15 Aug 2022

Families of teenage plastic bullet victims demand release of closed files

Whitters Pic
The family of a teenager killed by a plastic bullet fired by the RUC in Derry 38 years ago have demanded that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland release state files held on his death. Paul Whitters was 15-year-old when he was struck in the head by a baton round on April 15, 1981 at Great James’ Street in the city and died from his injuries ten days later. Last year, the Pat Finucane Centre (PFC) discovered a Northern Ireland Office file on the killing was being held at the British National Archives in London. However, after a request for the file’s release was made the file was locked for a further 40 years and will not be opened until at least January 2059. The Whitters family and relatives of Belfast teenager, Julie Livingstone who was killed by a plastic bullet a month after Paul Whitters, had requested the meeting with Karen Bradley over the retention of files on both children relating to the killings by the state. Speaking after the meeting Mrs Whitters said: “So the Secretary of State can’t tell us why the files are closed because the NIO has marked the files secret and because they are secret they claim not to know why they have marked them secret. "The circular stupidity of this argument has left us speechless. This is about my son who was shot at almost point blank range at 15 years of age and about the cruel death at 14 of Julie Livingstone. They were just children." “The Secretary of State said that the Northern Ireland Office have passed the files over to the National Archives and that the files remain closed. “But, because the file remains closed, the Secretary of State claims she does not know what’s in the files. I find this very strange. She also stated that the files now belong to the National Archive and she has no power to request that they are opened. “In 2059, my youngest child will be 69 and I certainly will be long gone. It’s very frustrating. My 15-year-old son was killed for throwing a stone. And, we’ve lived with that for 38 years. Last year I found out that there’s a file in Kew archives about my 15-year-old boy. “I’m just deeply frustrated by the whole thing. We will go down other channels and take legal advice. We will wait and see where else we can go.” Julie Livingstone (14) was returning home from a shop on the Stewartstown Road in west Belfast on May 12, 1981 when she was fatally injured by a plastic bullet fired from a British Army vehicle. She died the following day. A similar state file relating to her death has been sealed until 2064-a further forty-five years from now. Another general file held on the use of plastic bullets by the police and British Army has been shut until 2071. Overall, there were 17 deaths across Northern Ireland during the Troubles caused by the use of rubber and plastic bullets. In Derry, as well as Paul Whitters, there were three further victims. They were Thomas Friel (21) killed in May 1973; Henry Duffy (45) killed in May 1981 and Stephen McConomy (11) killed in April of 1982. Of the other 13 victims, 11 came from Belfast, one from Strabane and one from Portadown. Seven of deaths caused by plastic bullets took place in 1981 when a total of almost 30,000 of the weapons were discharged by the RUC and British Army across Northern Ireland. The first incidence of anyone being struck by a plastic baton round in Britain did not take place until 17 years ago. The round was fired after a standoff at a house in North Wales when police struck a man suspected of stabbing his partner and threatening to kill his children with a knife. In a letter to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, requesting a meeting with her, the Livingstone family said: “Julie was 14-years-old when a British Army soldier shot her in the head. We have seen neither a legally compliant investigation nor due process for that crime. From the moment of her death our parents fought for accountability and for the end of the use of plastic bullets. They were both to pass away without seeing either. “Having spoken with representatives of the family of young Paul Whitters, also killed by a plastic bullet fired by the RUC, we are aware that they too have written to you in relation to his file being hidden for decades. “May we firstly state that we find it inconceivable that these files are held in secret. There is surely no greater public interest than in state papers held in relation to the killing of children by the state. “Secondly that the files are being withheld from our family until 2064 is cruel and inhumane and constitutes a form of continuing torture not to mention cover-up.” “It is notable that the Freedom of Information decision date was 2019. This decision was made while families were actively seeking information in relation to conflict killings. “It appears that archives were trawled in search of files the British state feels should be secreted from public view, that is, those files that involve culpability from the British state. This is cynical and speaks to a desire to hide the truth and impede accountability.” Earlier this year, Karen Bradley caused outrage in Northern Ireland when she said that none of the deaths caused by state forces represented acts of criminality. The letter from the Livingstone family said: “Secretary of State, your comments earlier this year in relation to state killings were an affront to our family. This decision by the National Archives compounds those words. We wish to request that you act urgently to redress this matter. The relevant files should be given to our family and to the Whitters family.” A spokesperson for the Pat Finucane Centre (PFC), representatives of which accompanied the Whitters and Livingstone families to the meeting, told the Derry News that the encounter was "as bizarre as you can get." And, in a statement after the meeting the PFC spokesperson continued: "The meeting was deeply dissatisfactory. Mrs Bradley, with her team of advisors, outlined the circuitous decision making that results in files relating to children killed by the state being withheld from public view until the direct living relatives of those children are likely to have passed away. "The families were told that there is nothing the secretary of state can do to intervene and release the files to the families without the families engaging in a process of seeking the files under a Freedom of Information request, as the files are the property of the National Archives at Kew, London, and no longer anything to do with her or her office. "The NIO made the file on Paul Whitters secret in 2011 and on Julie Livingstone in 2014. They then sent these files to the National Archives. Once they did this, the families were told, the files became the property of the National Archives. "There is no information as to why the files are closed other than it may be because of “health and safety” or because they contain “personal information”. Or health and safety is at risk because the files contain personal information. "The advisors contradicted each other on this point. The people who made that decision are apparently so over worked with files they could not even be asked why they made this decision, as they could not possibly remember, and neither is there a discoverable audit of this decision making. The families have made clear that this is not credible and there is no question that they wish to see written names of living people in the files. "This scandal obviously points to a wider issue that files can be closed, for reasons unrecorded except in the broadest of terms, passed onto the National Archives, where they then can be kept secret, but unreleasing them, even to the bereaved families of children killed, is much harder than making them secret. "It is worth noting that in 2011 the Historic Enquiries Unit collapsed because of the illegality of investigations into state crimes and in 2014 the British Government was one of the signatories to the Stormont House Agreement legacy mechanisms. Notwithstanding the contemporaneous concentrated debate on how to ensure our post conflict society has a process which delivers truth, justice and acknowledgement to victims and survivors in a human rights compliant way, the mandarins with short memories in the NIO were in parallel engaged in a seemingly duplicitous process making files secret, in a one way system which side stepped transparency, scrutiny or fairness." CAPTION: Pictured at Stormont where they met with Northern Ireland Secretary of State Karen Bradley, are Helen Whitters, mother of Paul Whitters, Robin Livingstone, brother of Julie Livingstone and Tony Brown, uncle of Paul Whitters.    

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