The families of victims killed in a bloody massacre during the Troubles are demanding the resignation of Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley after she made inflammatory remarks asserting that killings at the hands of security forces were “not murders”.
Pressure mounted on the Northern Ireland secretary to resign her position amid renewed anger, despite continued support from Downing Street, after families and justice support groups refused to meet with her to address the comments last week.
The highly-charged comments, widely criticised as partisan and insensitive across the political spectrum, came just one week before prosecutors decide whether paratroopers will be charged over the killing of 11 unarmed civilians during a civil rights march in Derry in Bloody Sunday in 1972.
Her remarks also came the same day that the Ballymurphy Massacre inquest heard evidence of security forces murdering unarmed civilians.
The families of victims of the Ballymurphy Massacre have been requesting a meeting with Karen Bradley since she took up her position of secretary of state for Northern Ireland, with no luck or replies, a spokesman said.
“We will not meet her, and have one request for Mrs Bradley, and that is for her to resign immediately,” said John Teggart, whose father Danny was shot 14 times by soldiers at Ballymurphy in west Belfast in 1971 by British soldiers. Ten people died in Ballymurphy during an army operation.
Ms Bradley said she was “profoundly sorry” for her comments but made clear that she did not intend to step down. “I do not believe what I said, that is not my view,” she said.
A delegation of family members met with Bradley at Stormont House in Belfast last Friday to express concern over her comments that the killings were “not crimes” and were the actions of people “fulfilling their duties in a dignified and appropriate way”.
Frances Meehan, whose brother Michael Donnelly was shot with a plastic bullet in 1981, said her position was “untenable”. Addressing the media after the meeting, Meehan said Bradley’s apology was not sufficient to undo the damage given her position in cabinet.
"I cannot accept your apology, but I will accept your resignation"
— RTÉ ClaireByrneLive (@ClaireByrneLive) March 11, 2019
“They looked her in the eye and told her she needed to resign,” Relatives for Justice, a group of bereaved families which sent members to the meeting, said. Images of Stephen McConomy, an 11-year-old boy killed by British forces lying in a coffin, were presented to Bradley during the meeting.
John Teggart told the Irish World that Bradley’s comments were “upsetting and traumatising” to all families affected by violence during the Troubles.
“The Secretary of State of supposed to be independent. She’s supposed to represent everybody in the North. And for her to come off so partisan is a total disgrace,” he said.
“For families like ourselves, the inquests are ongoing. They are the only mechanism in place at the moment and it is begrudged by the DUP and many other politicians.”
The Ballymurphy families have also instructed their legal team to contact the attorney general to probe “potential contempt issues” since Bradley appeared to indirectly reference the Bloody Sunday case in her statement.
The Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou McDonald, the leader of the Social Democrat and Labour Party (SDLP), Colum Eastwood, Northern Ireland’s first police ombudsman and a number of Irish senators have all called for Ms Bradley to resign.
Simon Coveney said the timing of her remarks “couldn’t be worse,” while
Labour’s Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Tony Lloyd said that Bradley does “not have sufficient credibility to stay in her post” and that her comments reflect a “disturbing pattern”.
“[Karen Bradley] has done nothing for the victims from the first day she took office. She’s coming out saying those security forces didn’t do anything wrong; it was the security forces that murdered my brothers,” Eugene Reavey, whose three brothers were shot dead by the loyalist paramilitary group Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in their home in 1976, said.
“The messy issue on the border with Brexit is the same: The ignorance. They didn’t want to come over [to Northern Ireland] and spend time and talk to real people…She is, without doubt, the worst Secretary of State that we’ve ever had.”
Colin Harvey, a human rights expert in Queen’s University Belfast, said that her position is “untenable” given the significance of her role in the place of an assembly at Stormont.
“The [Good Friday] Agreement places a very strong emphasis on the idea of ‘rigorous impartiality’ and the Secretary of State is a key part of that,” he said. “Particularly in the current context where we have no government [in Northern Ireland] in operation.
Liam Conlon, Chair of Labour Party Irish Society, told the Irish World that the fact she hasn’t resigned — or been fired — shows “how little regard [the Conservatives] have for the victims and their families”.
Jonathan Tonge, a professor of British and Irish politics at the University of Liverpool, said that Karen Bradley’s comments were “extraordinarily ill-judged” and that she should consider his position after she “effectively offered an amnesty to one side only”.
“They undermine the entire apparatus and processes of legacy set up to try and deal fairly with the past in Northern Ireland,” he said.
Mark Thompson, CEO of Relatives for Justice, said that Bradley’s comments were a “political attempt at direct interference in due process and the rule of law” in relation to any potential prosecutions in the cases of state killings.
Last year, Gavin Williamson, the Defence Secretary, said that he was considering introducing legislation to help former British soldiers being pursued through the courts for war crimes — in what he called “witch hunts” — avoid prosecution.
Bradley’s comments, made in the House of Commons after a question from DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly, are the latest in a long list of high-profile gaffes. She previously said she had been unaware of the deep sectarian and political fault lines in Northern Ireland.
“I didn’t understand things like when elections are fought, for example, in Northern Ireland — people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice versa,” she wrote at the time.