Forty-seven years ago today a 14-year-old school girl, Annette McGavigan, was shot dead on the streets of Derry by a British soldier. No one was ever charged with her death and no proper investigation was ever carried out. The Derry based human rights group, the Pat Finucane Centre, has been working with the McGavigan family to try and find out the full facts behind her death below in their fact file on the death of a Derry schoolgirl.
Annette McGavigan lived with her parents, four brothers and two sisters, in Drumcliffe Avenue in the Bogside.
She was a pupil at St. Cecilia’s Secondary School in Creggan and was only fourteen years old when she was shot dead. According to her family, Annette was “A bright and cheerful girl who loved and was loved by her family. She loved music and art, and was always playing with the local children.”
Her death on 6 September 1971 left her family in a state of shock, totally unable to comprehend their loss.
That evening there was rioting going on in and around the Little Diamond area on the edge of the Bogside. British soldiers were in position in the grounds of the old post office between the Little Diamond and Frederick Street, while there were a number of local youths in the Little Diamond, Fahan Street and Eglinton Place.
During the rioting two nail bombs were thrown at the soldiers. They replied by opening fire with live rounds into a crowd of young people, “mainly girls”, in Eglinton Place.
In the crowd was Annette McGavigan, dressed in her full school uniform. According to a friend she was looking for a rubber bullet as a souvenir. One of the rounds fired by the soldiers hit Annette in the back of the head, killing her instantly.
The soldiers claimed they had come under fire from Eglinton Place. None of the civilian witnesses reported hearing any gunfire other than that from the soldiers. The IRA admitted they had thrown nail bombs at the soldiers, but denied firing any shots.
One civilian witness, the first person to reach Annette after she was shot, told inquest into her death: “On Monday the 6th of September, 1971 at approximately 6.00pm I was in my home watching television when I heard a fairly loud explosion. I immediately went out to my front door...there were about 30 youngsters, mainly girls, running down Eglinton Place from the Little Diamond direction.
“Still looking in the direction of Little Diamond I saw two soldiers on the waste ground at the old post office. They were running across the waste ground away from Eglinton Place. Both soldiers were carrying guns. The next thing I saw was both soldiers stop and turn facing Eglinton Place. One of them dropped down onto one knee. This soldier appeared to be bringing his rifle up to the firing position.
“Instinctively I pulled my head in from the corner as the soldier was aiming his rifle down Eglinton Place and I thought he was preparing to fire. About a second later there were the reports of about two or three shots. I didn’t see anyone fire the shots but I took it for granted they were from the post office.’
The witness added: “I then saw the last one of the girls who had been running down Eglinton Place fall forward onto her face. She fell at the corner of my front garden and was lying on the footpath...a few seconds later I ran over to where she fell. I was the first person to reach her. I spoke into her ear but there was no response. I then noticed a trickle of blood run from the back of her head.”
This witness then goes on to refute the army claims that there was a gun battle going on when Annette McGavigan was shot: “I saw no person or persons at the road junction at my home shoot up Eglinton Place in the direction of the soldiers.
“Had there been any gunman shooting at or near this road junction I would have either seen or heard them. I would also have condemned any such action.”
Annette was taken into the witness’s home, where she was examined by Dr. Donal MacDermott. She was already dead. A visiting TV crew filmed the scene as her body was being carried into the house. In their footage her school uniform can be clearly seen. On a bright September evening at 6 p.m., the soldier who shot her must have had just as clear a view of it.
Annette McGavigan was the 100th civilian to die since the beginning of the troubles, the 40th to be killed by the Crown forces.
THE BRITISH ARMY’S VERSION OF EVENTS
The British army immediately released a statement alleging that they had been involved in a gun battle with republicans, and that they had actually hit a gunman in Eglinton Place.
They claimed they had come under fire from a gunman who fired at least nine shots, and that they had returned fire twice.
They continued: “In neither case was there anyone else in the line of fire. In the first case the gunman who had fired at the soldiers was seen to be hit. There were no casualties among the security forces.”
One soldier told the inquest that he was certain that he hit a gunman twice “at or about the chest”. There is no evidence of anyone, other than Annette
McGavigan, being hit by gunfire on the evening of 6 September 1971. If someone had been hit twice, “at or about the chest” by high velocity rounds they would at least have been very seriously injured. This could not have been hidden.
Three of the soldiers involved gave evidence to the inquest into the death of Annette McGavigan. In keeping with standard British practice, they were referred to only as soldiers ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’. Their statements to the inquest contradict not only the civilian version of events, but also each other.
Soldier A claims that shots from a ‘high velocity rifle’ were fired at the soldiers. Soldier B claims that the shots came first from a 9mm pistol, and then from a machine gun, while Soldier C refers only to a 9mm pistol.
No other witness, either civilian or military, refers to the machine gun fire allegedly heard by soldier B. Surely such a distinctive sound would have been heard by others? Why do none of the soldiers give the same description of the weapons they claim were being used against them? How come none of the civilian witnesses saw or heard anyone firing at the soldiers?
One of the civilian witnesses, Dr. MacDermott, told the inquest that he heard a total of five shots being fired. Soldier C claims that ten shots were fired at the soldiers, and that they returned five shots.
How could Dr. MacDermott not have heard the other ten shots? Soldier B describes six different shots, and then a burst from a machine gun, while Soldier A reports eleven shots. Again this contradicts both Soldier C and the civilian witnesses. Why do three soldiers, standing just yards apart, give different accounts of the amount of shots being fired at them?
There is, in fact, no evidence of any shots being fired at the soldiers that evening. No soldiers were injured, and neither the army nor the RUC were able to produce any physical evidence in the form of spent bullets or bullet marks around the area the soldiers were firing from. It is certain that if any such evidence existed it would have been well publicised.
Soldier B described the ‘rioters’ that were attacking the soldiers from Eglinton Place. He claimed: “There was no one between he [the alleged gunman] and I...there were no girls or anyone else between the gunman and myself...I don’t recall seeing any girls among them.”
This is in complete contradiction to the statement given by the first civilian witness who claimed, ‘there were about 30 youngsters, mainly girls’ in Eglinton Place. It is also contradicted by the very obvious fact that if there were no girls in the area, how could Annette McGavigan have been shot and killed in Eglinton Place? The soldiers all claim to have had a clear view of the ‘gunman’ at the far end of Eglinton Place, even describing the pistol he was holding more than one hundred yards away.
Yet none of them claim to have seen Annette McGavigan being shot. If they had such a clear view along Eglinton Place as they claim, how could they have missed this? All of their evidence must be questioned in light of the fact that they all seem to have missed the single most important event that took place right in front of them.
The soldiers’ statements used at the inquest were taken by a Warrant Officer from the Special Investigation Branch of the Military Police, a fellow British soldier. They were the only statements taken from the soldiers, one of whom shot and killed Annette McGavigan. This practice, of the army investigating itself was, like the many instances where the RUC has been allowed to investigate itself, ruled to be in contravention of basic human rights principles by the European Court of Human Rights in May 2001.
WHO KILLED ANNETTE McGAVIGAN?
The British Army’s reaction to the death of Annette McGavigan was to immediately claim that she had been killed by crossfire during a gun battle between the British Army and the IRA, and to imply that she had probably been killed by republicans. This line has continued in some quarters to this day, and even the normally reliable Lost Lives only goes so far as to say Annette was ‘apparently’ killed by a soldier.
This deliberate misinformation can be rejected for a number of reasons.
First of all, the first civilian eyewitness describes the crowd of ‘mainly girls’ running down Eglinton Place away from the Little Diamond.
This means that Annette McGavigan was running away from the soldiers when she was killed. The medical evidence shows that Annette McGavigan was shot in the back of the head. She could only have been shot from behind. The soldiers were behind her, the alleged IRA gunman in front. Also she was killed at the corner of Eglinton Place and Lisfannon Park. This is about 100-150 yards from where the soldiers were sited, but only four or five yards from where they claim the gunman was firing. The medical evidence is also clear on the fact that Annette was not killed from close range.
Secondly, even if the soldier’s accounts of the gunman are to be believed, the only specific descriptions given of the gunman at the end of Eglinton Place state categorically that he was armed with a pistol. This is a low velocity weapon. The pathologists report is very clear on the fact that Annette was killed by high velocity gunfire. The soldiers were armed with high velocity rifles. The only high velocity weapons proven to have been fired were in the hands of the soldiers.
Finally, while there is no doubt that there were soldiers involved, and that they opened fire, this is not denied by anyone, there is no evidence of gunfire from any other source.
Despite what the British Army have tried to imply over the last thirty-one years, there is no doubt that the British army killed Annette McGavigan. They fired into a crowd of young people, in clear contradiction of legal guidelines, and killed a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl.
There is absolutely no evidence of a proper investigation into the death of Annette McGavigan. The RUC map produced for the inquest does not even show where Annette was killed. Neither the British army nor the RUC have ever contacted the McGavigan family to offer any condolences, explain what had happened, to apologise for shooting Annette dead or indeed investigate the circumstances as required by law. None of the soldiers involved were ever charged in connection with her death.
In July 2002, following a request from the Pat Finucane Centre, the RUC/PSNI invited members of Annette’s family to a meeting to “acquaint them with the facts of the case.” At the meeting it was admitted that they were unable to produce any investigation file.
The only document that the PSNI were able to produce, which was shown to the family, was a terse statement from the then Northern Ireland Attorney General.
Given the lack of any RUC investigation it was no surprise that it read, “there is no evidence available in the file sent to justify any criminal prosecution.”
If the Attorney General was doing his duty, he would not have directed ‘no prosecution’ on the basis of the inadequate RUC investigation file he was given, but demanded a proper investigation.
The laws on ‘right to life’ also contain the right to a proper investigation of a controversial death. Annette McGavigan was denied the right to life. Following her death her family were denied the right to an adequate investigation.
Documents that have recently come to light at the Bloody Sunday Inquiry show that at the time Annette was killed, there was a tacit agreement between the RUC and the British army that killings by soldiers would not be investigated.
The document referred to a lecture given by a British officer in 1973, in which he stated: “Back in 1970 a decision was reached between the GOC and the Chief Constable whereby RMP (Royal Military Police) would tend to military witnesses and the RUC to civilian witnesses in the investigation of offences and incidents.
“With both RMP and RUC sympathetic to the soldier, who after all was doing an incredibly difficult job, he was highly unlikely to make a statement incriminating himself...
“It was equally unlikely that RUC would prefer charges against soldiers except in the most extreme circumstances.”
Last year, it emerged the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) had been refusing to release documents in relation to Annette’s death despite the fact “almost identical” information has been available to the public for more than forty years.
Martin McGavigan, Annette’s brother, described the revelation as “the ultimate insult”.
“Sometimes I feel as if they’re waiting for us to die, to just go away. But we’re going nowhere. There will always be someone to fight for truth and justice for Annette”.