Widespread revulsion has greeted a statement by the British Direct Ruler Karen Bradley that killings by members of the Crown Forces in the north of Ireland are “not crimes”.
In a clearly planned statement to MPs at Westminster, Bradley said that killings by British soldiers and police in Ireland were the actions of people “acting under orders and under instruction and fulfilling their duty in a dignified and appropriate way”.
The response was an outcry of anger, horror and trauma. The timing couldn’t have been worse; it came as an inquest heard the most shocking details of the murders perpetrated by British soldiers during the Ballymurphy massacre, in which eleven entirely innocent civilians were shot dead. It also comes within days of a decision about the prosecutions of soldiers in connection with the Bloody Sunday massacre, in which another fourteen civilians, peacefully protesting for their civil rights, were gunned down in cold blood.
The statement has also fed into increasing fears over a public abandonment of the peace process by the British government.
The brother of one Bloody Sunday victim described the comments as “like a statement from a colonial governor of the past, lording over people.”
Liam Wray, brother of 22-year-old Jim Wray who was shot dead by a British paratrooper on Bloody Sunday in January, said he was surprised that she was “so blatant and open about it”. He said it certainly wasn’t a slip of the tongue. “It wasn’t a word out of place, it was a clear statement, like some colonial governor of the past lording over people to say it was not a crime for British soldiers to kill people here in Northern Ireland.”
Bradley’s statement was in line with recent comments by right-wing Tories and unionists, and reflects the practical rules of engagement for British soldiers deployed to other international conflict zones. It also follows from her previous statement that “we have got to find a way of getting our soldiers off this hook [prosecution]”.
On Wednesday evening, she declined to apologise, but issued a clarification to say she had corrected the parliamentary record to say that “alleged wrongdoing should always be investigated”. On Thursday she issued a further statement, claiming the language she used “was wrong” and “insensitive” and that she was “sorry for the offence and hurt caused”.
When asked about Bradley’s claim that she was misinterpreted, and was expressing a general view rather than referring to any particular case, Mr Wray said: “She thought she could get away with it, to say it was a slip of the tongue. It was certainly not a misunderstood statement, it was a clear statement that British soldiers did not commit crimes when they murdered people.”
John Kelly, whose brother Michael was also killed on Bloody Sunday, said the comments were insulting to the memory of his teenage brother, adding that an ‘apology was not enough, she has to go’.
“If you look at what happened on Bloody Sunday - Jim Wray was executed on the ground, Kevin McElhinney was crawling on his hands and knees when he was shot and Paddy Doherty was exactly the same. Was that dignified and appropriate? Good God almighty!”
He said the timing of Ms Bradley’s comments was ‘no coincidence.’
“I believe it is political interference on her part ahead of the decision of the PPS next Thursday. I can’t look at it any other way. She is trying to interfere in due process and undermine the work of the PPS and force that office to let these soldiers off the hook.”
Mr Kelly dismissed suggestions that Ms Bradley made the comments ‘off the top of her head.’
“Karen Bradley is a politician and she was well briefed about the questions she was going to face. She knew exactly what she was going to say.
“She is an apologist for British Army killers. I am calling for her to resign because she is damaged goods. She can’t represent the people of the North any longer as she is supposed to be impartial.”
John Finucane, who witnessed his lawyer father get shot dead by British agents, said the remarks were “indefensible”.
“Legally, politically and morally these comments are indefensible, yet is it really surprising to hear a Secretary of State publicly express the contempt we know the British government had for lives here?
Relatives of those killed in shootings involving the British Army in Ballymurphy in west Belfast in 1971 refused a request to meet the British Direct Ruler.
“What Karen Bradley said is that the soldiers who murdered my father - 14 bullets went through his body, ripped chunks out of his body - that soldier acted in a dignified and appropriate way,” said John Teggart, whose father Danny was shot at Ballymurphy.
“For Mrs Bradley to come out with insulting, despicable insults to families, it’s an absolute disgrace.”
Briege Voyle, whose mother Joan Connolly was another one of those shot dead at Ballymurphy, said Mrs Bradley should “hang her head in shame and leave”.
“We had to sit in there yesterday, me and my sisters, and listen to the horrific things that those soldiers did to my mummy. Blew half her face off, shot her in the thigh, shot her in the hand,” she said.
“And she’s telling me these soldiers did this with dignity? Where was the dignity in that? Where was my mummy’s dignity, where was my mummy’s right to life?”
Another relative of a victim of British state killings said Bradley’s attempt at an apology was ‘too little, too late’.
Billy McGreanery, whose uncle William was shot dead by a soldier as he was walking near a British spypost near the Bogside in 1971, said Bradley ‘had to go.’
“My reading of this is this was their hidden agenda for the last 50 years. The British government isn’t that stupid. I believe this was the mask slipping, and slipping badly.”
Former Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan said that Karen Bradley should be “removed from office”. She said she had shown “a total lack of comprehension of Northern Ireland.”
“We cannot continue to have a Secretary of State who is in a state of such ignorance,” Mrs. O’Loan said. She said the “comments show a complete disregard for the operation of the rule of law.
“Moreover, they also demonstrate a total lack of understanding about Northern Ireland and utter contempt for those who suffered the loss of loved ones.”
A lawyer acting for victims of state killings has said future trials involving Crown Force members must be held in non-jury ‘Diplock’ courts. Darragh Mackin, of Phoenix Law, said following Ms Bradley’s comments “there can be no argument that all of the pending trials must be Diplock because any chance of a jury being objective is now gone”.
He warned the remarks could also have other legal consequences.
“There is a real and imminent risk of contempt of court,” he said. “When the Secretary of State of a jurisdiction speaks out like this she is usurping the role of a jury and usurping the role of a court.”
A PICTURE MESSAGE
On Friday, some families agreed to meet Bradley at her request. They gave her a photograph of an 11-year-old Derry boy in his coffin after he was shot dead by the British Army.
Stephen McConomy, who was shot and killed by a plastic bullet close to his home in Derry in 1982. The photographs of the schoolboy included one of him in his school uniform two weeks before he was killed, another of him on a life support machine and one of him in his coffin.
Representatives from the campaign group Relatives for Justice said Mrs Bradley was left “speechless” at the images. Mark Thompson, CEO of Relatives for Justice, denounced as a “miserable spectacle” Bradley’s attempts to explain her comments, which he said were “a political attempt at direct interference in due process and the rule of law concerning any future prosecutions in cases of state killings.
“The comments are odious, disgusting and deeply offensive. They add further hurt to those affected by state violence and collusion.
“Karen Bradley and the Tory government have clearly demonstrated the deep-seated bias and partial approach to legacy that characterised that of Theresa Villiers when she used the term “pernicious narratives” to describe families’ pursuit of truth and justice about collusion.”
SDLP councillor Denise Mullen, whose father Denis was shot dead in 1975 by the British-infiltrated Glenanne Gang, also spoke of the “hurt” caused by Karen Bradley’s comments.
The gang, which included members of the RUC, UDR and UVF, is believed to have killed more than 100 people during a sectarian campaign in the 1970s.
“(Ms Bradley) has shown herself time and again to have no knowledge of the dynamics of the north,” she said. She has no idea, for people suffering PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), how those comments make them feel.”
Sinn Fein leader in the North, Michelle O’Neill, described the comments as “outrageous” and “offensive”.
“It follows on from comments by the British prime minster indicating that the British government is planning legislation to protect serving and former British soldiers who may have committed crimes.”
She added that what the Tories have said this week was “merely to give the game away”.
Saoradh said the comments were a reminder that Britain has consistently demonstrated that it views Irish people as “subhuman” and “undeserving of recourse to truth and justice, in the same way others that have endured her colonialist world view”.
In the US, Democratic Congressman Brendan Boyle described the comments as “deeply troubling”.
“To say the killings by British soldiers and police during the Troubles were ‘not a crime’ serves little purpose but to anger victims’ families and stoke the fires of division and misunderstanding,” he said.