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FactCheck: Is Karen Bradley correct that killings committed by British forces during the Troubles were 'not crimes'?

Bradley has come under severe criticism for her comments in the House of Commons yesterday, but is she correct?

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THE UK’S NORTHERN Irish Secretary Karen Bradley has been faced with calls to resign, after remarks she made yesterday regarding killings in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.

She told the House of Commons that the deaths in Northern Ireland “that were at the hands of the military and police were not crimes”. 

Political parties and victims’ families were angered by the claim, and it prompted Tánaiste Simon Coveney to seek clarification from Bradley in a meeting last night.

On her part, Bradley later said her comments did not refer to any specific case, and was more of a “general view”. 

But is that true to say that the cases of British soldiers and police who killed people during the Troubles were “not crimes”? Let’s take a look. 

What Bradley said

This arose in the House of Commons yesterday, when DUP MP for Belfast South Emma Little-Pengelly took the floor.

She said that “well over 90%” of murders and injuries during the Troubles were as a result by acts of terrorism.

She asked Bradley when mechanisms would be put in place to investigate these cases where people were shot dead by armed groups during the Troubles.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Bradley replied: “The honourable lady sets out the figures very powerfully. Over 90% of the killings during the Troubles were at the hands of terrorists. Every single one of those was a crime.

The under 10% that were at the hands of the military and police were not crimes. They were people acting under orders and instructions, fulfilling their duties in a dignified and appropriate way.

Reaction to these comments outside of Westminster was swift, with Bradley coming in for heavy criticism from the SDLP and Sinn Féin. 

Roughly an hour later, she stood up again in the House of Commons and said she wanted to clarify her comments as she believed they could be “open to misinterpretation”. 

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Bradley said: “At oral questions, I referred to deaths during the Troubles caused by members of the security forces. The point I was seeking to convey was that the overwhelming majority of those who served carried out their duties with courage, professionalism, integrity and within the law.

I was not referring to any specific cases, but expressing a general view. Of course, 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.

Speaking to the Press Association last night, Bradley was asked if she wished to apologise for what she said in the House of Commons and she stopped short of doing so, and has not retracted the comments.

TheJournal.ie has contacted Bradley’s office asking for clarification on her statement made yesterday. She did not respond to the request for this FactCheck. 

The Northern Ireland Secretary’s statements provoked uproar from victims’ families and nationalist political parties in the North. 

The SDLP and Sinn Féin called for her to resign. John Teggart – whose father was killed in the 1971 Ballymurphy shootings – told the BBC what she said was “insulting, despicable to families” and an “absolute disgrace”. 

Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill also criticised Bradley for refusing to retract her statement and said it should be “withdrawn immediately”. 

In Ireland, Bradley’s comments were also condemned, with Fianna Fáil’s Brendan Smith describing them as “ignorant and hurtful”, while Tánaiste Simon Coveney said he’d be seeking a clarification from her over what was said.

The Troubles

There are varying figures for how many people died as a direct result of the conflict, but it is generally accepted that well in excess of 3,000 people died during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, an armed conflict that lasted around 30 years.

According to the commonly cited Sutton Index of Deaths, there were 3,532 deaths related to the Troubles between 1969 and 2001. It is derived from Malcolm Sutton’s book Bear in Mind These Dead, and the online index remains a project of Ulster University.

Extending that time period, the Commission for Victims and Survivors for Northern Ireland uses a figure of 3,720 conflict-related deaths between 1966 and 2006. This commission was established by the British government in the North to promote awareness of the interests of victims and survivors of the conflict.

The Sutton index says that in the case of 363 people who were killed, British security services – encompassing police and army – were responsible.

This figure does correspond to around 10% of the deaths caused during the Troubles being caused by British soldiers and police, as cited by Bradley in the House of Commons.

In the case of many of those killed during the Troubles, those responsible were never brought to justice.

Roughly one-third of killings during this period are the subject of PSNI legacy investigations. This applies to cases where republican groups, loyalist groups and security services were believed to be responsible for the killings, but no one was ever convicted.

Under the Good Friday Agreement, loyalists and republicans convicted of crimes were set free, but many of the killings at the time remain unsolved to this day. 

According to figures obtained by the BBC last year, the PSNI had 1,188 killings listed as legacy investigations. This included 530 attributed to republicans, 271 to loyalists and 354 attributed to security forces.

Various inquests have returned verdicts of unlawful killings and, in recent years, the PSNI in the North has reopened investigations into a number of cases.

Furthermore, there are a number of cases where police investigating the deaths are considering, or have already brought, charges against former soldiers and are trying them for crimes such as murder.

This includes the case of Bloody Sunday, where British soldiers opened fire on unarmed Catholic civil rights protesters in Derry in 1972, killing 13 – with another person dying some months later in hospital.

The Saville Report – which took 12 years to compile and was eventually published in 2010 - noted that the actions of British soldiers were “unjustifiable”, and that they had “lost control”.

In a stark contrast in tone from Bradley’s comments yesterday, then-Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons he was “deeply sorry” and apologised for Bloody Sunday on behalf of the British government.

“There is no doubt, there is nothing equivocal, there are no ambiguities,” he said. “What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong.”

Recent media reports have indicated that four ex-British soldiers could be charged with the 1972 shooting of unarmed marchers in Derry.

Legacy investigations by the PSNI also include the case of former British soldier Dennis Hutchings, who faces trial for attempted murder in connection with the fatal shooting of John Pat Cunningham in Tyrone in 1974.

The inquest into the 1971 Ballymurphy massacre which resulted in the deaths of 11 people also remains under way at the moment, with families dissatisfied at the original investigation’s findings.

Currently, individual cases like Bloody Sunday are being investigated by the PSNI. Larger scale, sweeping investigations would be possible under the landmark Stormont House Agreement which was agreed in 2014 and would have set up an historical investigations unit.

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However, with the Northern Assembly inactive for the past two years, politicians are no closer to enacting this agreement. In the meantime, the PSNI continues to conduct a number of probes into killings and atrocities committed by state forces and armed groups during the Troubles. 

Convictions

As well as investigations currently under way into crimes allegedly committed by members of British security services, there have already been cases where soldiers have been convicted over killings during the Troubles.

In 1992, 18-year-old Peter McBride was unarmed when he was shot and killed by two British soldiers.

Two Scots guardsmen – Mark Wright and James Fisher – were convicted of murder three years later and sentenced to life in prison. They were released in 1998, and were allowed to rejoin the British army, provoking the fury of McBride’s family and the nationalist community.

In 1972, Catholics Michael Naan and Andrew Murray were killed by British soldiers at a farm in Fermanagh. In 1981, Sergeants Stanley Hathaway and John Byrne were jailed for their murders and sentenced to life in prison. Two other soldiers pleaded guilty to lesser roles in the killings.

In 1990, 18-year-old Karen O’Reilly and 17-year-old Martin Peake were shot after British soldiers fired on a car they were travelling in at a checkpoint in west Belfast.

In another very high-profile case at the time, Sergeant Lee Clegg was sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in the killings. His conviction was later quashed in 1998, and he was cleared of the murder at a subsequent re-trial. He continued to serve with British armed forces.

Verdict

To recap, Bradley told the House of Commons that the cases where people died at the hands of the police or army during the Troubles were “not crimes”. 

“They were people acting under orders and instructions, fulfilling their duties in a dignified and appropriate way,” she said.

The Northern Ireland Secretary later said that she was “not referring to any specific cases, but expressing a general view”. Speaking to the Press Association last night, she said she “never intend[ed] to cause any offence”.

However, as highlighted above, there are a number of instances where British soldiers were convicted of murder in relation to people killed during the Troubles.

In British courts, it has been found that British soldiers did commit crimes – in some of the cases cited above, they were convicted in relation to killings during the Troubles.

It must be noted that of the 363 deaths attributed to British soldiers and police during the Troubles, only a very small number has so far resulted in a prosecution which found that a soldier had committed a crime. Nonetheless, it is incorrect to categorise all of the killings that British security services are responsible for during the Troubles as “not crimes”. 

Furthermore, a number of investigations are under way into killings committed by various parties – including British soldiers – during the Troubles. In future, it is conceivable that more British soldiers could face trial accused of committing crimes in relation to killings in Northern Ireland.

Bradley said deaths caused by British soldiers during the Troubles were not crimes. However, a number of British soldiers have been convicted in British courts of murder.

As a result, we rate this claim: FALSE

As per our verdict guide, this means the claim is inaccurate.

UPDATE: This afternoon, Karen Bradley released a new statement related to her comments yesterday.

She said: “Yesterday I made comments regarding the actions of soldiers during the Troubles. I want to apologise. I am profoundly sorry for the offence and hurt that my words have caused. The language was wrong and even though this was not my intention, it was deeply insensitive to many of those who lost loved ones.”

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here.

With additional reporting from Daragh Brophy

About the author:

Sean Murray

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