By Barry McCaffrey (for the Irish News)
A north Belfast mother sat alongside the families of British soldiers and the loved ones of murdered Iraqi civilians.
Despite their social and cultural differences the families had united to demand a change in the law to ensure that soldiers convicted of serious crimes are dismissed from the army.
But arguably it is the case of Peter McBride which has been the biggest catalyst for change.
When the unarmed 18-year-old was shot dead on the New Lodge Road in September 1992 few could have guessed that his family would take on the might of the British establishment in a 13-year battle for justice.
It was, and still is, a battle of David against Goliath.
But for the British military establishment Peter McBride, and the campaign to have his killers expelled from the army, is the story that just won’t go away.
The 18-year-old was shot dead by Scots Guards soldiers Mark Wright and James Fisher on September 4 1992. The security forces claimed he was shot because it was feared that he was carrying a bomb.
However at the subsequent murder trial the court was told that the father-of-two had already been stopped and searched by the Scots Guard patrol.
In February 1995 Wright and Fisher were convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. The judge accused them both of having lied under oath.
In February 1997 a high profile campaign was launched to release Wright and Fisher and it received strong support in elements of the British media. The campaign was also allowed to use Ministry of Defence property.
In September 1998, less than three years after being jailed for life the pair were released from Maghaberry prison and allowed to rejoin their regiments.
In November 1998 an army board ruled that the two could remain as soldiers because of ‘exceptional circumstances’.
The following month Taoiseach Bertie Ahern backed the campaign to have them expelled.
In June 1999, in what would be the start of a six year legal battle, Peter McBride’s mother Jean appealed to the High Court to challenge the army’s decision.
The High Court returned its verdict in September that year and ordered the army to reconsider its decision.
While awaiting the setting up of a second army review board, the McBrides continued their campaign.
In April 2000 Prime Minister Tony Blair’s office was embarrassed when it was forced to admit that it hadn’t replied to correspondence from the McBride family because it had ‘lost’ their letter.
In November 2000 the army board again decided to retain Wright and Fisher.
That decision was condemned by Independent Assessor on Military Complaints (IAMC) Jim McDonald, Catholic Primate Dr Sean Brady and Presbyterian Moderator Trevor Morrow.
The following month the Dail unanimously passed a motion condemning the army board decision.
In January 2001 the German government expressed concern after it learned the two soldiers were stationed in Munich.
Later that year an invitation for the Scots Guard regimental band to play at a festival in Siena, Italy was cancelled because of the controversy.
In March 2001 the McBrides took another judicial review against the army’s retention of the two soldiers. The court found the decision to retain the pair was correct as other soldiers convicted of murder in Northern Ireland had been allowed to remain in the army.
On the 10th anniversary of Peter McBride’s murder his family were evicted from the Tower of London after a protest while Scots Guards were carrying out ceremonial duties at the tourist attraction.
SDLP leader Mark Durkan, Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams, Alliance assembly member Seamus Close and Labour MP Kevin McNamara all called on Tony Blair to intervene in the case.
Later that year 20,000 Christmas cards calling for Wright and Fisher’s expulsion were sent to Tony Blair.
In June 2003 a Belfast High Court ruled there were no ‘exceptional circumstances’ for Wright and Fisher’s retention.
However the judges stopped short of ordering the army to dismiss the pair.
Within hours it was announced that John Spellar, who sat on the army board which allowed Wright and Fisher to remain in the army, was to become a Northern Ireland Office minister.
Privately Northern Ireland Office officials admitted they had been unaware of Mr Spellar’s connection to the case.
In July 2003 IAMC Jim McDonald called on the army to set up an independent panel to decide on the case. One month later Belfast and Derry mayors Martin Morgan and Shaun Gallagher announced they would boycott any function Mr Spellar attended.
In September 2003 Peter McBride’s sister Kelly stood in the Brent East by-election in London.
While she had no hope of winning, her family’s campaign received huge media interest and the eventual Liberal Party winner Sarah Teather backed the campaign.
Two months later Tony Blair claimed in a letter to SDLP leader Mark Durkan that the retention of Fisher and Wright was an ‘internal employment matter’ for the army.
In June 2004 IAMC Jim McDonald went further and called for the soldiers’ dismissal.
In August of that year US presidential candidate John Kerry along with Hillary Clinton and Teddy Kennedy raised the McBride case by calling on the US State Department to investigate the award of a $290 million Iraq security contract to a firm owned by Tim Spicer, the former lieutenant colonel of the Scots Guards unit that included Peter McBride’s killers. Spicer had been prominent in the campaign to have the soldiers released.
In April 2005 the McBrides joined with London mayor Ken Livingstone in the launch of a campaign to seek a change in the law for the automatic dismissal of any member of the armed forces found guilty of human rights violations.
But perhaps more significantly the event attracted relatives of young army recruits who died in the now infamous Deepcut army base. Their calls for justice in their loved ones deaths has attracted major British media attention.
Amid additional concerns over the role of soldiers in the deaths of Iraqi civilians, the McBride family’s calls for soldiers who break the law to be expelled from the army is striking a stronger chord than ever. Thirteen years after they began their campaign, the McBrides now have key elements of the British establishment and the bereaved families of deceased British soldiers making the same calls for justice.