Defence secretary Gavin Williamson has provoked condemnation from relatives and calls for an investigation after being accused of making “grossly inappropriate” comments about whether former soldiers should face prosecutions over their actions on Bloody Sunday.
Relatives of some of the 13 people who were killed on Bloody Sunday have called upon the attorney general to investigate whether Mr Williamson interfered in the judicial process with remarks made six days before the decision was taken to prosecute “Soldier F” for two murders.
Mr Williamson was also accused of insensitivity after his official statement, issued minutes after the decision to prosecute “Soldier F” was announced, made no mention of the 13 who died in the January 1972 shootings.
Instead, Mr Williamson confirmed the Ministry of Defence would pay Soldier F’s legal costs and added: “The MoD is working [on] a new package of safeguards … The government will urgently reform the system for legacy issues. Our serving and former personnel cannot live in constant fear of prosecution.”
Labour called this statement “grossly inappropriate”, while others contrasted the ex-fireplace salesman’s reaction with that of a former British soldier who grew up in Northern Ireland and won the military cross in Afghanistan.
While Mr Williamson made no mention of those who died or their loved ones, Doug Beattie MC, now an Ulster Unionist Party member of Northern Ireland’s Legislative Assembly, wrote: “There are no winners here. Just victims. It’s important to remember their families today.”
As the bereaved families expressed “terrible disappointment” that only one out of 17 ex-soldiers investigated would face prosecution, John Kelly, who saw his 17-year-old brother Michael die on Bloody Sunday, criticised Mr Williamson for his earlier comments about “spurious prosecutions”.
Six days before Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service (PPS) was due to give its decision on the Bloody Sunday soldiers, Mr Williamson had told the BBC’s Nick Robinson: “We need to give protections to service personnel ... to ensure we don’t have spurious prosecutions.
“No-one in the armed forces wants to be above the law, but what we did need to do is ensure that they do have the protection so that they don’t feel under threat.
“It’s not just about Northern Ireland, but about Iraq and Afghanistan, conflicts before that and in the future.”
Asked whether the new protections would make a difference to the expected Bloody Sunday prosecutions, Mr Williamson had replied: “Sadly, I don’t think that will come in time.”
Speaking at the Guildhall in Derry on Thursday, Mr Kelly said the attorney general should now decide if Mr Williamson or other politicians have broken the law.
Mr Kelly said: “If they have, they should be charged.
“They cannot attempt to interfere in a judicial process just because they don’t like it, or because their voters don’t like it.”
Mr Williamson faced further criticism over the statement he made after the PPS decision was announced.
Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Tony Lloyd said it was “grossly inappropriate” to issue a statement focusing on soldiers’ rights minutes after bereaved families learned that one ex-paratrooper would be prosecuted for murder and 16 others would face no action.
Social media users also contrasted Mr Williamson’s approach with that of former prime minister David Cameron.
In 2010, after the Saville Inquiry found no soldiers fired in response to attacks, no casualties were posing a threat, and some were clearly fleeing or going to help others who were hit, Mr Cameron apologised on the government’s behalf, calling the army’s actions on the day “unjustifiable.”
One Twitter user wrote of Mr Williamson: “He does realise the soldier has been charged with MURDER, not bunking off guard duty or the like. MURDER! Incredible statement, but in all honesty not unexpected.”
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