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Historical Enquiries Team

Volume 541: debated on Wednesday 7 March 2012

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

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the Speaker for allowing me to highlight two cases in which the Historical Enquiries Team has been involved: specifically, the deaths of Kenneth Smyth and Hugh Lexie Cummings.

Policing and justice were devolved in April 2010. After that, on 3 November 2010, the Secretary of State felt able to stand up and not only take part in a debate about Bloody Sunday, but take on the burden of apologising, along with the Prime Minister, on behalf of the Government. On Wednesday 30 November 2011, I asked the Secretary of State a question directly relating to the HET:

“The HET investigated the murder of my cousin, Kenneth Smyth, on 10 December 1971—those on the street knew who committed the murder—and Lexie Cummings was murdered on 15 June 1982. HET investigations into both cases concluded that no action should be taken. The concern is that the investigations might not have been thorough, so does the Secretary of State accept that confidence needs to be instilled in the Unionist community and that the HET therefore has considerable work to do?”

The Secretary of State replied:

“I am grateful for that question. I do not entirely agree. The HET is impartial, and the latest polling commissioned on the reaction of the families is extraordinarily high: 90.5% said they were very satisfied or satisfied with the performance of the HET.”—[Official Report, 30 November 2011; Vol. 536, c. 919.]

I am here to represent those families who suggest that some investigations into events during the troubles have not been concluded satisfactorily.

Why is the Bloody Sunday case any different from the one under discussion? I could cynically suggest the difference by asking, has not enough money been spent on the investigations to warrant the attention of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland? Surely the reason could not be that the families of those men, who faithfully served Queen and country in awful times, are not worth as much. Just because those men wore the uniform of the British Army, does that make them expendable or cannon fodder? I trust that that is not the case, but I shall be very disappointed if I find out that it is.

I thank each and every Member who has stayed behind to hear what the families of those men have asked me to say in this House, respecting and honouring them for the sacrifice that they made for the people of Northern Ireland and for the whole UK. The presence of every hon. Member has been noted and is appreciated.

Kenneth Smyth was my cousin. I remember him well. I looked up to him as an expert shot who introduced me to shooting at a young age, as a six or seven-year-old, and represented the B-Specials of the Ulster Defence Regiment in shooting at Bisley. I have a photograph of him being presented with a prize and a medal by Bill Craig, the Home Affairs Minister from way back in the old Northern Ireland Parliament.

Kenneth used to send me pigeons through the post the whole way from Strabane to Ballywalter—it gave a whole new meaning to pigeon post, so it did. If the birds arrived within a couple of days they were still okay to eat, but if they arrived a wee bit later they were not, I am afraid, quite as edible—but that is by the way.

I have Kenneth’s UDR beret, and my first son is named after him. I admired him when he took part in shooting competitions for the UDR, and perhaps as a young boy I wanted to be like him. I can well remember the day that his life was taken away.

Kenneth’s sister Shelley described him in an interview for a book entitled, “If Stone Could Speak”, and I shall use it in my illustration of him:

“Kenneth Smyth loved hunting or anything to do with the outdoors and, as often as possible, spent his time in the fields and countryside around his native Castlederg in County Tyrone. He was the eldest of four children and described as very talented while at school and with a great ability at hand crafts especially anything to do with wood.”

He was a joiner by trade. The book continues:

“Being a lot younger than Kenneth, his sister Shelley does not remember much about his earlier years, but she does remember him as being very quiet natured and a person who enjoyed fun. In later years Kenneth went to stay at his grandparents house and kept his gundogs there so that he could go hunting more easily in the nearby countryside. Because of the constant terror campaigns being waged in Northern Ireland, security was always of paramount importance and, to supplement the regular police service, the Special Constabulary or B Men were formed. Kenneth was a member of this force and he carried out regular security duties around the frontiers of Northern Ireland and guarded specific installations against attack.

He was still a member when he decided that he would like to go to Canada and join the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and went over there to follow his ambition. It was partially the police and partially the wide open spaces which attracted him, but he only stayed a month as his grandparents pleaded with him to come home as they missed him so much. Around the time he came home, the B Men had been disbanded and was to be replaced by the Ulster Defence Regiment, so he decided to join up.”

Kenneth became a sergeant in the UDR. The book continues:

“As with other members of the security forces, Kenneth was well aware of the risks and took precautions to ensure his safety as much as he possibly could. While he was at home, he placed his car in the garage and closed and locked the garage door. On the nights that he went out either socially or on business he left the garage door open so that he could drive inside in safety and not provide himself as a target by getting out of his car to open it.

One particular night he was out and, for some unknown reason, he closed the garage door and obviously someone who was watching”

not too far away

“must have assumed he was at home. A group of masked and armed men attacked the house and forced their way inside. His grandfather”—

my grandfather—

“was talking on the telephone and this was pulled from the wall by one of the raiders. They made their way straight to Kenneth’s bedroom, but, on seeing it empty, left the house again and ran off into the darkness. After this Kenneth received numerous death threats including one in a note form that was left on the windscreen of his vehicle when it was parked it in the nearby town of Strabane”

in County Tyrone.

“He took the threats seriously enough to take proper precautions and, for months prior to his death, he slept in a different house every night so that he would not have a known routine.”

At that time, there was a petrol bomb attack on his grandparents’ house and they had to grid their windows.

“In September 1971, Kenneth got married and went to live back at his family home in Castlederg, where he and his new wife took over the top flat in a house. Friday 10 December 1971 was a day which seemed no different to any other, as the family carried on their normal routine. Kenneth had his own successful construction business and that morning, he had collected one of his workmen to take him to the job they were working on. They were travelling along Lisdoo Road near Clady, outside Strabane, when they had to stop because of a rope that had been tied across the road. Kenneth stopped the car”—

a Jeep—

“to reverse away from it, but a number of gunmen began shooting at the vehicle. Kenneth’s passenger, Daniel McCormick, a Catholic, who was also an ex member of the UDR, was shot and killed” ,

leaving a wife and four children, one of whom was disabled,

“with Kenneth being seriously wounded. Kenneth managed to get out of the vehicle, but fell on to the ground. While he lay there, he was shot again at close range and died from the injury. Kenneth’s body was taken to his church”—

a Church of Ireland church outside Strabane—

“and was given a fulltime guard until the funeral on the Sunday as there were fears that the body would be stolen. He was then buried with full military honours. He was the 5th UDR soldier to be murdered.”

The HET’s summary of intelligence said that there were no recorded threats, yet there were plenty that we were aware of: the gunmen calling at Kenneth’s home, the arson attack on his grandparents’ bungalow, and numerous letters and phone calls to him. The family therefore strongly disagrees with the HET. The HET has also said that one man who was questioned admitted to being there that day and to having shot at the Land Rover. He was tried in the Republic of Ireland, convicted of offences in relation to terrorism and sentenced to a term of imprisonment from 1974 to 1978, when he was released. He continued to live in the Republic until his death in 1995. The obvious question is this: why was he never prosecuted? Why was he never brought across the border to answer for his crimes? Why was he never extradited? The explanation that the HET provided—that it was possibly a matter of papers being lost or overlooked—is not a satisfactory conclusion or an answer for the family, who are still grieving.

The man named an accomplice who carried out the murder, and despite that man being arrested in London for terrorist offences, he was never charged for the murder of Kenneth Smyth. When asked why not, the HET said that the man denied it and the evidence was not good enough to take the case further. Does that provide closure for the family? No, it does not—far from it, especially when it is clear that most of the people in the area knew who had carried out the attack and were powerless to do anything. Has the HET investigation revealed any further evidence? No, it has not.

At this stage, I will say that I am very aware of the funding limitations of the HET and the fact that there is only so much that it can do. My problem is that the closure that it was designed to bring to families, along with the hope of prosecution, has not come close to being fulfilled in Kenneth’s case. Does the Minister feel that the fact that the HET was given a budget of some £38 million to investigate 3,268 incidents, whereas it cost the Bloody Sunday public inquiry £191 million to investigate the events surrounding the deaths of 13 men, reflects the differences between the two cases?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I am sure that I speak for the whole House in saying that our profound sympathies are with him in the memory of Kenneth Smyth. There is a great deal of concern across the House about the time frame in which the HET—

I apologise profoundly, Madam Deputy Speaker. There is a great deal of concern throughout the House about the time frame in which the HET conducts its inquiries. The Northern Ireland Assembly has requested that the Secretary of State hold multi-party talks on this subject. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me that that seems to be a positive way forward, in accordance with the expressed formal wish of the Northern Ireland Assembly?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The talks are about the past. I am talking about specific incidents and cases involving the HET. I feel that these questions have to be answered. However, I accept his point.

If the HET had had the appropriate funding from central Government at the time of its investigations, when it was under the direct control of the Secretary of State, would the outcomes have been more extensive and brought satisfaction to the family?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. We appreciate the deep sensitivity of the issues of which he speaks. I speak as the one party leader who lobbied for and supported the creation of the HET. The right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), who was the Secretary of State at the time, can vouch for the fact that only one party lobbied for the HET and supported the Chief Constable of the time in so doing. Perhaps if more of us had recognised what was involved, we would have secured better resources and, more important, a stronger mandate for the HET. The limitations on the HET’s mandate are part of the problem, as this important case demonstrates.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I agree with him wholeheartedly that if there had been better funding, the investigations might have come to more successful conclusions.

The second case I mentioned at the start of my speech is that of Hugh Cummings, known as Lexie. Twenty-nine years ago on 15 June 1982, one of life’s true gentlemen was killed when Lexie Cummings, aged 39, from Artigarvan outside Strabane in County Tyrone and a part-time member of the Ulster Defence Regiment, was shot by the IRA at close range in the back and the chest as he got into his car in the centre of Strabane, during his lunch break from the menswear shop where he had worked for 25 years:

“Lexie was well known and held in high regard by everyone in his community. The small village of Artigarvan came to a standstill for his funeral, where the Presbyterian minister told mourners:

‘In the face of tremendous provocation you have remained a totally loyal and law-abiding community. You have watched helplessly the very flower of manhood being systematically murdered. Your anger and frustration runs very, very deep. Yet there has been no retaliation and there will be no retaliation because your faith is built on the solid rock of the righteousness of God’”.

The family refused to accept a letter of sympathy from the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Prior, which was delivered to them on the day of the funeral. They sent the letter back with the message that

“the hands of the security forces should be freed”.

A spokesman for the family said at the time:

“Nothing is being done, feelings are running very high on this issue. Innocent, defenceless people are being mown down and no action is being taken against the godfathers who are walking the streets. They are getting away with murder”.

When the HET investigated the death of Lexie Cummings, it found a different story. It found that a thorough investigation was carried out by the RUC at the time, which found cartridge discharge residue—gunpowder residue—on the suspect. It found fibres from the suspect’s trousers on the seat of the car, which was left abandoned at the scene of the crime. The two guns that were used were found by the Garda Siochana the next month and tests confirmed that that was the case.

It was an open-and-shut case, and yet questions must be answered. Why did William Gerard McMonagle not stand trial for the murder of Lexie Cummings? How was it that William Gerard McMonagle was allowed to travel across the border to safety and freedom, and to begin a new life, which has led to him being the mayor of Letterkenny today? Why was he never extradited, when it was known where he was? Why was there no co-operation between the Garda Siochana and the RUC to bring McMonagle to justice?

The HET did not have access to the answers or criteria that the Director of Public Prosecutions used to issue his decision, which stated that in 1986 there was not a

“suitable case to make a request to the authorities in the Republic of Ireland for the return of Mr McMonagle”.

Why was that? Was the HET prevented from finding out the answers and the truth?

How did the DPP reach his decision of 2003? It was that

“having reviewed the evidence and information now available and obtained the opinion of counsel, I have concluded that there is no longer a reasonable prospect of convicting William Gerard McMonagle of any criminal Offence. I therefore rescind the direction of 13 December 1982 and direct no prosecution of William Gerard McMonagle”.

What was the evidence, and why were the family not made aware of it? Can the Minister tell us what answer we should give the family about the criteria by which the decision was reached? The HET cannot provide the answer—who can? Can he? Why was McMonagle no longer classified as on the run even though the HET confirmed that he was never granted an amnesty?

The Minister of State may reply by saying that some of the very important points that my hon. Friend is making are about devolved matters. Does my hon. Friend agree, however, that we have difficulty in explaining to our constituents why, on the one hand, these matters are all devolved and there is a limited sum of money to investigate hundreds of killings, yet on the other hand the Minister and his colleagues stand in this House and announce expensive and long inquiries, albeit not open-ended judicial inquiries, into other cases?

My right hon. Friend puts my case coherently, and I thank him for that.

There are too many questions that the HET cannot answer, due to its scope and resources, but to which the family of Lexie Cummings deserve an answer. They turn on the news and see the mayor of Letterkenny, Gerry McMonagle, who ran from justice in Northern Ireland after having been proven to have been at the scene with gunpowder residue on him, embracing his freedom and his position in life. The family visit the grave of a true gentleman, Lexie Cummings, with questions in their minds and grief in their hearts. Who can answer their questions and give them closure? Questions must be answered, because the family cannot forget that Lexie Cummings was a good man and worthy of justice. They know that for a reason unknown to them, someone has seen fit to give an unrepentant republican murderer the opportunity to parade around, with no fear of justice, in his mayoral robes. That is cruelty in the extreme, and I am here today to ask for parity in the help provided to that family and others so that they can have closure, as my right hon. Friend clearly said.

Those who had committed crimes during the troubles were asked to come forward before the Good Friday agreement. Those who did not admit their crimes but remained at large cannot be given the same amnesty, nor do they deserve their freedom. All the men and women who were murdered in the troubles by paramilitaries—in uniform or out of uniform—demand our respect, which I know we give them. I feel that the Northern Ireland Office is not giving their families the right support, and I know that a great deal of Unionists feel that, in the Government’s eyes, their pain is a second-class pain. The lack of Government representation tells me that that view may be justified, as we in the Unionist community feel. The washing of hands did not make Pontius Pilate clean, and it will not make others of that ilk clean in this case.

There is a social media page on Facebook called “Castlederg Forgotten Friends”. Part of the reason for its being set up was that Castlederg, which is one and a half miles from the border, had 26 unsolved murders—26 families with unanswered questions. For two of those families, I have made their case and their point tonight. They need help. The site clearly lists those who were murdered, and under each post it says, “Lest we forget”. Let that be the cry from this House tonight, and I hope from the Minister. We will remember them, and we will support their families and help them grieve their loss in whatever way we can.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing the debate and thank the other Members who have participated in it.

There has been no washing of hands, as the hon. Gentleman suggested. However, as hon. Members know, following the devolution of policing and justice in April 2010, matters relating to the Historical Enquiries Team are the responsibility of the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland, particularly the Minister of Justice, to whom I spoke yesterday. You will therefore understand, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I am unable to comment in detail on HET operational matters, which are for the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Let us remind ourselves of the history of the HET. It was set up in September 2005 to investigate some 3,259 unsolved deaths relating to the troubles from 1968 to the Belfast agreement in 1998. I would like to put on record the Government’s strong support for the HET and its work with the families of those killed.

The HET provides a valuable role in bringing resolution to and addressing any concerns that may remain for the families of victims of the troubles. That is supported by the findings of a recent survey, which showed that 90% of family members—across all community groups—indicated that they were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the HET. That is an extraordinarily high figure, and the HET is to be commended for achieving such high satisfaction rates.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned funding. Let me comment briefly on the current situation. The HET is midway through its seventh year of work, and it is worth noting that its spend to date is around £34 million. Let us compare that with the combined total cost of £300 million for recent inquiries. Bloody Sunday—I gently remind the hon. Gentleman that the Saville inquiry was set up under the previous Government—cost £192 million; the Hamill inquiry cost £32 million; the Nelson inquiry cost £46 million; and the Wright inquiry cost £30 million. The good value for money that the HET provides is clear, as opposed to open-ended and costly inquiries, of which, as the Secretary of State has made clear time and again, there will be no more.

To date, I understand that the HET has already investigated, or is in the process of investigating, 2,423 deaths, which are dealt with in a chronological order. Of those, the HET can currently say that 1,375 were caused by republicans; 724 were caused by loyalists; 265 were caused by security forces; and 59 were caused by “unknown”. I understand that the HET has also referred 26 cases to the PSNI for further investigation.

All those cases are the subject of ongoing live investigations, and it would therefore be inappropriate for me to comment further. However, I note the valuable role that the PSNI and the HET play in helping bereaved families find justice.

We remain strong supporters of the HET. Both my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland have on many occasions highlighted their support for the work of the HET.

Not every investigation will result in closure for the family and friends. I am aware of how strongly the hon. Gentleman understandably feels about the brutal murder of his cousin, Kenneth Smyth, in December 1971, and Lexie Cummings in June 1982. Both were members of the UDR, which suffered so badly during the troubles.

However, for many families, the HET’s reports bring comfort and some understanding of the circumstances of the death of a loved one. I commend its work to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.