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William McGreanery

Volume 561: debated on Wednesday 24 April 2013

It is an honour to meet under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.

William Francis McGreanery, or Billy McGreanery as he was known, was a 41-year-old man who was shot dead by a Grenadier Guard, a member of the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, in Derry city in the early hours of the morning of Wednesday 15 September 1971. He worked in a well-known sports shop in the town and quite possibly sold me the first pair of football boots that were actually bought for me, as opposed to being hand-me-downs from brothers. He was a quiet, settled, well-engaged man; I know that from many people who were friends and acquaintances of his.

The location of his shooting is variously described as the junction of Eastway, Lonemoor road and Westland street in Derry. Visitors to the city might say that that junction is where Creggan meets the Bogside. The soldier who shot him was in a sangar at what was known, in the Army’s terms, as Bligh’s lane army base. In effect, these sangars and other makeshift army occupations were in the curtilage of the Essex factory, as it was then known, in the lower Creggan.

There were disturbances over prolonged periods of 14 September in the vicinity of that army base. The Army records, which have emerged as part of the Historical Enquiries Team inquiry into Billy McGreanery’s death, show that not only was stone throwing and what, in some cases, were described as riots reported, but there were also some shooting attacks on that army base. One soldier, Sergeant Martin Carroll, a member of 45 Medium Regiment Royal Artillery, was killed by a sniper. He died later from the injuries he received that day. Another soldier, Sergeant James Black, also of the Royal Artillery, was injured that day as well. I set out that record because I know that if I only focus on what happened in the early hours of 15 September, people might say that I am giving a partial account of the events and the overall circumstances of that time.

When Billy McGreanery was shot dead in the early hours of Wednesday 15 September, there were no disturbances pertaining at that time. Indeed, he and a number of friends were walking in the area and had to detour to negotiate a new barricade that had been established and move on. When Billy McGreanery and friends stood at this junction, he then fell to a gunshot from the army sangar at Bligh’s lane. He was taken to Altnagelvin hospital. Army records show that an ambulance was called at 0043 hours, but the Altnagelvin records show that he was admitted, having been transported in a van, at 0045 hours. Billy McGreanery died from his wounds on the operating table in Altnagelvin hospital.

The soldier who shot him, who was later named as soldier A in the context of the inquest and various other investigations, maintains that he shot a man who was pointing a rifle at his sangar. The other civilians present at the time, of course, completely disputed that and gave their accounts in the subsequent investigation conducted by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the police force in Northern Ireland at that time. However, the RUC did not question either soldier A or the other soldier who was with him, soldier B, because in those days the arrangement was that soldiers were only interviewed by the Royal Military Police, not by the RUC. So the RMP special investigation branch interviewed the two soldiers and took the account that a gunman was shot. Of course, that became the account that was briefed to the media and Government spokespersons at the time. Of course, Billy McGreanery, a man who lost his life, was branded as a gunman. That has aggrieved his family for many years: not just that he was robbed of his life, but that he was also robbed of his innocent name by the subsequent smearing by the Army version of accounts, which became the received verdict as far as Government and others were concerned.

Mr McGreanery was a single man who had no descendants, but his nephew, Billy, and his niece, Marjorie Roddy, have fought a long campaign, with excellent support from the Pat Finucane Centre, to try to have the facts and circumstances of his death properly established and his innocence rightly declared. We have seen this, similarly, with other families, whether the Bloody Sunday families in my constituency or the Hillsborough families in Liverpool, all trying to ensure that the good names of their loved ones are properly restored.

In that context, the family were glad to receive, in June 2010, the report of the Historical Enquiries Team into the death. This was actually the second time that the HET had looked at the death. The first report was a superficial, poor job that immediately was rebuked and essentially withdrawn. The second report by the HET clearly showed that Billy

“was not involved with any paramilitary organisation, he was not carrying a firearm of any description, and he posed no threat to the soldiers at the observation post.”

That is a quote from the HET report, which showed that it had reflected on the discrepancies in the investigation at the time, with the Royal Military Police questioning the soldiers and the RUC questioning the civilians.

It should be said, and clearly understood, that at the time the local RUC chief superintendent, Frank Lagan, recommended on 8 November 1971 that the soldier be prosecuted for murder. That opinion was endorsed at RUC headquarters. However, that prosecution never took place. It should be put on the record at this stage that, at that time, conversations were going on between representatives of the Ministry of Defence and the then Attorney-General for Northern Ireland, Basil Kelly. In papers discovered in Government archives at Kew by the Pat Finucane Centre is a minute signed by J. M. Parkin, head of C2 at MOD, who refers to his conversation with the Attorney-General:

“The Attorney-General told me that he had before him recommendations from the police that a soldier should be tried for manslaughter arising out of the death of Mrs Sarah Worthington in Belfast and that another should be tried for the murder of a man named McGreanery in Londonderry. His provisional view was that no action was called for in the Belfast case and that manslaughter at most would be appropriate in the Londonderry incident. Indeed, he felt that the latter probably called for no charge at all. He promised to advise us if he felt that action in either case was called for. I have no doubt that the Attorney General is doing all within his power to protect the security forces against criminal proceedings in respect of actions on duty. He must, however, preserve an impartial approach and is worried about the possibility of private criminal proceedings should he fail to act in cases where inactivity could hardly be justified. Given his delicate position this is understandable. I am however satisfied that there is no need to remind him of the danger to morale inherent in prosecutions of soldiers or policemen.”

On 23 December the Chief Constable received a note from the Crown solicitor confirming that there would be no charges in relation to the case.

Of course, the ruling—the policy—of the Attorney-General for Northern Ireland that soldiers should not be prosecuted for murder, or for anything carried out in the course of their duty, came in December 1971, only weeks before January 1972, which, of course, is when Bloody Sunday took place. Many of us believe that, had that material been available for the Saville inquiry to test and cross-examine, the Saville report might not have been as light as it was in its wider observations on MOD responsibility and wider command and policy interests on the day.

The family are well satisfied that the HET report given to them confirms their uncle’s innocence and completely trashes the version on which the Army relied. They then wanted a proper, due apology, as all other families in a similar situation would want. What they received from the MOD was a letter in July 2011 from General Sir Peter Wall, the Chief of the General Staff:

“Dear Mrs Roddy and Mr McGreanery,

Thank you for agreeing that the Historical Enquiries Team could share with us their report of last year into the death of your uncle, William, in 1971, so as to allow me to consider properly your request for an official apology. In the light of what it says it is clear to me that such an apology is right and proper.

The report sets out the circumstances surrounding the death of your Uncle and the subsequent investigation. It is evident that the soldier who shot him was mistaken in his belief that he had a weapon and this error, tragically, resulted in the death of an innocent man. I have no doubt that, despite the passage of time, you and your family are still grieving over this loss. I would like to express my sorrow and regret for his death which, in the years since it occurred, has deprived you of an Uncle’s support and affection.

I do not believe that anything I can say will ease the sorrow you feel for what has happened, but I hope that this apology, and the findings of the Historical Enquiries Team, will be of some comfort to you.”

That was of some comfort to the family. However, they thought that the natural course was that the apology would be explicitly endorsed and vocalised on the Government’s behalf, so the family subsequently wrote to both the Secretary of State for Defence and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

On the family’s behalf, the Pat Finucane Centre received a rather bizarre letter from the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), who is currently the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs:

“Thank you for your letter of 20 July 2012 regarding the case of Mr William McGreanery. You originally wrote to me and the Defence Secretary in February last year and following receipt of the report by the Historical Enquiries Team, General Sir Peter Wall, Chief of the General Staff at the Ministry of Defence provided an official apology to Mrs Roddy and Mr McGreanery on 14 July 2011.

Please let me explain briefly the process involved when a letter, such as yours of February 2011, is received by more than one Government department. The Department with the lead responsibility will respond on behalf of the Government and if, as in this case, the response includes an official apology then this is on behalf of the Government. One of the key aspects of this type of communication is that it is private. If any individual wishes to make it public, as I understand Mrs Roddy and Mr McGreanery did, that is their right; however the Government will not do so. It is for this reason that such private Ministerial correspondence is not placed in any official parliamentary records.

I am pleased that the report from the Historical Enquiries Team and the subsequent apology has provided some closure to the family of Mr McGreanery and I hope that my confirmation that the apology was officially on behalf of the Government is also of some comfort to them. I know that the grief and sorrow of losing someone close, particularly in such circumstances, does not diminish.”

The main reason why we have had to call an Adjournment debate today is to ensure that we give the Government, in the form of the Minister, an opportunity to vocalise that apology on the parliamentary record, just as other families have received apologies on the parliamentary record.

I hope that the Minister, in addressing those points, will consider whether the MOD is reviewing the policy of simply issuing apologies to families by letter from someone of rank in the MOD—and they seem to be of lower and lower rank now—and the Government treating them as private communications. That does not seem to be a satisfactory process. There will be more such cases.

Indeed, since I secured this debate I have been contacted by a family who lost a loved one to shots fired by the Parachute Regiment on the Shankill road in September 1972. The family of Richie McKinney, too, have always contested the Army version of events—that the soldiers fired at two gunmen—and they are quite clear that their loved one was an innocent man, not a gunman. They want to know that, when they receive their HET report, they will not have to go around begging, busking and petitioning MPs and other people so that they can get a proper apology on the record in parliamentary terms. I suggest that the Minister ask the MOD to consider that, when families receive HET reports in future and when apologies are issued on the basis of those HET reports, they should be marked by a written ministerial statement recording that fact.

The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) has called this debate to raise issues with my Department’s response to the HET on the tragic death of William McGreanery.

As the hon. Gentleman has just stated, the HET was set up as an independent team within the Police Service of Northern Ireland to help bring closure to all families who lost relations and friends during the troubles and to bring some measure of resolution to the past. My Department strongly supports the work of the HET and fully co-operates with its requests for information and liaison with witnesses. When HET reports have been made available to us, following permission from the family of the deceased, we have found them to be as detailed and comprehensive accounts as are now possible considering the passage of time.

I will not go over all the ground that the hon. Gentleman has just covered, but it is important to remember the facts, which are that Mr McGreanery died on 15 September 1971, 41 and a half years ago. The HET report states that there had been a number of shootings in Londonderry in the days and nights leading up to Mr McGreanery’s death. Barricades had been erected, nail bombs and petrol bombs had been thrown, and rioting had broken out.

During the afternoon before Mr McGreanery’s death, as the hon. Gentleman rightly stated, Sergeant Carroll was shot and killed in Londonderry by a terrorist sniper. He was actually shot and killed in Eastway gardens, just by the Bligh’s lane observation post, which he had just left. There is no doubt about that.

The HET report goes on to say that, some eight hours later, at midnight on 14/15 September, Mr McGreanery and others were walking around Londonderry and approached the same Army observation post. The group moved forward and a single shot was fired by a soldier. Mr McGreanery was wounded and later died in hospital. I do not think the facts are in contention.

The soldier who opened fire said that he thought Mr McGreanery was aiming a rifle at the observation post, and he made a split-second decision to open fire. I think we can all now accept that that was an error. That is what the HET report states, and I understand that the young soldier involved—he was young at the time—has stated that he thinks it was an error, too. He regrets the shooting, given what he has now discovered.

The pathologist who carried out the post-mortem said that Mr McGreanery’s wounds had been caused by the bullet passing through his raised forearm, through his chest and exiting his back:

“the forearm must have been flexed at the elbow and held up in front of the chest”.

No one knows why his arm was in that position. The HET does not believe he was pointing a rifle at the time. Forensic swabs show that he had not fired a weapon, and I think we accept that he did not have a weapon.

The local RUC commander at the time believed, as the hon. Gentleman said, that the soldier had acted unlawfully. A file was sent to the chief Crown prosecutor recommending that the soldier be tried for murder. That was passed to the Attorney-General for Northern Ireland, but he took a different view, believing that the soldier was acting in the course of his duty and that it was difficult to see how the element of malice, “express or implied,” necessary to constitute murder could be inferred from his actions. He thought that the soldier could have been negligent but that consideration would have to be given to whether the negligence was “reckless” and amounted to manslaughter. In the event, no action was taken against the soldier.

When the MOD received a request from the family of Mr McGreanery for an apology for his death, my Department asked for a copy of the HET report into his death so that the request could be properly considered. That is relevant to what the hon. Gentleman said. It is up to the family to give us the report; we do not get to see it. Similarly, when the Chief of the General Staff wrote to the family, that was private correspondence as far as we were concerned. It is up to the family to reveal it. However, I will come to that later.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that it is only right, if we are asked to apologise for the actions that led to somebody’s death, that we should be able to see the results. We do not see them until we get the HET report. When we received the report, we read it carefully and came to the conclusion that, in such circumstances, an apology was appropriate, because it was clear that the soldier involved was mistaken when he thought that Mr McGreanery posed such a serious threat that it was necessary to open fire. That is absolutely accepted.

Having carefully considered the circumstances of the death, the Chief of the General Staff—he is the head of the Army, which is not a lowly rank, as the hon. Gentleman implied—wrote to the family with an apology on 14 July 2011. In those cases in which the Ministry of Defence has apologised for a death—there have been five, not including apologies made by the Prime Minister in person for the Bloody Sunday killings—the practice has been either for the Chief of the General Staff or a Minister to write, and the apology is given by either, on behalf of the Government as a whole.

I understand that Mr McGreanery’s family has accepted the apology but wanted one on behalf of the Government, recorded in parliamentary records. On behalf of the Government, I am happy to repeat that apology. As for the request that it be made publicly, as I have explained, it is normally left to the family to decide whether they wish to publicise it. Some will wish to do so, but some will not. As a result of these proceedings, the apology given to Mr McGreanery’s family is now on the parliamentary record. As we know that that is the family’s wish, I am happy that it should be so.

I am also aware of press reports—the hon. Gentleman referred to them—about recently released historical documents that have been interpreted as suggesting that at the time of Mr McGreanery’s death, there was a deliberate policy of not prosecuting soldiers for deaths that occurred while they were on duty, and that there was some cosy relationship with the Attorney-General at the time to facilitate that. It is not and never was up to the MOD to decide whether soldiers should face criminal charges as a result of opening fire in the course of their duties.

It is, however, important that those contemplating such decisions are provided with information relevant to the incident under consideration. The fact that the Attorney-General of the day was prepared to consider representations from the Army about murder cases is surely entirely reasonable. I am not a lawyer, I am glad to say, but it seems entirely sensible that he would want to see as much information as he could to enable him to consider properly the public interest surrounding those cases, just as we have the well-established Shawcross exercise, in which ministerial views are sought on the public interest before a decision is made on prosecution in appropriate cases.

Although I know that the hon. Gentleman feels that this was some sort of cosy stitch-up—I think I have got that right—it is different from some agreement or policy that the military had a veto on prosecutions of soldiers, which would have been illegal and for which there is no evidence.

I did not use those particular words, although I can see why they would spring to the Minister’s mind and the minds of many people. He referred to the Shawcross exercise, in which Ministers speak to the Attorney-General. This was an officer of the MOD. The minute of the meeting is supplemented by a diary entry, which goes into more detail about the exchange between the Attorney-General and the MOD representative and appears to establish a working presumption at the time that any killing by a soldier acting in the course of duty would not result in a murder charge. That happened in the crucial weeks before Bloody Sunday.

I am not in a position either to negate or agree with the hon. Gentleman. If I may say so, there is a difference between those who act in good faith in the course of duty and those who might have acted in bad faith. I think that we can agree about that. The question is malice. As far as I am aware, there is certainly no policy that nobody should be prosecuted. As the hon. Gentleman will know, I spent many years in the Army, and I know of many cases in which people were prosecuted, including cases in Northern Ireland in which people who had behaved maliciously were rightly prosecuted for murder. I agree with that, and I think that the MOD of the time would have agreed with it as well.

Some may believe that we should hold a fresh investigation into the circumstances surrounding Mr McGreanery’s death. Whether that happens is a matter for the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which would need to consider whether there was any new evidence in the case. If that were to happen, my Department would co-operate with such investigations. Just as importantly, we would stand by our obligation to support fully the soldier who, in this case, found himself having to account for actions that took place in the course of his duties some 40 years ago.

To take the Minister back to the point about how such cases are handled in future—there will be more—he referred to the fact that the Historical Enquiries Team does not share the reports with the MOD; it is up to the family to do so. If the family share a report and receive an apology, and if they ask for that apology to be in the parliamentary record, will the MOD make it future policy to do so by way of a written ministerial statement?

I do not say that there will necessarily be a written ministerial statement. If the family wishes it to be published, we will happily facilitate that, as it is the right thing to do.

This was a tragedy. It was highly regrettable. Even 41 and a half years later, I can see that. A young soldier —I suspect very frightened—behaved in error, but we do not think with malice, and it was certainly not thought so at the time. It was highly regrettable, and I repeat the apology on behalf of the Government.