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Prime Minister’s letter to Ballymurphy families ‘unacceptable’

·5-min read

The Ballymurphy families have received a letter from the Prime Minister in which Boris Johnson expressed his personal sorrow for the “terrible hurt that has been caused” by the deaths of 10 innocent civilians 50 years ago.

On Tuesday, coroner Mrs Justice Keegan found that those who died in Belfast in August 1971 were “entirely innocent”.

She found that nine of the 10 had been killed by soldiers, and that the use of lethal force was not justified.

The letter was received by the families as Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis told the House of Commons that the Government was “truly sorry” for the killings.

In his letter the Prime Minister said: “I unequivocally accept the findings of the coroner.

“Those who died over that terrible period were innocent of any wrongdoing.

“The events at Ballymurphy should never have happened.

“You should never have had to experience such grief at the loss of your loved ones and such distress in your subsequent quest for truth.”

He continued: “The duty of the State is to hold itself to the highest standard and that requires us to recognise the hurt and agony caused when we fall short of those standards.

“For what happened on those terrible few days in Ballymurphy, and for what the families have gone through since you began your brave and dignified campaign almost five decades ago, I am truly sorry.

“I recognise that no words of apology can make up for the lasting pain that you have endured.

“Thank you for the dignity and strength you have shown.”

However, the Ballymurphy families, who had gathered for a press conference in Belfast, were left angered by the timing and the content of the letter.

Their solicitor, Padraig O Muirigh, broke down as he read out Mr Johnson’s letter, saying he had been left upset by the “disgraceful conduct” of the Prime Minister.

The families were also angered by Mr Johnson’s use of the word “events” to describe the Ballymurphy deaths.

John Teggart, whose father was killed by a soldier at Ballymurphy, said the main emotion from the families was anger.

He said: “There is no mention of a massacre, there is no mention of the Paras.

“If this was to be done right he would have sat back, took his time, consulted with the families before he put that out.

“The manner in which he has done it is totally unacceptable to the families.”

The families held a meeting with Sinn Fein President Mary-Lou McDonald.

Speaking after that meeting Ms McDonald said: “We have met with the families.

“They have articulated their very great anger with the botched way in which the British Prime Minister has approached the issue of an apology.

“An apology which is, frankly, the least that these families are entitled to, an apology that recognises the full truth and horror of what happened here in Ballymurphy over three days 50 years ago in 1971.

“These families are heroic, nothing short of that.

“They have shown a dignity, courage, resilience and stamina which is unmatched and I think Boris Johnson could do well to borrow from these families some of that dignity, some of that sense of purpose and he certainly needs to recognise what happened here.”

She added: “They have their truth now and I know that they are intent on receiving justice.”

The letter sent from Prime Minister Boris Johnson (Brian Lawless/PA)
The letter sent from Prime Minister Boris Johnson (Brian Lawless/PA)

In his statement in the Commons, Brandon Lewis said: “The findings of the coroner are clear, those who died were entirely innocent of wrongdoing.

“The events at Ballymurphy should never have happened.

“The families of those who were killed should never have had to experience the grief and trauma of that loss.

“They should have not had to wait almost five decades for judgment this week, nor been compelled to relive that terrible time in August 1971 again and again in their long and distressing quest for the truth.”

He added: “There is no doubt that what happened on those awful few days in Ballymurphy also fuelled further violence and escalation, particularly in the early years of the Troubles.

“The Government profoundly regrets and is truly sorry for these events and how investigations after these terrible events were handled, and for the additional pain that the families have had to endure in their fight to clear the names of their loved ones.”

Mr Lewis said “thousands of murders remain unresolved” in Northern Ireland, with many families yearning for answers.

Innocent victims of the Ballymurphy killings (Ballymurphy Massacre Committee/PA)
Innocent victims of the Ballymurphy killings (Ballymurphy Massacre Committee/PA)

He told MPs: “With each passing year the integrity of evidence and the prospect of prosecution do diminish, and the Government is not shrinking away from those challenges.

“We are determined to address them in a way that reflects the time that has passed, the complexity of Northern Ireland’s troubled history and the reality of compromises that have already been made.

“But above all we’re determined to address it in a way that enables victims and survivors to get to the truth which they deserve.

“We must never ignore or dismiss the past, learning what we can, we must find a way to move beyond it and the coroner’s findings this week are part of that very often painful process.

“This Government wants to deliver a way forward in addressing the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland, one that will allow all individuals of families who want information to seek and receive answers about what happened during the Troubles with far less delay and distress.

“We want a path forward which will also pave the way for wider societal reconciliation for all communities, allowing all the people of Northern Ireland to focus on building a shared, stable, peaceful and prosperous future.”

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