Saturday, October 9, 2010
This blog has known many British Secretary’s of State. They have come in all shapes and sizes and with differing levels of knowledge and understanding about the situation here.
Some have done their best by their own lights. Others have been inept. Still others indulged in sleight of hand politics. On one occasion this succeeded in collapsing the peace process. And at other times the political institutions fell.
What they all have had in common was and is a determination to put British interests first.
Last Thursday this blog facilitated a meeting with the present incumbent, Owen Paterson, and the Ballymurphy Massacre families.
Regular readers of this blog will know that in the two days after the introduction of internment in August 1971, 11 people, including a mother of 8 children and a local Catholic priest, were killed by the British Parachute Regiment.
None of those killed had any connection to any armed group. They were all innocent civilians.
The families have always disputed British Army and RUC claims about the circumstances surrounding the deaths. They want an independent international investigation into the deaths of their loved ones and an apology from the British government which recognises their innocence.
This was not the Ballymurphy family’s first meeting with a British Secretary of State. In August 2009 I brought the families to Hillsborough Castle to meet Shaun Woodward. It was an emotional occasion as all the families spoke of the deaths of their loved ones.
For them the events of 1971 are as yesterday. The memories are raw. There were tears. The trauma of those events is fresh and horrifying. The family’s case for an independent international inquiry is compelling.
Shaun Woodward was shaken by the accounts. That was obvious from his reaction. All who listened that evening, as one after another the family representatives exposed their deep hurt and recounted the violent deaths of their loved ones, were visibly moved.
But after that British Secretary of State went back into his system to discuss this case his political response to the families was zilch. Zero. He did nothing.
So, the families and this blog did not have high hopes for our meeting on Thursday with Owen Paterson. His track record thus far has not been good. Even before he became Secretary of State Paterson was part of the short lived and failed effort to re unite the UUP and the British Conservative Party.
He was also at a meeting which brought together the DUP, the UUP and the Orange Order to agree a unionist candidate to stand against Michelle Gildernew in Fermanagh South Tyrone in the last Westminster election. That also failed.
On Thursday we gathered in a stuffy room in Stormont House, where Britain’s Northern Ireland Office is based in a greatly reduced form. For an hour the relatives told their stories. Neither time nor the retelling of these accounts diminished the emotion or the power of their words.
For his part Paterson’s contribution lacked any affinity with the experience or grief of the families. He may have felt for them at a personal level but his stock response was to try and shift any decision on the Ballymurphy case into the wider discussion about how society tackles the fraught issue of the legacy of the past.
A suggestion by him that they use the Historical Enquiries Team was met with derision by all of the families but particularly those who had already engaged with the HET and come away from that experience deeply angry and dissatisfied.
At one point this blog noticed that Paterson was wearing a wrist band. On closer inspection it turned out to be a wrist band in support of the Royal Irish Regiment! This blog challenged him. How could he be so insensitive as to wear a wrist band in support of a British Army Regiment, especially one with a dark history in the north, to a meeting of relatives whose loved ones were killed by the same British Army?
Rather than acknowledge his poor judgement and the inappropriateness of wearing this wrist band to this particular meeting Paterson chose to defend his action.
One relative put it to him that he had the opportunity, by taking the right decision on the Ballymurphy Massacre, to define his time as British Secretary of State positively. And this blog added that the right decision by him could liberate these families and many others and make a valuable and constructive contribution to tackling legacy issues.
Paterson did agree to come back to the families after the New Year in response to their demand for an independent international investigation. I am not hopeful for his response.
But when the meeting was over the annoyance of the relatives was obvious. It had been a tense, emotional and at times bad engagement.
The families made it clear to Owen Paterson that they were not for giving up. They are determined to achieve their demands and secure truth for their loved ones. This blog fully supports their efforts. So should everyone who believes in justice.