With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the findings of the Ballymurphy inquest. I want to put on the record the Government’s acknowledgment of the terrible hurt that has been caused to the families of Francis Quinn, Father Hugh Mullan, Noel Phillips, Joan Connolly, Daniel Teggart, Joseph Murphy, Edward Doherty, John Laverty, Joseph Corr and John McKerr.
I also want to pay tribute to the great patience with which the families have conducted themselves during their determined campaign, which has lasted almost 50 years. The Prime Minister is writing personally to the families, having yesterday expressed his deep regret to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and apologised unreservedly on behalf of the state.
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 not have had to wait nearly five decades for the judgment this week, nor should they have been compelled to relive that terrible time in August 1971 again and again in their long and distressing quest for truth.
Over the course of the troubles, more than 3,500 people were killed, and tens of thousands injured, with families torn apart forever. The majority of those killed were innocent civilians, such as those on the streets of Ballymurphy.
The vast majority of those who served in Northern Ireland did so with great dignity and professionalism, but it is clear that in some cases the security forces and the Army made terrible errors too. The duty of the state is to hold itself to the highest standards at all times. When we fail to meet these high standards, we must recognise the hurt and agony caused.
There is no doubt that what happened in Ballymurphy in those awful few days also fuelled further violence and escalation, particularly in the early years of the troubles. The Government profoundly regret and are truly sorry for these events, for 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 since they began their campaign almost five decades ago.
In order to make lasting change, actions are required as well. The Belfast Good Friday agreement was the defining action that allowed Northern Ireland to begin to move away from violence, but the events of the past continue to cast a long shadow, as we have seen. Those who were killed or injured during the troubles came from all communities, and they included many members of the security forces and armed forces. Immense and difficult compromises have since been made on all sides, including the early release of prisoners, which was so difficult for many people to accept.
To a very large extent, Northern Ireland has moved away from violence, so we stand by those compromises and the progress made towards a more peaceful society. Yet the desire of the families of victims to know the truth about what happened to their loved ones is strong, legitimate and right. The campaign for justice in Ballymurphy has reminded us all of that—if we needed to be reminded at all.
Twenty-three years after the signing of the Belfast Good Friday agreement, thousands of murders remain unresolved and many families still yearn for answers. With each passing year, the integrity of evidence and the prospects of prosecution diminish, and the Government are 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 the compromises that have already been made. But above all, we are determined to address them in a way that enables victims and survivors to get to the truth that they deserve. We must never ignore or dismiss the past; learning what we can, we must find a way to move beyond it. The coroner’s findings this week are part of that often very painful process.
The Government want to deliver a way forward in addressing the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland; one that will allow all individuals or 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 that 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. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement.
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 short 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.”
The hon. Lady and I are overwhelmingly united in our thoughts for the Ballymurphy families and for all families who have suffered so much, and so unnecessarily, during and since the troubles. I believe we are also united in our determination to do what we can to put a stop to this suffering and to ensure that people get the information and get to the truth.
My apology and the Prime Minister’s apology yesterday to the Ballymurphy families cannot change what they have endured, but I can promise that it will be followed by action to prevent others from all communities who have lost loved ones or been injured, whether civilians, paramilitaries or soldiers, from continuing to go through the same lengthy and traumatic experiences that have taken too long to get to the truth. Our approach will have at its heart a clear focus on doing what is right: what is right for all those who have been directly affected by Ballymurphy and the many other terrible events and incidents of the troubles; and also what is right for wider Northern Ireland society, including the new generation—a younger generation—who did not live through the troubles. We need to ensure that we are not leaving this for them to deal with. This generation must be looking to the future while always understanding and being aware of the past, with its tragedies as well as its opportunities.
The Government will not baulk from those challenges. The challenges involved in confronting the past are complex and sensitive, and we appreciate that. We recognise that we will not baulk from confronting the past, including our own state actions. That is necessary to ensure that we do get answers for individuals, but also as a critical step towards the reconciliation we all want to see continue and deliver in Northern Ireland for its shared and prosperous future.
This is clearly a tremendously emotional moment. I thank the Secretary of State for prior notice of his statement and for its tone and its contents. For many, the events of which we are speaking happened a lifetime ago, but for the victims’ families and their communities they happened yesterday and every day since they occurred. It was clearly an abuse of security power. The Government are right to apologise and to make that loud and well known, because these events are as painful today as they were on the day they happened.
As my right hon. Friend tries to resolve the legacy of the troubles, focusing, as I know he will, on truth and reconciliation, will he assure me that he will do so with the emotional sensitivity he has demonstrated today, with compassion and understanding, and with a view to build a cross-community coalition as we help Northern Ireland to turn the page to a better present and future as we resolve the issues of the past?
My hon. Friend the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee makes a really important point. He is absolutely right. In looking at how we move forward, we have to work, and I am determined that we will work, to do everything we can with our partners not just in Irish Government but across the parties, victims’ groups and civic society in Northern Ireland to ensure reconciliation and for an opportunity to recognise the accountability of the fact that Northern Ireland has suffered for far too long from the traumas of the past. Working together, I am sure that we can find a way to help Northern Ireland move forward and ensure that Northern Ireland can deliver on the phenomenal opportunities, expertise and excitement that is there to deliver for people and have that shared prosperous and stable society.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. The pain that the loved ones of the victims of the Ballymurphy killings have gone through over the past half century is unimaginable. I pay tribute to their courage, their fortitude, their dignity and their unswerving determination to seek the truth—however difficult that was—about how their loved ones died. The First Minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster, put it extremely well when she said:
“Lots of lessons to be learned. Grief is grief. Justice must be blind. Too many empty chairs across NI and unanswered questions.”
The path to truth, justice and reconciliation, as we know, is an imperfect one. While the past cannot be changed, its truth can be acknowledged and reconciliations made easier. In that vein, the Prime Minister should come to the House to offer that apology in person on behalf of the citizens in whose names these actions were taken, and apologise not only for the length of time it has taken to bring truth to the families but for the unjustified and unjustifiable deaths of their entirely innocent loved ones. Does the Secretary of State agree more generally that justice delayed is justice denied and that the best interests of truth, reconciliation and the wider public interest are not best served by seeking to put a time bar on the pursuit of justice?
As I have already said, both I and the Prime Minister have apologised, actually, and the Prime Minister, as I said in my statement, is writing directly to the families as well. As I said, no apology can make up for the loss and the pain that the families have been through. I share the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments and appreciate the tone that he has used. We are in full agreement. My view is that we need to get to the truth and we need to allow the families of the victims who want that information—the knowledge of what happened —to able to get to it much, much quicker. That is certainly something I am focused on. He is also quite right that this is not about having time bars on anything but having a process that means that the families do not have to wait decades to get to the bottom of what happened—to understand the truth of what happened.
I welcome the Government’s apology today. This tragic case lays bare again the horrors of the troubles for victims and families from all parts of Northern Ireland. I am concerned that when I and the Government signed the New Decade, New Approach agreement over a year ago we committed to intensive discussions with victims’ groups, but for a variety of reasons that has not happened. Will the Secretary of State commit today to undertaking comprehensive discussions with victims’ groups and victims directly, and give us a timeline for that? Will he also confirm that he will not bring legislation back to this House until that engagement has happened and victims and families have been able to shape and be part of what the Government are proposing to resolve the issues of legacy?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. Obviously we understand that the legacy issues are complex, as he knows well; that is why they remain unresolved for so many decades. As I have been clear before, the principles of Stormont House are strong, powerful principles that we all want to see delivered on. We want to work together to find a way to be able to put them into practice and deliver them in a way that means that families are not waiting decades, as sadly the Ballymurphy families have had to do, to get to the bottom of the truth and understand of what has happened. We have been engaging across civic society with victims’ groups and representatives, as well as the Irish Government. We will be looking to engage very directly and very deeply over the period ahead to see if we can find a way for everybody to come together to find a way forward that can deliver on that promise and deliver on ensuring that we get to the bottom of information in an efficient way that works for the victims and for the families, and that can help Northern Ireland to move forward with reconciliation in a positive way.
I am sure that the entire House would like to join me in offering our heartfelt condolences to the bereaved families of Ballymurphy. But we also want to congratulate them and their community on the fortitude and resilience they have shown over decades in their pursuit of truth, and to congratulate their legal teams, who have not always been treated with the respect and decency they deserve. I am glad to hear that the Prime Minister is writing to the families personally, because the families do deserve a personal apology. The Secretary of State will be aware that these events are widely known in Ireland and internationally as the Ballymurphy massacre. That seems an accurate description to many of us, as we are talking about the murder of unarmed civilians over the course of three days, and, as the House knows, the coroner has found that they were all innocent, they were all unarmed, and their killings were without justification. We are still awaiting official admission of many other deaths in former colonies, including Kenya. It is good to hear the truth about these events after all these decades, but sadly some of the relatives will have passed away. May I ask the Secretary of State: is anyone ever to be prosecuted for these crimes?
I think the outline of the right hon. Lady’s question goes to the core point that a number of Members and I have already made: that Ballymurphy is a clear, tragic example of how it has taken far too long to get information for those families. We need to find a process that ensures that families can get information much more quickly, while people are still with us as well, as she outlined. As regards prosecutions, that is a matter for the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland, and we have seen the outcome of some prosecutions it had just the other week. It is not a matter for the Government but for the independent prosecution service.
I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for the tone he struck in his statement. These families have endured an exceptionally long campaign in their search for answers. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this shows that the current system to deal with the legacy of the troubles on all sides in Northern Ireland has failed and that the drawn-out, expensive court proceedings for veterans, victims and families are flawed and need to be reviewed?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. As we have seen, tragically, in the recent past as well as this week, the current system has simply not been working for anybody. It is failing to bring satisfactory, speedy or timely outcomes for families, leaving Northern Ireland with unanswered questions for families within it. That leaves society hamstrung, effectively, by its past. That is why, as a Government, we are committed to finding a way forward that will allow individuals and families who want information to seek and receive those answers about what happened during the troubles with far less delay and distress. We have a duty to the victims and the families in Northern Ireland as a whole to deliver on that.
The Ballymurphy families have waited for 50 years to get even this limited form of closure. To compound matters, one of the victims also had a young teenage son brutally murdered by the IRA just two years afterwards. Will the Secretary of State ensure that, whether it is the families of innocent victims in Ballymurphy or shortly afterwards—for example, the Claudy bomb carried out by the IRA in 1972 in my constituency, about which they have received no closure, no justice and no apology—they do not suffer the ignominy of hearing about an amnesty in the next few months?
The hon. Gentleman highlights the complexity and sensitivity of the issues and reinforces the point that it has been far too long for people to have to wait to get to the bottom of the truth. Part of reconciliation is the ability to understand what happened—that is hugely important—but it is also about accountability. That is why it is important that the state takes accountability, as we are doing, for what happened in the Ballymurphy case. Others should do the same, where there is relevance for them and actions were taken by them. It is important that we get to the heart of what happened, so that people can have that understanding, accountability and truth.
I declare an interest, as one of a number of Members of Parliament who served in Northern Ireland prior to the Good Friday agreement. I very much welcome the statement and the apology today. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to our armed forces, whom we place in harm’s way, where they face incredibly difficult circumstances, often at great personal risk. The majority of service personnel follow the law of armed conflict, but if standards ever fall, they must be swiftly and fairly investigated.
I welcome the Government’s fresh approach to securing lasting change by fairly drawing a line under the pre-Good Friday troubles. There is a real danger of fuelling current tensions and potentially creating new victims because we have not reconciled past events. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Good Friday agreement proved that the troubles require a political, not military, solution, but it hesitated in mopping up a series of difficult, unresolved incidents, for which those on all sides still seek closure? Will he consider introducing a wider statute of limitations, along with a truth recovery mechanism that applies not just to veterans but on all sides, so that Northern Ireland can finally draw a line and look forwards, not backwards?
My right hon. Friend makes a really important point about the complexity of the issues and the dreadful range of situations in the troubles, with a number of unresolved injuries, murders and deaths. We need to get to the bottom of that. He is also right that we need to find a way forward that can be delivered on and that works for families. The current situation is simply not working for anybody. It is not working for Northern Ireland, and it is not delivering in a timely fashion and getting to the heart of the truth for families.
It is right that we respect our commitments to our veterans as well. As I said in my statement, obviously the vast majority acted with honour and probity throughout the troubles, but we must have a system that gets to the heart of things. We are open to looking at a wide range of options. I have made commitments to the House about bringing forward legislation, which I still have the ambition to deliver on, but we want to do that by working with our partners across Northern Ireland and with the Irish Government to find a solution that will work, cause stability and have sustainability.
The Secretary of State says that the British Army made terrible errors in Northern Ireland. Joan Connolly was a mother of eight. She was shot four times by the British Army and was left lying on the ground for hours to die. That is not an error; that is sheer bloody murder. Will the Secretary of State ask the Prime Minister to come out of hiding, come with me to meet the Ballymurphy families and tell them to their faces why he wants to protect their killers?
As I have outlined already today, the Prime Minister is contacting the families directly. There is his public apology on behalf of the state and he has had conversations with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, in which I joined him yesterday. Obviously, Members and colleagues will be aware that the report was published on Tuesday, which was the first full sight we had of it. We received it on Tuesday, and we put out a statement on the same day. Having had an opportunity for us to reflect on that report, I am now making a statement to the House of Commons. But, obviously, we will be considering it in more detail in the period ahead in order to ensure that we are able to reflect properly on it. As I said in my statement, it is right that we take accountability for the actions that were unacceptable, as the coroner’s court highlighted, but also that we are taking the time and opportunity to make sure we learn from the experiences of the past and also, coming back to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) a few moments ago, take account of what we have learned since 2014 about how we can move forward in a more efficient and effective manner that delivers for families and victims so that we get to the truth.
I served in Northern Ireland from the early 1970s onwards. I did not serve in Ballymurphy but all I can say is that those of us who were serving in Northern Ireland when incidents such as Ballymurphy and Bloody Sunday were happening—and the vast majority of the Army—were in deep shock about what happened. It did not reflect what we felt; we were in deep shock. In order to try to help the families, if they so wish it, may I ask my right hon. Friend that a full and frank report about what happened to their loved ones be sent to them in each individual case—if, of course, they wish to receive it?
My right hon. Friend makes a really important point. Again, it goes to the heart of making sure that people have the information. My understanding, but I will confirm it, is that the coroner’s report does give details of the individual deaths, and that obviously will be fed back to the families, who have been waiting, as I say, for far too long. However, I will write to my right hon. Friend to confirm that point.
I want to focus on the courage and dignity of the Ballymurphy families and their long fight for justice, rather than the wider legacy issue, except to say that the Government’s plans do not have the support of the Ballymurphy families, other victims groups, political parties in Northern Ireland and, indeed, many veterans themselves. Can I ask the Secretary of State to confirm the scope of this apology? Specifically, does it also include how the British Army libelled many of the victims by calling them IRA gunmen, and also how the Ministry of Defence and indeed some individual soldiers frustrated the process of justice over many years?
Yes. I would say to the hon. Gentleman that, as I said in my opening statement actually, the apology is for not just the dreadful incident—the tragedy that we saw at Ballymurphy in 1971—but the period since and what those families and the victims have had to go through. Absolutely.
I welcome the statement and the apology, and I commend the coroner for coming to a definitive decision in the inquest. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to acknowledge the hurt and pain felt by all sides of the community, and that we need a spirit of reconciliation so that we can move on in Northern Ireland?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I repeat what I said in my statement: we must never forget. As I said, “We must never dismiss or ignore the past”, but we must learn from it—we must find a way to move forward.
Going to the heart of what my hon. Friend said, my experience of dealing with and talking to people across Northern Ireland—across the whole community of Northern Ireland in civic society—shows that there is a determined desire to have proper reconciliation, stability and sustainability. There is a determination to have a Northern Ireland that is a prosperous and an exciting place to live and work, which it is, so that we can all continue to be proud of it and continue to live with the amazing success we have seen there since the delivery of what was, at the time, a very difficult series of decisions that led to the Good Friday agreement.
The Secretary of State is right to recognise that reconciliation depends on the truth, but the problem with the whole horrendous saga around the murders at Ballymurphy is that a cloud of corruption has hung over it now for nearly five decades. What the Secretary of State describes as serious errors was murder by agents of our state covered up by our state, and we must now recognise the damage that has done. So will the Secretary of State commit to making sure that every effort will now be made to reveal what happened not simply at the time but in the years since to cover this up? That must include access to the records of the security services, because, frankly, if he will not give that commitment, he will be letting down the Ballymurphy families.
As I have said, the Ballymurphy families have waited for far too long, through successive Governments and over too many decades, to get an understanding of what actually happened. We need to find a way forward that can make sure that families such as the Ballymurphy families are able to get that information—that understanding, recognition and truth—much more quickly. That will mean ensuring that they have access to all the information that is available both across Northern Ireland and from the British and UK state.
I welcome the Government’s commitment in the Queen’s Speech to bring forward measures that will address the legacy of the troubles—troubles I remember all too well. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that these measures will be focused on getting answers for victims and their loved ones in a way that allows Northern Ireland to heal and come together, rather than further deepening divisions?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point about the ability to heal and the ability to look forward while always being accountable for and recognising and understanding our past. I can confirm that I am absolutely committed to working to find a way forward that will provide certainty for those who have been directly affected by the events of the troubles and deliver wider reconciliation for Northern Ireland, recognising that Northern Ireland itself suffered during the troubles.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s apology, but, although I mean no disrespect to him, I do feel that something of such gravity really does require the Prime Minister to apologise directly, not by proxy, to the families of those killed, and I hope that he will urge that.
The findings of the inquest into the Ballymurphy killings clearly show that the state was not an observer, but was a participant in the troubles. Does that not surely mean that the Government cannot unilaterally impose a plan to address that conflict legacy, and will he now return to what he previously agreed and ensure that, in dealing with the past, we put victims and their loved ones first?
If the hon. Gentleman looks back to my opening statement, he will see that the Prime Minister is and has been apologising directly to the families as well as more publicly and widely, so I will just correct him on that point. More widely, we have got to find a way to ensure that we have a system that works and delivers for people. The Stormont House agreement has been referred to, but the reality is that that was in 2014. We have learned things since then; there has been consultation since then, and it is right that the Government take that into account and we take forward the Stormont House principles in a way that can be delivered and can work for families and for Northern Ireland.
I welcome my right hon Friend’s statement and the fact that the Ballymurphy families have finally been served their long overdue justice. However, I also wish to urge my right hon. Friend to outline as soon as he can a timeline for when we can bring forward the new measures in this parliamentary Session that will deliver answers for all those affected by the legacy of the troubles and put an end to the cycle of investigations and prosecutions, allowing Northern Ireland to move forward with a brighter future.
As set out in the Queen’s Speech, we will bring forward legislation in this Session to address the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland. I am committed to bringing forward legislation that focuses on reconciliation, and if we get that right, it will deliver for victims, for veterans and for all the people of Northern Ireland. That is the work we will be doing in the period ahead.
The humility of Tory Members today is to be welcomed, but three years ago in a Westminster Hall debate, I was shouted down by some of the same Tory Members when I mentioned the actions of the Parachute Regiment in Ballymurphy. Members will of course take their lead from the Prime Minister, and it is disappointing that he is not making the statement here today. Following the publication of the Saville report, Prime Minister David Cameron made a statement and an apology to those families. The Ballymurphy families have been through a similar hell for nearly 50 years, so when will the Prime Minister meet those families, look them in the eye and apologise for the unlawful killing of their loved ones?
I thank the Secretary of State for his heartfelt apology. This is a most heartbreaking affair. It cuts right to the quick of a divided city, a divided country and a divided people. As a Protestant man, as a Unionist and as a loyalist, I stretch out my hand of love, of forbearance, of common grief and of compassion to my neighbour who has suffered, and I say to them that their tears and the sting of their tears are the same as the sting of our tears. There is no difference in the colour or feeling of that grief, and we share that grief with them today in a heartfelt and compassionate way. I hope that they accept the sincerity of those remarks and those feelings, which are across our country.
This verdict does lift, Denning-like, the curtain on the appalling vista of what has happened in Northern Ireland. No doubt more and more will follow. That is not something we look forward to, but know that more will come. The Secretary of State is correct when he says that the pitch has been somewhat queered by the release of terrorists from our jails and by the on-the-runs and letters of comfort to them, because their victims will never see any justice in our country. We therefore cannot have scapegoating of our soldiers or our police officers or a perverse exhibiting and rewriting of what happened in Northern Ireland, in an “Alice in Wonderland” like way, where the peacekeepers become accused of being the peace-breakers. This is a most difficult and tragic situation, and all we can say is that we have to wish the Secretary of State well in what he does now.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, which I know will be genuine and hopefully well received across Northern Ireland in terms of the need for people to come together. It is right that this week and at this moment in time we are focused on the pain, loss and suffering that the families and the victims of Ballymurphy have experienced for far, far too long. He is right that we must also remember that more than 3,500 people were killed and tens of thousands of people were injured, with families affected across Northern Ireland and beyond, the majority of whom were innocent civilians.
By far the majority of our armed forces acted with honour and focus, and Ballymurphy just highlights what a tragic period in the history of this country the troubles were and why it is so important that we work together, recognising some of the very difficult, painful compromises that have been made over the past few decades to deliver the Good Friday agreement and the peace and prosperity that Northern Ireland has seen since. That should be treasured, and it is something we need to build on and deliver on in the future.
When I speak to people about Northern Ireland, I apply a simple test, which is, “What if this happened in Bristol, and not Belfast?” Much like the people of Belfast, the people of Bristol sometimes wish they had a different Prime Minister, but he is their Prime Minister, for those of all faiths and none and those of all persuasions and none. As their Prime Minister, it is a disgrace that he is not here to make this statement from that Dispatch Box. He should have done that earlier this week. We all know the symbolism of these Benches and that Dispatch Box.
The Prime Minister has said that he wants to learn from the experience of the past, so I say gently to him that the experience of the past 100 years is that when a British Prime Minister ignores what is going on in Northern Ireland, we see a difficult situation that does not improve. Some of the things he has now said are deeply problematic, such as unilaterally pulling away the Stormont House agreement. If that is the case, he very quickly needs to come here with the Irish Government and all the political parties involved and tell us what will be in its place. That is the true apology that would be right for those poor families from Ballymurphy and across this whole tragedy.
I am afraid that what the hon. Lady has just outlined is wrong on a number of points. Apart from the things that I have outlined, the Prime Minister is in contact with the Ballymurphy families directly, and there is the statement he made yesterday and the conversation he had with the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister yesterday.
My point has actually been that I think the principles of Stormont House are hugely important. There is a range of things there that we need to deliver on. The reality is that since 2014 that has not happened, for a range of reasons. There have been learnings, and things have changed since then. There has been a consultation that we need to reflect on and deliver on. We need to make sure that we can deliver on those principles and get on with it, rather than being another seven years down the line with people still talking about something at a time when we are losing people and families are not getting the information that they deserve. At the heart of what we want to do is making sure that we are leading to delivering for victims and that we have reconciliation for people across Northern Ireland. [Interruption.]
The chaos and impunity of the Ballymurphy killings contributed to the near-collapse of the rule of law in Northern Ireland and a sickeningly casual attitude to human life. For years after those killings, thousands more people had their lives needlessly and cruelly taken by killers in and out of uniform.
To justify an amnesty, some say that no good can come from delving into dire events in the past. Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that good did come this week because lies were confounded, the truth was affirmed and the innocence of victims was vindicated? Does he acknowledge that, precisely because state actors and paramilitaries since the agreement have failed to bring forward information, victims feel that the only way that they can get to truth and justice is through the judicial process? Does he agree that those who run from truth and accountability are those in state agencies and those in the militias who know the most and who inflicted the worst?
As I mentioned in my opening remarks, I agree that there is no doubt, and we do need to acknowledge, that the actions and the particular incidents at Ballymurphy did fuel further reactions and retaliations that drove the troubles, particularly in those early years. We need to take accountability; that is why I referenced that in my statement.
The hon. Lady is also right that it is right that the state takes accountability and apologises, exactly as we are doing today, when there is clear acknowledgment that things were done that were wrong. That is what we are doing today. I fundamentally agree with her that it is important that, whoever the actors were, there is a huge majority of unsolved deaths, injuries and murders across Northern Ireland that people are looking for information about. They have a right to get that information, and we need to do everything we can to get that information, to get that accountability and to get to the truth.
I take the Secretary of State back to 8.30 am on this day, 13 May, in 1994 in Hill Street, Lurgan in my constituency of Upper Bann. Fred Anthony, 38, a Protestant, was a cleaner in the town’s Royal Ulster Constabulary station. As he travelled in his car along Hill Street with his wife and two children, an IRA booby-trap bomb exploded. Fred Anthony died; his three-year-old daughter spent a week in a coma, both her legs were broken and shrapnel lodged close to her brain—a life lost and a family destroyed.
No one has ever been charged in relation to this cold-blooded, ruthless murder. The Anthony family, who I spoke with this morning—like so many families of victims of the Provisional IRA—desire truth and justice. They look at the Ballymurphy findings and wish that they, too, had been given the same resource to find truth as the Ballymurphy families, who have fought hard and learned so much. What is the Secretary of State’s message to the Anthony family today, and what support can he give them to find truth and justice?
The hon. Lady has again highlighted the very sad reality of too many families not yet having an understanding of the information that they need to be able to know what happened and the truth, which gives an ability to move forward. We are very clear that our objective of addressing the legacy of the troubles and delivering on our commitments means that we want to deal with the past in a way that helps people in Northern Ireland, such as the families that the hon. Lady just outlined, to look forward. That means that this is something we need to deliver on. We need to find a system that can get that information and get to the truth. It is clear that this week’s case—let alone other cases that we have seen recently—shows fundamentally that the current system has not been, and is not, delivering for victims and the people of Northern Ireland. When it takes 50 years to get the truth, something is wrong and we need to find a different way forward.
Taking 50 years for the truth to be established about the killing of the 10 innocent Ballymurphy civilians is truly shameful, and the truth uncovered is due to the tireless efforts of the families of the victims. Why has it taken so very long to get to the truth and why has the Prime Minister refused to meet the families of those killed? Can the Secretary of State tell us, in reference to the previous question, what specific action his Government will take to reassure the people of Northern Ireland that they are unequivocally committed to discovering the truth about all unsolved killings and to deal appropriately with legacy issues, as set out in the Stormont agreement?
The hon. Lady is not correct to say that the Prime Minister has refused anything. As I say, he is contacting the families directly. There has been a lengthy delay in delivering even the findings of the Ballymurphy inquest. That is obviously not directly a matter for the Government in the latter part, but I know that covid has had a significant impact on the legacy inquest timetable. However, the hon. Lady highlights the point that I have been making consistently: this has taken far too long. It should not take 50 years to get to the truth. We must make sure that it does not take 50 years for people in the future. That is why we are working—I have been talking to the Irish Government; we want to work with the Irish Government—but we do need to find a way forward. Stormont House was 2014. The principles of it are absolutely right. They are core to delivering for the families in Northern Ireland. We need to do that in a way that reflects what has happened and what we have learned since 2014—in a way we can deliver on to make sure that these families get to the truth. We have committed to doing that through legislation. We want to work across our partners and the people of Northern Ireland to find a way to do that that works for everybody in Northern Ireland.
The Prime Minister’s predecessor came to this House to report on the findings of the Bloody Sunday inquiry. His presence helped build reconciliation. Families in Ballymurphy have served a half-century sentence waiting for justice. It should therefore have been the Prime Minister addressing Parliament today. Peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland can never be taken for granted. It has to be won, and that starts by showing a commitment to finding truth and justice, so does the Secretary of State agree that, from this point, it must be the families of this injustice in Ballymurphy who are put first, and that the Government must listen to them as to how reparation processes have to change to expedite justice?
As I said, there were big, bold, difficult and complex steps taken that led to the Good Friday agreement—decisions that were difficult for people at the time, but they have delivered peace and prosperity over the last few decades. Northern Ireland has predominantly moved away from violence. We need to make sure that we continue to respect the principles that led to the Good Friday agreement and continue to look at how we develop that to ensure that Northern Ireland can continue to prosper.
Within that, it is absolutely right that we want to make sure that families are able to get to the truth and the information without not just the delay, but the pain and difficulty that families are having at the moment. Obviously, the Ballymurphy families have been through a completely unacceptable experience over the last 50 years, but there are also other families out there, other unsolved murders, and other injuries that have been caused, where nobody has yet got to the bottom of what happened. It is important that we find a way forward that ensures that those families and victims who want that information can get it in a timely fashion. There is a real risk, if we do not do this in a way that works, that we will have people passing away without ever knowing the truth. That is not acceptable and we have a duty to deliver for them and for the future of Northern Ireland.
Given the gravity of this report, I think that the Prime Minister should be at the Dispatch Box making this statement. In five separate incidents, over the weekend of Operation Demetrius, 10 people, who posed no threat and bore no arms, were shot dead. That must raise questions about the preparation for Operation Demetrius—what was said to those soldiers about the yellow card that each of them should have been carrying. What can the Government do, and particularly the MOD, to shed light on what was said and done in preparation for Operation Demetrius?
As the hon. Gentleman said, and as others have rightly said and I have said, the families should never have had to wait 50 long years to hear Justice Keegan’s findings this week. Obviously, I convey my thanks to her for the work that she and the team have done. I can promise, as I said earlier, that that will be followed by action to prevent others who have lost loved ones—from all communities, including the armed forces—from going through the same continual, lengthy and traumatic experience to get to the heart of the truth of what happened.
It is an awkward truth for us all that the prospect of prosecutions resulting from criminal investigations is vanishingly small, but we have seen that a sense of justice can be provided through truth, acknowledgment and information. We want to deal with the past in a way that not only helps society in Northern Ireland to be able to look forward rather than back, but also gets to the truth, and therefore accountability and an understanding of what has happened in a whole range of cases—Ballymurphy and others—that are still unsolved.
The Secretary of State said in his statement that Ballymurphy should not have happened, and of course we all agree, but it did happen; and it happened again six months later, in the city of Derry. The Prime Minister now needs to come to that Dispatch Box and apologise properly, on behalf of us all, to the people of Ballymurphy.
“Entirely innocent”, Mr Speaker: “entirely innocent”. Does the Secretary of State accept then, given the time it can take, and has taken, for the families of the innocents to get the truth of events, that it must mean that justice does have no limitation? If so, will his Government pause now and reconsider their recent moves to create such a limit for justice?
Look, as I said earlier, the Prime Minister has given an unreserved public apology for what happened in Ballymurphy. I am here, the Government are here today, not just apologising but taking accountability for what happened and what should not have happened, not just at the time of Ballymurphy—obviously that was unacceptable—but for what was also unacceptable: what has happened since, in that 50 years that we have had to wait. But in answer to the hon. Gentleman I will be very clear to the House, as I have been, I hope, through the course of this morning: we are determined that families need to get to the truth. They need to be able to know what happened. There are too many cases out there unresolved, where families do not have the information of what happened, and therefore it is impossible for them to be able to have an opportunity not only to know about their past but to really look forward to their future. We are determined to do that. There should not be a time limit on getting to the truth. We need to find a way—based on the fact that the current system is failing everybody—to have a system that can work, that gets to the truth and gets information, for the benefit of reconciliation in Northern Ireland and for those families.