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MoD issues unprecedented apology to murdered schoolgirl’s family 

April 5, 2011

By Brónagh Murphy

The family of a Whitecross schoolgirl, murdered by a British Army paratrooper almost 35 years ago, has welcomed an official apology from the Ministry of Defence but says “nothing will bring her back”. The family met with NI Secretary of State Owen Paterson at a private meeting in Hillsborough Castle on Monday last where the letter of apology was handed over.

On August 14th 1974 twelve-year-old Majella O’Hare was walking to confessions in St. Malachy’s Church, Ballymoyer, just yards from her family home, when a British soldier on patrol opened fire, fatally wounding her.  Her father, Jim, had been working at the nearby school when he heard the shots. He was one of the first on the scene and was verbally abused by the soldiers.  Majella died in his arms on her way to hospital.

An original RUC investigation recommended that Private Michael Williams, a Royal Marine Commando, be charged with Majella’s manslaughter.  Williams stood trial in 1977 but was acquitted.  He claimed he was aiming at a gunman hiding in a nearby hedge and that Majella was accidentally killed in an exchange of gunfire.  This account was rubbished in a report by the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) published in August last year.  The report found there was no gunman and that the Army fabricated the story in an attempt to cover up the facts.

At the time Mr Dave Cox, the director of the HET, visited Majella’s 88-year-old mother at her home in Whitecross to brief the family on his findings and called on the government to apologise.

“Whatever the circumstances, this family is due an apology,” he said at the time.  “This report is of great importance to the family. It once and for all explains and clarifies that there was no gunman involved in the death of Majella and that there was no crossfire.”

Majella’s 88-year-old mother Mary was accompanied by her son and daughters and the meeting with Mr Paterson on Monday.

The letter from the MoD, signed by Defence Secretary Liam Fox, which was handed over to the family, belatedly corrects the army’s account of the incident and acknowledges that the soldier’s subsequent courtroom explanation was “unlikely”.

The letter read: “I apologise for Majella’s death and offer you my heartfelt sympathy. Although many years have passed, I have no doubt that your grief and that of your family has not diminished.  Both the initial investigation by the RUC and the more recent review have concluded that it was unlikely that there was a gunman in the area when the soldier involved opened fire and struck Majella, as he claimed.

“The soldier’s actions resulted in the loss of a young and innocent life, causing sorrow and anguish for those who knew and loved Majella.  On behalf of the army and the government, I am profoundly sorry that this tragic incident should have happened.”

Majella’s brother Michael said the formal apology does not “bring closure to the family” but has helped them “reach an acceptance of what happened”.

“It’s good to get this apology.  It’s not going to bring Majella back but at least it will set the record straight for history,” he said.

Unprecedented

The apology to the O’Hare family has been described as “unprecedented” and is just the second such apology ever issued by the British government.  The previous one was in relation to the Bloody Sunday killings.

British Irish Rights Watch has campaigned for years for a formal apology for the O’Hare family.  Jane Winter from group says she hoped the letter would pave the way for further acknowledgements to innocent victims and their relatives.

“We have sought apologies on behalf of a number of families and we are hopeful that what has happened in regard to Majella will set a precedent.  This is certainly a first and we would hope that more will come,” she added.

MP for Newry Armagh Conor Murphy welcomed the unreserved apology from the British Government to the O’Hare family.

“I welcome this move from the British government which confirms what people in this area have known since 1976 – that the killing of Majella O’Hare, a 12 year old child, did not occur in an exchange of fire and the soldier responsible should not have been acquitted.  I hope that this will bring a measure of comfort to the O’Hare family who must be admired for their persistence in this case and their dignity since Majella’s killing,” he said.

Local councillor Jimmy McCreesh added: “I know how difficult the past 35 years have been for the O’Hare family and I hope that today’s apology from the British Government will be of consolation to the family, in particular Majella’s mother.  It is unfortunate that it has come too late for Majella’s father Jim, who passed away a number of years ago.”

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