The speech made by Louise Haigh, the Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, in the House of Commons on 13 May 2021.
As the Secretary of State has outlined, in five separate shootings across three days in August 1971 in the Ballymurphy estate in west Belfast, 10 innocent civilians were shot dead, nine by the armed forces, with evidence unable conclusively to determine in the tenth case. Among them were a priest, a mother of eight and a former soldier who had fought and was injured in world war two. Fifty-seven children were left without a parent—their lives for ever changed. Yet the trauma of the murders was undoubtedly compounded by what followed: families prevented from finding comfort by lies told about their loved ones that have haunted them down the decades, and a fight for the truth hampered by entirely inadequate investigations and wholly unjustifiable obstacles. Who cannot be struck by the dignity and tenacity of those families who, in the face of those obstacles, have fought for the truth and finally, this week, have been vindicated?
The conclusions of Justice Keegan are clear and irrefutable: those who lost their lives were posing no threat; their deaths were without justification. They were Francis Quinn, Father Hugh Mullan, Noel Phillips, Joan Connolly, Daniel Teggart, Joseph Murphy, Eddie Doherty, John Laverty, Joseph Corr and John McKerr. An eleventh man, Paddy McCarthy, a youth worker, died from a heart attack. That families have had to wait for so long to clear their name is a profound failure of justice and one we must learn from, because, as the Secretary of State said, many more families are still fighting for answers. They include Cathy McCann, who in 1990 was the sole survivor of a Provisional IRA bomb in Armagh in which a nun and three policemen were killed. Twenty-one years earlier, her father had been killed by the auxiliary police force, the B Specials.
This ongoing failure to find the truth is an open wound that ties Northern Ireland perpetually to the past. Burying the truth and refusing to prosecute or investigate crimes has not worked in the 23 years since the signing of the Belfast Good Friday agreement, so how can anyone in this House look victims like Cathy in the eye and tell her she must move on? The Government gave victims such as Cathy McCann their word. Through the Stormont House agreement, they promised to establish a comprehensive system to look at all outstanding legacy cases through effective investigations and a process that would, where possible, deliver the truth and the prospect of justice. Yet last Wednesday night, victims found out on Twitter that the Government intend to tear up that plan and provide an effective amnesty to those who took lives. The statement today brings us no closer to understanding the Government’s policy to deal with the legacy of the past.
The lessons of the past are clear: addressing the legacy through the unilateral imposition of an amnesty from Westminster, without the faintest hint of consultation with victims or the support of communities or any political party in Northern Ireland or the Irish Government, would be impossible to deliver. It would make reconciliation harder, and it would not achieve what the Government claim they want. Any process that remains open to legal challenge will invite test cases and bring more veterans back through the courts.
I will finish with a comment on the Prime Minister’s actions—or lack of them—over the past two days. In the aftermath of the Bloody Sunday inquiry, David Cameron came to this House and apologised in a statement. He did not brief apologies from disputed calls with politicians. He took full responsibility. Where is the Prime Minister today, and why has he not publicly apologised to the Ballymurphy families and to this House? Will he take responsibility as Prime Minister and show the victims the respect they so obviously deserve? Victims like those who lost loved ones at Ballymurphy have been let down for far too long. Ministers should bear in mind the words of one victim I spoke with yesterday, as they worked through the next steps of legacy:
“I just want to know what happened. I want to know my dad’s life meant something. I just want the truth.”