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14 Aug 2022

Paul Whitters death: Brandon Lewis accused of adding to family's trauma

Paul-Whitters1

Paul Whitters celebrates Christmas with a younger relative. Paul was 15 when a plastic bullet fired by an RUC officer killed him in 1981

The sister of a Derry schoolboy who was killed by a plastic bullet has slammed Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Brandon Lewis, for compounding the family's trauma and questioned the British Government's commitment to reconciliation.

Paul Whitters, 15, sustained a fatal head injury when he was hit by the fired police baton round amid rioting in 1981.

The disturbances in Derry took place amid unrest associated with the republican hunger strikes at the Maze paramilitary prison in Co Down.

Relatives of the schoolboy have been campaigning for the release of further information about the incident since learning that a file at the National Archives at Kew had been closed until 2059 for national security reasons.

Last week, Brandon Lewis released material from the Archives saying the decision was in line with its commitment to helping families learn more about what happened to loved ones during the conflict.

The move has been described as a cynical attempt to deny truth and justice to families who lost loved ones during The Troubles after incidents with British forces.

Paul's sister, Emma Whitters, has said the fight to get some form of disclosure on Paul's death has been “ a long road of contradictory information, fruitless meetings and bureaucratic dead ends” and questioned why a file that last year could not be opened until 2059 – with its remainder being put back to 2084 – can suddenly be available now.

She said: “Since we discovered the existence of this file more than five years ago, we have lobbied to have it opened before the NIO’s release date of 2059.

“It has been a long road of contradictory information, fruitless meetings and bureaucratic dead ends. And at the root of all this, there is the constant question of why the state would seek to hold the file closed – what possible issues of national security could relate to my 15-year-old brother, a schoolboy?

“The government is making much of its commitment to information recovery. Yet for our family, information recovery has meant a Freedom of Information request which resulted in the release of a heavily redacted file.

“The remainder of the file was closed for a further 25 years at which point, I’ll not be here. Paul’s dad has already passed away without having seen this file.

“It was only a matter of weeks ago that Brandon Lewis introduced legislation that will deny families across the board access to justice.

“If Paul’s file was so sensitive it had to be closed until 2084, then questions must be asked about how it can be so easily released a number of weeks after recourse to justice is off the table.

“The timing of these decisions seems as cruel and more than a bit cynical.

At this point, we believe the file remains closed and haven’t had sight of it so reserve

judgment on the content until we have had access.

“Brandon Lewis is talking about information recovery and its role in reconciliation. Our experience of ‘information recovery’ has, if anything, further compounded our trauma and calls into question the government’s commitment to anything approaching reconciliation.”

Sara Duddy from the Pat Finucane Centre who supported the family added: “How can information be deemed so sensitive in October 2021 that it needs to be closed a further 25 years until 2084 yet now is deemed permissible to be released?

“Is it that Brandon Lewis has timed this stunt to claim a victory for truth recovery, while effectively closing down any sort of legal avenue that the family could pursue?”

Foyle MP and SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood also called upon Brandon Lewis and the British Government for full disclosure.

He said: “Paul’s family cannot and must not wait until 2059 to discover the truth about his killing. Each year that passes without Paul’s family knowing the truth of what happened to him compounds their grief and diminishes their faith in the process. I have constantly raised Paul’s case with Secretary of State Brandon Lewis. He must act now to release these files.

In whose interests is Paul’s case being kept closed? It is utterly reprehensible.

“The British Government is speaking out of both sides of its mouth telling us that they want truth and reconciliation for victims, but their every action, including in Paul’s case and their shocking legacy proposals, has been to protect the state, to deny access to truth and justice.

“Releasing this information, a matter of days after introducing legislation which would prevent families bringing forward new civil cases shows the character of a Government and a Secretary of State devoid of shame.

“The question is, does this Government really care about Paul Whitters, his family or any victim, or do they simply care about fulfilling a manifesto commitment, protecting the state and protecting paramilitary killers?

“Families have fought for truth and justice for decades; they will continue to fight, and I will do all I can to support them.”

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