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Private Gary Barlow

Volume 530: debated on Monday 20 June 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Stephen Crabb.)

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the case of Private Gary Barlow, who served with the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment, was shot in Northern Ireland on 4 March 1973 and died early the next morning. He was 19 years old.

There may be those who wonder why a case that is now nearly 40 years old should be debated on the Floor of the House. My answer is simple: it is about justice for Gary, for his family and for the people who tried to save him. Not only was Gary Barlow tragically killed, but his bravery was never properly recognised and his family suffered, and continue to suffer, both because of his death and because of what happened to them after it. It is in the hope that we can at least provide some recognition of Gary’s bravery tonight, and at least some modicum of comfort to his family, that I have asked for this debate.

Gary’s death was investigated by the Historical Enquiries Team set up by the Police Service of Northern Ireland in 2005 to investigate any deaths that were attributable to what we still call the troubles, and to try to bring some resolution to the families involved. It is, of course, very difficult to bring things to a conclusion after so much time has elapsed. Some witnesses are no longer available and some documents are no longer there. However, the inquiry team did a very thorough job, and the basic facts of what happened to Gary on that day are now clear. I want to summarise them, if I may—and it will be a summary, not a full account, because of the time available.

On 4 March Gary was part of a patrol that was sent to the Divis flats to carry out a search operation. A soldier had been shot and wounded there earlier in the day. The soldiers searched some premises, and then joined others in a Saracen armoured personnel carrier. At that point they heard a shot, and the men got out to deploy in defensive positions. Those at the Army observation post on the top of the Divis flats pinpointed where they thought the gunman was, and the soldiers were ordered to carry out a search. They encountered some difficulties in doing so, but they used the Saracen to ram the doors of the garage opposite, and Gary and another soldier were ordered to search that building.

Not surprisingly in the context of the time, a hostile crowd gathered. As the situation deteriorated and the light was fading, the lieutenant in charge ordered his men to withdraw. They all got back into the Saracen, except Gary. No roll-call was taken at the time. It appears from witness statements that the lieutenant asked the two corporals to account for all their men. Gary’s corporal shouted to ask whether they were all back, and someone said yes. It was only when the patrol got back to base that Gary’s room-mate realised that he was missing. At the same time, two young girls arrived, sent by a woman in the Divis flats, at some considerable risk to herself and to them, to tell the Army that a soldier had been left behind.

A patrol later found Gary, face down on the floor of that garage, shot and bleeding profusely from a head wound. He was given medical care by the Royal Army Medical Corps and taken to hospital, but tragically he died early the next morning. The Provisional IRA claimed responsibility for Gary’s death, but no one was ever charged with his murder, although several people were investigated and a number of searches were carried out. Again, in the context of the time, when it was difficult to get people to co-operate with the police, that is entirely understandable.

However, in one raid, Gary’s rifle was found. It had not been fired. When the inquiry team investigated the case, as well as looking at the facts, they considered concerns raised by Gary’s family that his hearing had been damaged in an earlier incident. The team found in his service record a note of an incident on 5 February that year. They thought that that may have related to an earlier incident in the Divis flats, when soldiers were attacked by a blast bomb. They acknowledged that Gary’s family received a call shortly afterwards from one of his friends who said that he could not speak on the phone because his hearing had been damaged. The inquiry team therefore concluded that it was likely that Gary did not hear the order to withdraw, either because of where he was in the building, or because his hearing had been damaged earlier.

The facts of Gary’s death are tragic enough. However, I also believe that he and his family were let down by what happened on that day and by their treatment later. The first question of course is whether Gary was fit for duty that day. The inquiry team was not able to resolve that satisfactorily because his Army medical records were not available. However, I think that his family and others would want to know that lessons have been learnt and that no soldier will again be put in such a position when their hearing might be impaired.

There were also failures on the part of the lieutenant and the corporal in command of Gary’s section that day. Even when due allowances are made for the stress that they were under at that time, and for the extremely difficult situation in which they found themselves, they should have made sure that all their men were accounted for. The British Army expects very high standards of its officers and non-commissioned officers. Those standards are generally met and even exceeded. However, on this occasion, they fell short and that mistake led to Gary’s death.

The Ministry of Defence later wrote Gary’s parents a very detailed letter. It put the failure down to the very difficult operational circumstances that prevailed at the time. However, the inquiry team pointed out that those circumstances prevailed throughout Northern Ireland and that they would nevertheless have expected what they called military discipline and training to kick in to ensure that a proper roll-call was taken.

It was not, and it appears from the evidence that Gary, left alone, was attacked by a group of youths. Some women in the area urged him to leave. He refused to leave his post. Remember that it seems that this young man was not aware that he had been ordered to withdraw. He stood his ground and fought back. He did not discharge his rifle. His family believes—and it seems reasonable—that he did not do so to avoid the possibility of injury to civilians. Eventually, he was shot in the head and neck. The inquiry team said that, in not firing his rifle and in standing his ground, he displayed courage and strength of character. I believe he did more than that: he acted in the finest tradition of the British Army, both in refusing to leave his post and trying to stand his ground, and in trying to avoid injury to civilians. We should remember that this was a young man of only 19. Many who are older and more experienced would have done less, but he held out until the end.

Gary’s bravery, however—this is the sad thing—was never properly recognised. His family have fought for a long time to find out the true circumstances of his death, and to ensure that he is recognised. I pay tribute to them this evening, especially to his parents and his sister, Tina. They did so even though they themselves suffered after his death. They were not notified of the inquest, for instance, even though his father had expressed a wish to attend. In fact, they read the inquest verdict in the Daily Mirror. I ask the House to try to comprehend how it must be to lose a son in such circumstances, and then for the family to read about an inquest that they did not know had taken place.

Gary’s things were returned to his family in a slovenly way—in boxes, without even a note or covering letter—thus increasing their grief. Most of all, as well as letters of condolence, they received death threats. As a result, they were advised by the police to leave their home. They have only just returned to the Warrington area.

Nevertheless, they have sought recognition for the bravery of their son and brother. That bravery has been recognised elsewhere. The inquiry team discovered one of the young girls who was sent to the Army post on that day—of course, she is now a grown woman. She said that her mother was too frail to be interviewed by the team, but that she nevertheless prayed for Gary every day. She also said that once a year, the women in the area organised a mass for the repose of his soul. We should remember that those women were in a staunchly republican area of Belfast, yet they recognised the bravery of that young man.

We should do no less. I know that it is too late for Gary to receive a gallantry award. His mother received the Elizabeth cross last year—I am proud that Labour introduced that—but as the Minister and hon. Members will know, the Elizabeth cross recognises the sacrifice of the families of those who are killed on operations, and is not in itself a gallantry award for the person killed. However, that young man behaved admirably, and I hope that we can tonight finally put on the record our appreciation of his bravery.

Gary’s family gave him to the Army and to his country. Let us be honest, even after all these years: he was let down, and they were let down. People who join the forces expect to put their lives on the line if necessary, but they also expect proper care to be taken of their welfare and, if they are killed, proper care to be taken of the welfare of their families. In that way, we failed, yet I have never once heard Gary’s family complain. Their only concern is for him.

I once said to Gary’s mother, “You must be very proud of him, Mrs Barlow.” She replied, very simply, “Yes, I am.” This young man was a fine British soldier and a very brave young man indeed. It is time that we recognised that. His mother is proud of him; we should be proud of him too. I hope the Minister can put on the record tonight how much we as a country appreciate the sacrifice that Gary made, and ensure that the lessons have been learned, so that never again will a family be put in this situation.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for securing this debate on the very tragic death of Private Gary Barlow slightly over 38 years ago. As it happens, I know the Divis flats and the observation tower. I have served and seen the difficulties of operating there, as did the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment in 1973.

Private Barlow joined the Army in 1970 and went into the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment, and he deployed to Northern Ireland with his regiment in the early years of Operation Banner, at the end of 1972, when the violence in Northern Ireland was at its height. Tragically he was killed in Belfast on 5 March 1973 aged just 19. There was absolutely no doubt who killed him: responsibility for his death was admitted by the IRA and the murderous thugs who supported it in the Divis flats. He was part of a four-man patrol that had deployed to search an area following a series of shooting incidents. The patrol was forced to withdraw rapidly as a hostile crowd had gathered, and Private Barlow was in the process of searching a garage at the time and did not withdraw with the rest of his unit, as we have heard.

Unfortunately it was not until later that Private Barlow’s patrol realised that he was missing—the hon. Lady brought out one or two very good points about that—and returned to retrieve him, by which time he had been shot and injured by the IRA. Tragically, he succumbed to his injuries in hospital later that night. Had he lived, Private Barlow would have seen his 58th birthday this week. He was one of more than 250,000 service personnel who saw service in Northern Ireland during the 38 years of Operation Banner, which was the longest single operation ever mounted by the British Army. The Army demonstrated a resolute, disciplined and flexible attitude towards adapting to a unique deployment of military forces on UK territory—it was never a happy occasion. The resilience that our soldiers displayed over such a long period and under extremely difficult circumstances greatly contributed to the peace that now exists. They and the community at large have suffered death and injury, and we should again take this opportunity to remember their commitment, bravery and sacrifice, and that of Private Barlow.

In recognition of the ultimate sacrifice paid by Private Barlow, his mother, Mrs Rona Barlow, has already been presented with the Elizabeth cross and the memorial scroll. The Elizabeth cross is awarded as a symbol of national recognition of the sacrifice and loss of those UK armed forces personnel who have died on operations or owing to acts of terrorism. It is a reminder of the contribution made by those who have paid the ultimate price for our freedom and our security, and of how highly their service is valued. Regrettably, however, it is not for me to recommend that Private Barlow be given a further award. Our honours and awards system relies on the bestowal of gallantry awards soon after the event for which it is believed an individual’s actions should be recognised.

The convention adhered to is that no award can be made for an event that took place more than five years previously. To rely on incomplete and sometimes contradictory or anecdotal evidence so long after the event can be regarded as a slight to those commanders at all levels whose task it was to reward the most deserving as they judged at the time. This system has been developed over many years, and is designed to ensure that the process by which awards are made is fair and consistent, and it has stood the test of time. Neither the present Government nor any previous Administration have departed from the strict rule that British gallantry awards are not granted retrospectively.

Recommendations for gallantry awards are generated by commanders in the field and scrutinised at a number of levels by military committees, the last of which is the Armed Forces Operational Awards Committee, which comprises five senior officers representing all three services, and which ultimately recommends to Her Majesty the Queen who should receive awards. This process is completely independent of political influence, and it would not be possible—nor would it be right—for me to seek to influence this process. On a personal note, however, I would like to take this opportunity to pass on my condolences to Mrs Barlow for the loss of her son, and to express my deep gratitude for his service to this country and her dignity in grief. I would also like to take this opportunity to put it on the record that we are fortunate to have individuals such as Gary Barlow, both then and now, who are willing to demonstrate their bravery by serving with our armed forces. In the words of his commanding officer while expressing his and his regiment’s sadness and horror at Private Barlow’s death:

“He was a fine boy and a good and brave soldier”.

I am told—the hon. Lady mentioned this too—that the family were subjected to intense and often unwelcome media and public scrutiny, and to threats. I am sincerely sorry for the additional distress that this must have caused them. In the 1970s, when Private Barlow was killed, very little support was offered to bereaved families by the military, so I would also like to take this opportunity to reassure his family and the House that measures now exist to prevent other families from suffering the same experience.

Each death of a member of our armed forces is a tragedy—for their comrades and the country, but most especially for their family, such as Private Barlow’s family. As the years have progressed, I believe that we have got better at learning the lessons from each death, both in the field and in how we help and support the families left behind. Gone now are the days when the first that a family heard about the death of their loved one was a tersely worded official telegram. Despite the challenges of 24-hour media, we are largely successful at ensuring that families hear from us before impromptu and unofficial sources when a tragedy occurs. Sadly, with the increasing operational tempo since 9/11, we have learned a lot about loss and grief, and so have steadily improved the support and help available to families who lose a loved one. Every effort is made to ensure that the next of kin are informed as soon as possible by those who are appropriately trained, and a period of grace is given before the official announcement is made. It grieves me to say that this is going on even this week, as we know.

Since 2005 we have appointed and trained both casualty notification officers and visiting officers, so that the support that we offer families is not provided by those associated with the delivery of the worst news. Our dedicated visiting officers are able to guide, support and assist families through the difficult times of the repatriation ceremony, funeral arrangements and the return of their loved one’s effects. The hon. Lady was quite right to draw attention to the way in which this could sometimes be done in an arbitrary manner, with the arrival of some boxes containing a loved one’s effects. Visiting officers can be assigned to a bereaved family for six to nine months, but support remains available through the Army’s inquiries and aftercare support cell, right up to an inquest and beyond, unlike in 1973.

All families show different reactions to the loss of a loved one. Our visiting officers are trained to understand the differences and react accordingly, so that the level of support received is determined by the need of the family. The support is therefore enduring in nature and co-ordinated in provision. In addition to giving emotional support, the visiting officer can act as a conduit to practical support regarding pensions, counselling and financial matters. This includes access to public funds that are available to help families attend the significant events associated with their bereavement, helping with funeral expenses, travel to the repatriation, funeral and inquest, and accommodation. Public funds are also available to help families after their initial period of grief and mourning to move on with their lives, through the continuity of education allowance, the maintenance of the living overseas allowance, the ability to remain in service accommodation for up to two years and the transfer of the resettlement allowance. These are changes that have happened since 1973.

I referred earlier to the lessons that are now learned in the field. The Army keeps all its procedures under continuous review to ensure the safety of its personnel. Additionally, systems exist at various levels to identify lessons from incidents and make recommendations to take action to prevent similar circumstances from arising in future, including, where necessary, a statutory service inquiry and, when there is a death during operations, a service police investigation. We are not complacent. Despite the strides that have been made in recent years, we recognise that more can always be done. The armed forces covenant, which was published on 16 May, sets out what service personnel and their families can expect from the Government and the nation in recognition of what we ask them to do to keep us safe. The Government are determined to remove disadvantages encountered as a result of service, as well as ensuring that the armed forces community receives the recognition to which it is entitled. By publishing the covenant we have a clear sense of what we are trying to achieve and have established the right direction of travel that will allow us to do so.

As a nation, we have an obligation to our servicemen and women who, like Gary Barlow, commit themselves to the service of this country and risk paying the ultimate price to keep us safe, as well as to the families who support their loved ones in the armed forces through good times and bad. Our commitment to them should be just as enduring, and with the publication of the covenant, we believe that we have established a way of ensuring that this commitment does not waver. The nation will hold us to account.

I reiterate what I said to the hon. Lady earlier. This was an awful tragedy. As it happens, I also joined the Army in 1970, and to think of a young man of 19 being killed in that way in Northern Ireland must bring us all grief. I hope that raising this matter in the House of Commons will lead the Barlow family, and Mrs Rona Barlow and the sister whom the hon. Lady mentioned in particular, to appreciate that Private Barlow’s death is recognised and truly appreciated by the nation.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.