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British army apologises to family of Derry man killed by soldier in 1971

Billy McGreanery was shot dead as he walked by an army observation post in Derry in 1971. The soldier involved said he thought he saw him carrying a gun.

Image: Tim Ireland/PA Wire

THE BRITISH MINISTRY of Defence has apologised for the death of a man killed by a soldier in Derry 40 years ago.

Billy McGreanery, 41, was shot dead while walking near an army observation post on 15 September 1971.

The soldier who fired claimed he believed McGreanery was armed, however a more recent investigation by the Historical Enquiries Team found that McGreanery was not carrying a weapon.

The HET report concluded:

It is the view of the HET that he was not pointing a rifle at the soldier at the time. He 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.

The report, which also questioned the protection of soldiers from prosecution, was given to McGreanery’s family in June last year and they subsequently published details from the report through the Pat Finucane Centre. They also allowed the HET’s findings to be sent to the British Ministry of Defence.


Although the RUC recommended bringing murder charges in 1971 against the soldier involved in the shooting, the British Attorney General directed the Chief Crown Solicitor that the soldier could not be charged with murder as he was acting in the course of his duty at the time of the killing.

The Chief Solicitor then said he was not satisfied that there was a strong enough case for bringing manslaughter charges against the soldier, identified only as Soldier A in reports from the time, given conflicting evidence from military and civilian witnesses.


Today, McGreanery’s niece and nephew announced they have received an apology from General Sir Peter Wall, the British Army’s chief of general staff.

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In his letter dated 14 July 2011, Wall says that in light of the HET 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.

McGreanery’s family said they had fought “long and hard” for such an apology which they said acknowledges that “Bill was a totally innocent man who posed no threat”.

“We feel we have finally set the truth free and somewhat righted a terrible wrong,” they said, but added that the apology came too late for McGreaney’s late mother and brother.

The family plans to commemorate the anniversary of McGreanery’s death with a ceremony and mass this Thursday evening.

Maggie O’Conor of the Pat Finucane Centre welcomed the army apology. She said that the Attorney General’s view that the soldier could not be charged because he had been on duty at the time of the shooting “had no basis in law” and set a “highly dangerous precedent” in protecting soldiers from prosecution in cases involving civilian deaths.

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