reddit this Owen Bowcott The Guardian, Tuesday 1 November 2011 Article history
Margaret Duffy, twin sister of Billy McKavanagh, has campaigned for decades for justice for her brothers and cousin. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA Wire/Press Association
Forty years ago British soldiers shot Billy McKavanagh in the back as he ran away from them in a republican area of Belfast. Soldiers then pistol-whipped his brother and cousin, and further seriously assaulted them while in custody. Now, the Ministry of Defence has taken the highly unusual step of apologising to the family.
The MoD letter is not unprecedented but it is one of the few occasions when the government has formally accepted responsibility for a killing and the mistreatment of detainees by troops in Northern Ireland.
The apology follows a report earlier this year by detectives from the Historial Enquiries Team (HET) of the police service of Northern Ireland which confirmed that none of the men were armed when McKavanagh, a Catholic, was killed on 11 August 1971.
The letter has been released by the McKavanagh family through the Derry-based Pat Finucane Centre which helps relatives of victims of the Troubles engage with the HET in their pursuit of justice.
The letter to the family, written on behalf of the defence secretary, Philip Hammond, and the Northern Ireland secretary, Owen Paterson, says: "The government accepts that Billy McKavanagh was not a terrorist and that his death was a tragedy.
"It also accepts the evidence that his brother and cousin were mistreated after being taken into custody. I know that nothing I can say will ease the sorrow you feel for what has happened but I hope that the [HET's] findings and the government's acceptance of them will be of value in setting the record straight on these tragic events."
The police inquiry concluded that the men has been picking up looted and discarded items – including a pair of waders and a rivet gun – from a street in the Markets area of the city when an army patrol from the Royal Green Jackets appeared.
It was two days after the introduction of internment without trial and Belfast's republican areas were extremely tense. The three men sprinted away but a bullet fired by one of the soldiers struck McKavanagh between the shoulder blades.
"The soldiers had been briefed to expect [the] IRA," the HET report stated. "Some of the army patrol claimed that an explosive device was thrown towards them, possibly by a fourth man."
The soldier who fired the fatal shot maintained that he had targeted a man carrying what he thought was a gun. "The HET [however] does not believe that Billy had the rivet gun when he was shot by 'soldier A'," the official report said. "If correct, then it follows that 'soldier A' must have shot the wrong man."
Medical orderlies tried to save McKavanagh but he died at the scene. His brother Pat McKavanagh and cousin Teddy Rooney were held with the body until an armoured personnel carrier (APC) arrived. "Soldiers from the APC ran up into a house where Patrick and Teddy were having a cup of tea, grabbed Teddy and Patrick by the hair and pulled them into the street," the HET report said.
"They opened the back of the APC and threw them into it. The soldiers then verbally and physically assaulted them. They were pistol-whipped and beaten with rifle butts. After being taken into custody [in Hastings Street barracks] they were hooded and were then further beaten with batons before being handed over to the police."
A statement subsequently given by Rooney claimed that while inside the APC his head had been placed beside an opened shutter in the vehicle. "I was told that if a shot was fired at them [by the IRA]," Rooney said, "they in turn would shoot me."
Medical reports confirmed that Pat McKavanagh had extensive bruising due to repeated blows to the head, face and body. Soldier A was later taken to the police station to be photographed with the two men he had arrested.
He told HET investigators , the report said, "that when he saw them their facial injuries were so bad he would not have been able to recognise them had they not been identified to him. They had been uninjured when he last saw them at the scene of Billy's shooting. The photographs have not been recovered by the HET."
In the aftermath of the recent Baha Mousa inquiry into the mistreatment of Iraqi detainees who were hooded and beaten, the latest HET report echoes concerns about British military behaviour in conflict zones.
The McKavanagh family said: "It has taken 40 years but we are glad that we persevered and didn't give up. This struggle was worth it though it is sad that Billy's parents and brother Pat did not live to see his name cleared and the truth told.
"We are particularly relieved that British government ministers have admitted for the first time the barbaric treatment to which Pat and Teddy Rooney were subjected to in the hours after the shooting."