British apologize for '76 killing of Catholic girl

By Shawn Pogatchnik
Associated Press / March 28, 2011

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DUBLIN—The family of a 12-year-old Catholic girl fatally shot in the back by a British Army soldier 35 years ago received a face-to-face apology Monday from Britain's senior government official in Northern Ireland.

The confidential meeting between Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson and relatives of the victim, Majella O'Hare, came seven months after a review of police evidence found nothing to sustain the British Army's defense of the shooting.

The relatives -- including the victim's 88-year-old mother Mary -- said Paterson personally apologized, particularly for the extremely slow acknowledgment of the wrong committed, and also presented an official apology letter signed by Defence Secretary Liam Fox.

"It has been a long time coming. It still does not avoid the fact that Majella is dead as a result of their actions," her brother Michael said outside Paterson's Hillsborough Castle residence near Belfast.

He said the family -- which received a 1,500-pound ($2,400) payment from the British government in 1976 as compensation for the killing -- did not plan any legal action.

This is only the second time that Britain has said it was sorry for a killing committed by its forces in Northern Ireland. Last year Britain apologized following the publication of an official report that rejected the army's defense for its killing of 13 Catholic demonstrators on Bloody Sunday in 1972.

Majella was shot in the back on Aug. 14, 1976, as she was walking with other schoolgirls to a Catholic Church to give their confessions in the village of Whitecross in South Armagh, a borderland powerbase for the IRA. Her father, who died in 1992, witnessed the shooting and watched her die in an army helicopter as she was being evacuated to hospital.

In both the Bloody Sunday and O'Hare killings, the soldiers responsible came from the amry's elite Parachute Regiment.

The soldier who shot her, Private Michael Williams, was charged with manslaughter but testified that he had shot her by mistake after seeing an IRA gunman in a nearby hedgerow. A senior Belfast judge, Justice Maurice Gibson, acquitted him. The IRA later assassinated Gibson and his wife using a roadside car bomb.

An August 2010 investigation by Northern Ireland's "cold cases" detectives, who have been reviewing more than 3,000 unsolved killings, found no evidence of any IRA activity at the time Williams shot the girl.

The British Army was deployed into Northern Ireland in 1969 to quell Protestant-Catholic rioting, but quickly became a target for a resurgent Irish Republican Army based in Catholic areas.

British soldiers killed 309 of the approximately 3,700 people slain during the past four decades of conflict over Northern Ireland. The dominant IRA faction, the Provisionals, killed about 1,775 people, other IRA factions 370 more.

The army's deployment in support of the Northern Ireland police officially ended in 2007 following the Provisional IRA's decision to disarm and renounce violence. top stories on Twitter

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