Getting Away with Murder in Northern Ireland

Pandering to ultranationalism, Boris Johnson is seeking to make it harder for the families of those murdered by British soldiers in Northern Ireland to pursue justice in the courts. It’s the latest escalation of the Tories’ hard-right turn on the question of how Britain should confront the legacy of the Troubles.

The Ballymurphy family members make their way from court this afternoon holding pictures of their loved ones at Laganside Courts on May 13, 2019 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Charles McQuillan / Getty

New British parliament sessions always begin with antiquated pomp and circumstance. The doors to the House of Commons are slammed in the face of a figure called “Black Rod,” who raps on the door three times with a staff. Then it opens, and the Queen is ushered in to read a speech prepared by the prime minister and his aides, setting out the new government’s priorities.

Attempting to keep his newly won Tory seats onside, and aware of the fact the National Health Service (NHS) is deemed as important as Brexit to voters, Johnson promised an investment boost to the health service, albeit one that constitutes a mere 40 per cent of what is actually needed. Johnson naturally included a ritual insistence that the United Kingdom will leave the European Union on time.

But other throwaway mentions are far more troubling. The Queen’s speech included a commitment to end “vexatious claims” against the armed forces. This was a clear attack on the multiple court cases currently underway regarding extrajudicial killings in the North of Ireland. It has taken decades for the families of those murdered by British soldiers to bring their cases to court, blocked at every turn in their pursuit of justice.

The families of those who died in the Ballymurphy Massacre are currently involved in an inquest into the killings, which took place between August 9 and 11, 1971. Evidence presented has been horrifying: one soldier allegedly retrieved part of the skull of a Catholic victim to use as an ashtray; a paratrooper admitted his battalion had a sweepstake on killings; another boasted of shooting and killing people; an army major described the fatal shooting of a priest giving a dying man last rites as “good press.”

The government was forced to apologize in 2013 for the fatal killing of twenty-seven-year old John Pat Cunningham in 1974. Cunningham, who had learning difficulties, had been walking home from work when he saw an army vehicle. He grew scared and ran away; the soldiers inside responded by shooting him in the back, ending his life.

In the Bloody Sunday Inquiry under New Labour, those reviewing the evidence found no warnings were given and that fatal shootings and many injuries of protestors engaging in a peaceful civil rights march in Derry were unjustified. One member of the Parachute Regiment, known as Soldier F, now faces trial for the attempted murder of Patrick O’Donnell, Joseph Friel, Joe Mahon, and Michael Quinn, and the murder of James Wray and William McKinney. During his stint as prime minister, David Cameron said the killings were “unjustified and unjustifiable.” But under Theresa May and Boris Johnson, the government has performed a volte-face: the previous defense minister, Gavin Williamson, offered Soldier F full welfare support and promised to cover his legal costs. Now Boris Johnson has written into his government priorities a move to clamp down on attempts by grieving families in the North of Ireland to pursue justice after being blocked for years.

It shows a complete lack of empathy for people in a country where the Conservative Party doesn’t run candidates. Johnson can appear tough, talking up the military as brave and unimpeachable, a source of national pride. That involves amnesia over the appalling behavior of the Parachute Regiment during the Troubles. Johnson has already lied about how the Irish Sea border will affect trade between Britain and the North of Ireland, and now he is quite happy to block any prosecutions of soldiers who murder with impunity and ignore orders. The move is designed to appeal to nationalists who idolize the army, but it also gives carte blanche for soldiers to behave how they like.

Terming the pursuit of justice by families of those killed in Ballymurphy and the Bogside in the 1970s “vexatious” is a slap in the face. No one should be forced to simply accept the fact that their family members, or in several cases priests, were murdered by the state. But Johnson has now admitted he doesn’t care.