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Northern Ireland: Call for independent investigation into death of schoolgirl shot dead during Troubles

Majella O’Hare was 12 years old when she was shot in the back by a soldier using a machine gun as she walked to church. The Ministry of Defence later apologised for the killing

Amnesty International UK are supporting Majella’s brother, Michael O’Hare, in calling for an independent investigation ahead of the 44th anniversary of her death

A letter has been sent to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI)

Michael O’Hare, supported by Amnesty International UK, is calling for an independent investigation into the death of his 12-year-old sister killed by the Army during the Troubles in August 1976. A letter has been sent to the Legacy Investigation Branch of the PSNI requesting the Chief Constable ensure a prompt and independent investigation into her death.

On 14 August 1976, Majella O’Hare was on her way to church with a group of friends in the Armagh village of Whitecross. They walked past an army patrol and, when she was about 20 or 30 yards beyond it, shots were fired from a general-purpose machine gun.

Three shells were found on the ground - two of the bullets had hit Majella in the back. Majella was airlifted to Daisy Hill hospital in Newry alongside her father and Alice Campbell, a neighbour and nurse who gave her medical attention, but she was confirmed dead on arrival.

An investigation by the Royal Military Police (RMP) which lacked the necessary independence followed. The soldier claimed he fired in response to an IRA sniper attack and was charged with manslaughter in 1977. The judge in the case, sitting alone with no jury, accepted the soldier’s testimony and acquitted him.

A report from the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) outlined the respective failures of the initial investigation, and the steps that were not taken at the time, or since then. Most importantly, the HET noted the absence of an independent investigation in its entirety.

Despite a letter of apology from the Ministry of Defence in 2011, no independent investigation has ever taken place, and no one has been held accountable for Majella’s killing.

Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland Campaign Manager, said:

“This tragic story should be a matter of national shame for the UK. It is utterly appalling that the family have been left without justice for nearly 44 years.

“Majella O’Hare was a young girl of 12 when she was cruelly robbed of her life when she was shot in the back by a soldier with a machine gun. 

“The loss had a devastating impact on her family and the grossly inadequate investigation at the time only added to the trauma.

“Decades later, her brother Michael has been left fighting for the independent investigation to which they are entitled. 

“The apology from the Ministry of Defence should have been swiftly followed by action and accountability. No one, including members of the Armed Forces, is above the law.”

Michael O’Hare, brother of Majella O’Hare, said:

“I fight for justice for Majella, if it weren’t for the actions of the soldier, she would still be with us.

“We live with the pain that we will never know the potential of her life. The apology acknowledged the wrongdoing, but neither this nor the historical enquiries report which prompted it provided us with the full truth of what happened. It didn’t give us the justice and accountability we are entitled to.

“I hope this will now come and give my family and I the peace we seek”.

UK Government legacy proposals

The call for the investigation sits against a backdrop of the UK Government reneging on its commitments made in the Queen’s Speech in December 2019 and the New Decade New Approach Agreement in January 2020 to legislate for the Stormont House Agreement and its mechanisms which, with some further work, would meet the UK Government’s human rights obligations and bring an end to the piecemeal approach to dealing with the past.

Grainne Teggart added:

“This Government’s failure to legislate for the Stormont House Agreement, as promised, is just the latest betrayal of victims who remain determined to seek the truth, justice and accountability to which they are entitled.

“We urge the Government to abandon the written ministerial statement made in March and revert to its plans to deliver mechanisms capable of vindicating the rights of victims”.


Ministry of Defence letter of apology

On 28 March 2011, Owen Paterson, then Northern Ireland secretary, handed a letter of apology from the Ministry of Defence to Majella’s mother at a meeting in Belfast.

The letter was signed by then Defence Secretary Liam Fox and corrected the Army’s account of the evidence, acknowledging that the soldier’s account during his trial was ‘unlikely’. The text 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."

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