The family of 14 year-old schoolgirl, Annette McGavigan, who was shot dead in Derry by the British Army in 1971, have written the following open letter to the British Direct Ruler Brandon Lewis accusing his government of treating them shamefully.
The soldier who shot our sister has never been interviewed by police or given a statement under caution. But he is not unknown. The British Army know who he is.
You said recently that the ‘vast majority of killings’ by the British Army were ‘lawful.’ To be ‘lawful’, they would have to be investigated. Annette’s killing, like the killing weeks earlier of Eamon McDevitt, in Strabane, or of Billy Mc Greanery or Kathleen Thompson weeks later in Derry, were never investigated. Were these all ‘lawful’ killings, Brandon Lewis? You are an officer of the court, a barrister sworn to uphold the law. Are you seriously telling us that these killings were ‘lawful’?
Let us tell you about the ‘investigation’ into Annette’s violent death. Hours after she was shot, the British Army claimed to have killed a ‘gunman’. But it was Annette’s dead body the ambulance delivered to Altnagelvin Hospital. The RUC also claimed that a ‘gunman’ had been killed and suggested that the ‘deceased was hit by a ricochet bullet’.
An official report years later from the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) confirmed that the entry wound was NOT caused by a ricochet. But it didn’t matter because the RUC made no attempt to find out what really happened. Only one civilian witness gave evidence at the 1972 inquest. Three soldiers, A, B and C, provided statements but did not attend. They contradicted each other on virtually every important detail. It was a farce. Our family was not legally represented.
The soldiers had given statements to the Royal Military Police (RMP). Recently, a judge at the trial of two soldiers in Belfast said the following about the role of the RMP between 1970 and 1973: ‘At that time, in fact until late 1973, an understanding was in place between the RUC and the Army whereby the RUC did not arrest and question, or even take witness statements from, soldiers involved in shootings such as this one. This appalling practice was designed, at least in part, to protect soldiers from being prosecuted and in very large measure it succeeded.’
A large number of unarmed civilians were killed by the British Army during those years, including our Annette. A judge, in 2021, has ruled that a system was in place to protect soldiers and described it as ‘appalling’. How does an officer of the court such as yourself, Mr Lewis, view such an illegal process designed to pervert the course of justice? And how do you reach the conclusion that the ‘vast majority of killings were lawful’?
In the intervening years, with the help of the Pat Finucane Centre, we met British ministers who were usually clueless and RUC officers who were usually dismissive. For years, the Ministry of Defence claimed not even to know which regiment was in the Bogside that evening. When our solicitor, Patricia Coyle, sought records, a previously unknown procedure, called the Chancellors Instrument, was used to deny us access to classified documents.
We then engaged, despite concerns, with the HET. The HET did not interview the soldier who shot Annette and it was eventually wound up after an official report found it had afforded special status to former soldiers and had not carried out investigations as required under European human rights law. We were again left adrift and without any proper investigation ever having been carried out.
We wrote to the Attorney General in 2017 to request a new inquest. Instead, it was referred to the PSNI Legacy Investigation Branch. There it sat for several years because your government would not provide resources to allow for investigations as European law stipulates you must. In 2018, we were told that the case would be prioritised.
Now, your government is proposing that all legacy investigations, all Troubles inquests, all civil actions would be blocked under new legislation. Any possibility of an Article 2 compliant investigation would be snatched from us. The soldier who shot Annette will never have to account for his actions, will never be questioned. This is your doing and you are a barrister.
You, your Prime Minister and the military wing of your party want an amnesty for your soldiers. You were born just 11 weeks before Annette was killed. You have no idea what was happening here in 1971 and what your troops did to brutalise our communities. But you have decided that the rule of law, the protection of the law, does not apply to Irish people, not even children. Shame on you, Brandon Lewis. We will not give up that easily.