UK apologizes for 1971 Belfast deaths; families want more

LONDON — A U.K. government minister stood before lawmakers Thursday and formally apologized for the killing of 10 civilians during unrest in Belfast half a century ago, as Britain and Northern Ireland struggle to come to terms with the events of the past.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis told the House of Commons that the government “profoundly regrets and is truly sorry’’ for the events in the Ballymurphy area of west Belfast in 1971. A coroner’s court ruled Tuesday that the nine men and one women killed by British troops were innocent victims who weren’t threatening soldiers at the time they were shot.

“The events of Ballymurphy should never have happened, the families of those who were killed should never have had to experience the grief and trauma of that loss,’’ Lewis said. “They should have not had to wait nearly five decades for the judgment this week, nor have been compelled to relive that terrible time in August 1971 again and again in their long, distressing quest for truth.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson apologized Wednesday in a telephone call with the leaders of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government, which includes representatives of both sides of the region’s sectarian divide.

The coroner’s verdict comes as veterans’ groups pressure the British government to block the prosecution of former soldiers, many now in their 70s and 80s, for their actions during the violence in Northern Ireland known as The Troubles. In recent weeks the six-county region that is part of the U.K. has been rocked by violent protests fueled by anger over the perceived unfair enforcement of coronavirus restrictions and concerns about Britain’s departure from the European Union.

More than 3,000 people died during three decades of conflict between between mostly Catholic supporters of unification with the Republic of Ireland and mostly Protestant backers of continued links with the United Kingdom.

The killings in Ballymurphy occurred over three days in August 1971 as the British Army sought to implement a new government policy that allowed for the arrest and internment without trial of suspected militants. Violence flared when protesters confronted soldiers who had moved into the largely Catholic area to arrest suspected members of the Irish Republican Army.

High Court Justice Siobhan Keegan ruled Tuesday that all of the victims were “entirely innocent” and weren’t engaged in paramilitary activity at the time they were shot. The dead included a mother of eight and a Catholic priest who was waving a white handkerchief as a sign of peace while assisting a wounded man.

Their families had fought for decades for a new inquiry to clear the names of their loved ones after earlier inquests proved inconclusive, fueling suggestions that the victims were somehow responsible for the shootings.

The families said the apology from Lewis, though more formal than Johnson’s, still was not enough.

Former Prime Minister David Cameron, for example, faced thousands of residents of Londonderry — also known as Derry — to admit that British troops were fully at fault for the deaths of 13 demonstrators in 1972 during what is now known as Bloody Sunday. Many locals long distrustful of British leaders wept at the act of contrition that followed a fact-finding probe.

John Teggart, whose father was killed at Ballymurphy, said the government’s public apology should come from Johnson.

“The right thing to do would be for it to come from the head of state: Boris Johnson,″ Teggart said. “We’ll not be rushing him, just whenever he is ready he can come and speak to the families. This has annoyed the families, it has taken away our moment.”

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