‘No more delays’ - why must family wait until 2059?

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A woman who wasn’t even born when her big brother was killed by a plastic bullet in Derry says she wants to know why a secret file into his death has to remain closed until she is nearly 80 years old.

Emma Whitters’ fifteen year old brother, Paul, from Belview Avenue, was shot by an RUC officer during rioting at Great James’ Street in April 1981. He died in hospital 10 days later.

A Police Ombudsman’s report in 2007 found that Paul, who was struck on the head, did not pose a threat when he was shot at under the minimum permitted range of 20 metres for firing plastic bullets. The ombudsman said the RUC had failed afterwards to obtain statements from civilians who witnessed the shooting.

Emma Whitters, who lives in Scotland, cannot access the official papers relating to her brother’s death until their scheduled release date of 2059.

“As the youngest in the family, I’ll be 76 years old before this file is opened,” she says. “I’d like to know why. Families have a right to the truth about why their relatives were killed.”

Ms Whitters says that, in 2018, she helped her mum, Helen, make a submission to a consultation process into the legacy of the past conflict and wants to know the outcome.

“I’d like to remind the committee that false consultation is more damaging than no consultation at all,” she said.

“By inviting responses, you are asking people to relive the most painful parts of their lives, to revisit trauma and to share their most distressing memories. You can only ask people to do this if there is a genuine commitment to listening and acting on people’s experiences and to valuing their contributions.”

Ms Whitters says her family continues to “wrestle” with the British State over the release of classified files.

“As the government consults on and seeks to determine the legacy of the conflict, we’d like to know if denying families access to information on the killing of their children is part and parcel of the culture of this legacy?”

The Whitters’ campaign for justice and many others have been supported by the Pat Finucane Centre, a human rights advocacy group based in Derry. A spokesperson said many families bereaved by the conflict were frustrated and angry at the lack of any meaningful movement on the legacy issue.

“Some of these families have been waiting up to five decades for access to the truth about what happened to their loved ones,” he said.

The centre said the British government had committed to mechanisms to address the legacy of the past in the Stormont House Agreement in 2014 but, to date, had failed to implement them.

They have urged people to get involved by writing to the British Direct Ruler Brandon Lewis at sos@nio.gov.uk and tell him: “No more delays”.

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