A man whose 11-year-old brother was killed by a soldier in Northern Ireland nearly 40 years ago has warned that victims’ families “were not going to go away” if the British government tried to introduce an amnesty for military personnel.
Emmett McConomy, whose older brother Stephen was shot in the back of the head with a plastic bullet, said the new Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, needed to understand the strength of feeling among families who had not yet seen cases involving British soldiers come to court.
“We’re asking that we be listened to, because we’re not going away. Victims’ families in Northern Ireland want to see justice, and they are asking for the truth to come out,” McConomy said, 38 years after his brother, a Catholic, was killed on the street in April 1982.
McConomy’s remarks come amid fresh uncertainty, following last week’s cabinet reshuffle, as to whether the UK will attempt to introduce a form of amnesty from prosecution for British soldiers who served in Northern Ireland.
Stephen was playing in the street when he was shot at close range by a soldier using a plastic bullet from a Saracen armoured car in Derry, at a time when there was no ongoing disturbance. “He had his hands in his pockets, was walking away from the Saracen, and he was shot in the back of the head,” his brother said.
The 11-year-old lay on a grass verge critically injured for several minutes and the soldier “threatened to shoot other kids who came to his aid”, McConomy said. The youngster was eventually rescued but died three days later, having suffered catastrophic brain damage.
There was only a limited investigation by military police, with the soldier – whose name is known, as are those of the others who were with him in the armoured vehicle – saying he fired accidentally.
An inquest was held the following year and returned an open verdict, but only after, said McConomy, “the jury had wanted to conclude there was no justification for the discharge, but the coroner told them ‘you can’t say that’. Instead they said the soldiers were in no immediate danger.”
In the years since, the McConomy family have campaigned for a fresh investigation, believing Stephen was unlawfully killed. But it has taken so long that Maria, the schoolboy’s mother, is no longer alive.
“If it was an accident, shouldn’t the soldier want to clear his name?” McConomy said. “My brother was a child when he was killed. Shouldn’t people be held accountable to what they did that day?”
More than 3,000 people were killed during the Troubles, and about 900 cases involving 1,200 people remain unresolved, even though the Good Friday agreement ending the conflict was signed over two decades ago. Most involve deaths attributed to republican or loyalist paramilitaries, but about 29% involve security personnel, including up to 200 soldiers.
Julian Smith was sacked as Northern Ireland minister by Boris Johnson on Thursday and replaced by Brandon Lewis, amid restlessness in Conservative circles about creating a new historical investigations unit that would examine unresolved deaths during the three-decade long Troubles.
There were indications last week that Downing Street had become nervous about Smith’s approach and any concessions that may have been made to Sinn Féin to secure their long-term cooperation in the reconstituted Stormont administration.
Meanwhile, several high-profile Conservative backbenchers, including Mark Francois, want proposals that would introduce a presumption against vexatious historic prosecutions for former military personnel who served in Iraq and Afghanistan to be extended to cover Northern Ireland.
But on his first visit to Belfast on Friday, Lewis said he stood by commitments made as part of the Stormont deal. When asked if that included legacy investigations, the new minister said “absolutely”.
Some historic cases are coming to trial, including the case of Soldier F, a former paratrooper who is accused of two murders during Bloody Sunday, when soldiers opened fire on civil rights demonstrators in Derry in January 1972.
McConomy said Smith had been a relatively effective Northern Ireland secretary. “We’ve seen a lot of secretaries of state come and go,” he said. “Many have been a waste of space, but Smith looked like he was making progress and had been close to dealing with the legacy issue.”