. She travelled with him and Majella by helicopter to Daisy Hill Hospital, performing CPR on the way.

The killing was so traumatic for all of us that it could have become a recruitment tool for republican movements. But my parents told us not to even consider retaliation

After the shooting, the British army said the paratrooper fired in response to an IRA sniper attack and that Majella was caught in the crossfire.

However, the Royal Ulster Constabulary investigated and concluded that one shot, discharging three shells, had been fired and there was no IRA sniper in the area. Williams was charged with murder.

By the time of his trial in 1977, the charge was reduced to manslaughter and Lord Justice Maurice Gibson, sitting without a jury, acquitted Williams.

“Dad never recovered,” says O’Hare. “He was broken and never saw the sunshine again. Mum, she rallied on in shock, for the rest of us, in the hope one day someone would come and give some solace.

Majella O’Hare (12) was shot dead near her home in Whitecross.
Majella O’Hare (12) was shot dead near her home in Whitecross.

“The killing was so traumatic for all of us that it could have become a recruitment tool for republican movements. But my parents told us not to even consider retaliation. We were all encouraged to go back to work and keep going. This was hard, but years later my mother said it was her salvation. She was the cook in our local school.”

Instead, the family kept faith that the system would one day deliver an answer as to why Williams discharged his gun.

“He had to exert 4-6lbs of pressure on the trigger. So it wasn’t something that just happened. Did he [do it] because it was a policy to create mayhem? The army in south Armagh were taking a lot of hits at the time. Was it an act of bravado? Was it to show, ‘this is how we break people down’?”

David Cameron gave what seemed a very good apology to the people of Derry… but it’s still not enough

In 2010, the Historical Enquiries Team, which investigated the case, found no evidence there was an IRA gunman in the area when Majella was killed.

A year later, the UK Ministry of Defence issued an apology to Majella’s mother, Mary, then aged 88, saying: “…both the initial investigation by the RUC and the more recent review have concluded that it was unlikely that there was a gunman in the area when the soldier involved opened fire and struck Majella, as he claimed”.

“On behalf of the army and the government, I am profoundly sorry that this tragic incident should have happened,” said then defence secretary Liam Fox.

While O’Hare welcomed it, believing it would correct the official record, he soon saw it did not answer why the trigger was pulled or why the army “concocted the story” of the sniper.

The only other Troubles case that the British government had apologised for then was Bloody Sunday in Derry in January 1972.

“[Then prime minister] David Cameron gave what seemed a very good apology to the people of Derry… but it’s still not enough. Those families have still not seen justice, not been comforted in any way. They are still fighting for justice.”

Michael O'Hare standing in front of a painting of his sister by artist Paddy McCann. Photograph: Joanne O'Brien
Michael O'Hare standing in front of a painting of his sister by artist Paddy McCann. Photograph: Joanne O'Brien

Majella’s father, Jim, died in December 1992, aged 72; her mother Mary in May 2019, aged 96. She is survived by Michael and older sisters Marie, Anne and Margaret.

Amnesty International is supporting O’Hare’s fight for a new PSNI investigation. The PSNI says Majella’s death is one of more than 1,400 from the Troubles on the desks of its legacy investigations branch.

Asked what he would do if an amnesty was announced, O’Hare says: “We will oppose this every way we can.”

He founded Troubles, Tragedy & Trauma (TTT-NI), which aims to bring people from Northern Ireland, who have left because of the Troubles, together.

“I never thought I was vulnerable, but today I am vulnerable to it all. They are just strangling the breath out of me now. I find the work I do with TTT-NI helps me,” he says.

“I don’t have a political axe to grind of any kind. I am middle of the road politically. I am totally against men with guns no matter where they come from. But there can be no reconciliation, no comfort or peace until there is truth and justice.”

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