Northern Ireland Minister Apologizes for Saying Killings by U.K. Forces ‘Were Not Crimes’
DUBLIN — The British cabinet minister for Northern Ireland apologized on Thursday after causing widespread anger by asserting in Parliament that killings by soldiers and the police during the decades-long conflict there “were not crimes.”
The remarks from the minister, Karen Bradley, made on Wednesday, were particularly inflammatory because they came a week before prosecutors in Northern Ireland were scheduled to decide whether to charge British former soldiers over their roles in one of the conflict’s deadliest days: Jan. 30, 1972, known as Bloody Sunday. On that day, members of the Parachute Regiment fatally shot 13 unarmed protesters and bystanders in Londonderry. A 14th died months later.
Within hours of making her comments, faced with widespread condemnation in Ireland and elsewhere, Ms. Bradley returned to Parliament and said that she wanted to “clarify,” adding that her earlier statement “was not referring to any specific cases but expressing a general view.”
On Thursday, she offered a further, written statement, declaring that she was “profoundly sorry” for “the offense and hurt” caused by her words.
In her initial statement, Ms. Bradley had said that fewer than 10 percent of the killings in the conflict of 1968 to 1998, known as the Troubles, were carried out by the security forces, and that those killings, unlike all the murders carried out by what she termed terrorists, were not against the law.
“They were people acting under orders and under instruction and fulfilling their duty in a dignified and appropriate way, ” she said.
“Of course,” she said in her second statement, “where there is evidence of wrongdoing it should always be investigated, whoever is responsible. These are of course matters for the police and prosecuting authorities who are independent of government.”
In her third, she added: “The language was wrong and even though this was not my intention, it was deeply insensitive to many of those who lost loved ones. I know from those families that I have met personally just how raw their pain is and I completely understand why they want to see justice properly delivered.”
At least 3,500 people were killed during the Troubles as mainly Catholic militants seeking to end British rule in Northern Ireland clashed with the police, with British soldiers and with rival, mainly Protestant, militants.
The Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which brought an uneasy peace to the region, offered early release for all imprisoned militants who signed up to the deal, but did not offer any amnesty or establish a truth commission.
A number of relatives of victims of the Troubles criticized Ms. Bradley’s comments, with some calling for her resignation.
Liam Wray, whose brother Jim Wray, then 22, was shot dead on Bloody Sunday, told Irish state-run radio that he believed her statement could not be excused as a slip of the tongue.
“It wasn’t a word out of place; it was a clear statement, like some colonial governor of the past lording over people to say it was not a crime for British soldiers to kill people here in Northern Ireland,” he said. “It is horrendous that anybody could have an attitude like that in public life in the 21st century.”
The controversy comes less than two weeks after the Justice Department in Northern Ireland approved a new unit, with a budget of 55 million pounds, or about $ 72 million, to investigate 52 cases involving 93 deaths during the Troubles. Such inquiries have traditionally been resisted by Northern Ireland’s largest pro-British party, the Democratic Unionist Party, which argues that state organizations, which keep records, are more vulnerable to retrospective investigation than terrorist groups, which do not.
The prospect of soldiers being prosecuted for actions during the Troubles has also met resistance inside Ms. Bradley’s Conservative Party; Gavin Williamson, the defense secretary, has described such investigations as “witch hunts.”
In The Sunday Times of London this week, Mr. Williamson was quoted as saying the government “had to do something to make sure our soldiers and veterans have the protection they deserve” and proposing a retrospectively imposed 10-year limit for the prosecution of British soldiers accused of war crimes.
Several hours after her initial remarks, Ms. Bradley had a scheduled event at the Irish Embassy in London with Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney. At the meeting, he told her that Ireland was opposed to any amnesty for so-called legacy killings, whether carried out by state or nonstate actors.
“The position of the Irish government is clear. There should be effective investigations into all deaths during the Troubles, regardless of the perpetrator,” a spokesman for Mr. Coveney said Wednesday night.
This is not the first time Ms. Bradley has raised eyebrows in Northern Ireland. In September last year, eight months after taking up her ministerial position, she acknowledged in an interview with a parliamentary magazine, The House, that she had previously 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 said.