No impunity for murder – the Government’s proposals for Northern Ireland betray my brother’s legacy

16th Jun 2022
‘My soldier brother was murdered by the IRA. The Government’s proposal to grant immunity to killers in Northern Ireland betrays his memory and would destroy any hope we have of bringing his murderers to justice.’

My brother was Private Tony Harrison.

Tony joined the British Army aged 17, in 1986. He did his basic training at Pirbright and Aldershot and passed out with flying colours. My now elderly mother can still remember his passing out parade and how proud he was of what he had achieved – and how proud we were of him. He was assigned to 3rd Battalion, Parachute Regiment. He had ambitions to join the SAS and had recently been selected for a pathway for younger soldiers wanting to start SAS selection training. Tony had recently met a young woman, proposed and was planning his wedding. He was my older brother and my only sibling.

Tony was posted to Northern Ireland. In total he served two tours of duty there. Aged 21, he was killed on 19 June 1991 by the IRA while on leave and visiting his fiancée’s home in East Belfast. He was off duty. Two men broke down the door and shot him while he was enjoying an evening at home with his new family.

His loss shattered our family. My grandmother, who had been very close to Tony, had been intending to return to the Caribbean for her retirement but now all those plans were abandoned because she could not bear to leave our mother. My father, always a healthy man, never recovered, retreated into himself and began drinking heavily, eventually dying of alcohol-related liver failure in 2006.

Only one person was ever convicted in connection with the killing – that was a taxi driver who had tipped off the IRA. But the two men that fired the shots were never arrested or charged as far as we know. And the getaway driver was later revealed to be a double-agent, an RUC informant named Martin McGartland who wrote a book in which he admitted his involvement. He was later whisked away to live in witness protection in the mainland. He has identified and named at least one of the killers. A very brief inquest was held at which our family was not able to ask questions. We have always been horrified at the lack of any attempt at a meaningful investigation and prosecution and fear that the double-agent’s involvement may explain it. The state that Tony swore an oath to protect continues to protect one of the men involved in his killing and has made no real effort to secure justice for Tony. He was murdered in cold blood, not on the battlefield. Like any other bereaved family, we are entitled to have our loved one’s murder investigated and prosecuted. Any failure to do so is in our view a violation of one of our most basic and fundamental human rights – the right to justice.

Some years ago, my mother started writing letters. She wrote to her MP and the Ministry of Defence. She wanted to know why no-one had ever been brought to justice for the death of her son and what could be done about it. She wanted a full investigation into his death.

On 15 September 2015, the then Minister of State for the Armed Forces, Penny Mordaunt said to my mother’s MP: ‘I know that Pte Harrison’s killers have never been brought to justice and this must be a cruel addition to Mrs Seaman’s grief. I would like to assure you and her that efforts to bring murderers from that period to justice are still very much alive. Under the Stormont House Agreement reached at the end of last year with the five political parties of the NI Executive and the Irish Government, the Government made a number of commitments. This included the establishment of an independent body, the Historical Investigations Unit, to be responsible for taking forward outstanding investigations into Troubles-related deaths. The HIU will take over this work from the Police Service of NI and will act as a designated resource for such investigations. I very much hope that it will be able to make progress on this and many other unsolved murders of British troops.’

The family was also visited by two investigators from the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland that agreed to open a case-file and assured us that, in due course, the matter would be investigated. Since that time we have received only updates from the Ombudsman explaining that Tony’s case is one of hundreds of complaints relating to the Troubles that will be slowly progressed according to their place in the queue. Needless to say, we have found the endless waiting extremely difficult. My mother is elderly and not in good health. But at least there has been the promise of an investigation and some hope of justice.

That small hope has now been cruelly taken away from us with the announcement that the Government intends to bring to an end all investigations into killings and other atrocities committed in the context of the Troubles – including my brother’s. At a stroke it will stop all criminal investigations, inquests and police complaints into reports of collusion or other serious misconduct connected to the Troubles. Instead, a review body may be able to conduct a review and ‘produce a report’ into my brother’s killing, if we ask it to, and his killers can ask for a water-tight immunity from prosecution in exchange for a simple account of what happened. As far as I can tell, we would not even be notified if an application for immunity by Tony’s killers was made, meaning we could not raise any objection to it.

The Government suggests that the existing processes in Northern Ireland only feeds families’ trauma – but for us it is the lack of a criminal justice process that has compounded and aggravated our trauma and made it impossible to truly recover, making us feel as though my brother’s life simply did not matter. The Government talks about the low number of prosecutions brought in recent years – but that is a situation of the Government’s own making, caused by a lack of resources and political commitment to investigating these horrific crimes. Shockingly, even inquests are included in the Govt’s proposal – making a mockery of the Government’s commitment to a ‘robust information recovery process’ – because what is an inquest if not a robust information recovery process?

The Government’s proposals will apply to all the victims of the paramilitary killers including the killers of all those British soldiers murdered during the Troubles. According to the Government’s own statistics, loyalist and republican paramilitaries were responsible for 90% of all deaths in the Troubles. All they need to do now is give an account to the review body, and they get their get-out-of-jail-free card.

I can understand the public’s real discomfort at seeing elderly veterans brought to court for things allegedly done decades before. I share that discomfort. As someone whose brother had to face the terrible risks involved in being deployed to Northern Ireland during the Troubles, I have enormous personal sympathy with the extremely difficult situation in which those young soldiers often found themselves. They were often terrified and in extreme danger and in the vast majority of cases I believe that they conducted themselves as best they could and in accordance with the law and rules as they understood them.

However I am also able to recognise that the British Army did things over there that would not have made my brother proud – the Ballymurphy inquest only very recently showed us that – and where there is evidence of unlawful killing, that needs to be investigated properly, even now. Those families deserve nothing less.

And like them, my family – a military family – wants the killers of our much-loved son and brother to be found and brought to justice too.

We will be challenging the Government’s Bill. Please watch this space for further updates and, if you can, support us.

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