From this week’s Irish World:
Back in September, the Article Seven – End Impunity Campaign was launched at City hall in London.
The campaign for to ban human rights abusers from the British Armed Forces was inspired by the case of Peter McBride, shot dead in Belfast in 1992. However, it is not only Irish families who are seeking accountability from the Army.
One of the most moving speakers at the meeting was Geoff Gray, whose son, also called Geoff Gray, was found dead at Deepcut Army Barracks in Surrey in 2001, having been shot twice in the head while on guard duty.
“We need to find out how our children died,” Mr Gray told the audience at City Hall. “We’re sick of lies and cover ups. We want those responsible brought before the courts where there’s neglect, bullying, injury or murder, the perpetrators must be charged, at Deepcut, Catterick, Northern Ireland and overseas, bullies are getting away with murder, and we need change.”
The media were invited to Deepcut Barracks last week, but explanations for the deaths of Private Geoff Gray and the three other soldiers who died there between 1995 and 2002 were not on the agenda
The MOD press release stated that: “It should be stressed that the facility will not address the deaths at Deepcut between 1995 and 2002 . This issue is the subject of an independent review by Nicolas Blake QC, and it would not be appropriate to answer questions relating to the specifics of these investigations.”
There was therefore a somewhat surreal atmosphere at the barracks last week, as the MOD played host to a press pack whose real interest lay in precisely the issues they were not prepared to discuss.
Journalists were bussed around on a tight schedule of events, observing and meeting young trainees learning bricklaying, construction, carpentry and cookery.
There was brief excitement among the cameramen in my van as we passed some armed guards patrolling the perimeter fence. However, we were swiftly driven away, and it was the anodyne events organized by the MOD which may well provide the footage for the news bulletins when the Blake review is released.
Mr Gray dismissed the event as a PR stunt. “It hasn’t really been opened up to the media. It’s a very controlled environment. I know that. I asked Sky News to go and film where my son was found, and they wouldn’t let them go down there. Everybody saw straight through it.”
“I think it’s totally insensitive. They should have waited until after the Blake report.”
The latter criticism was put during the visit to Armed Forces Minister Adam Ingram, who responded robustly.
“There is going to be a coroners inquest next year. That could run for some time. There could then be possibly court cases on the back of that. Are you really saying you don’t want to come here? You don’t want to see? We have nothing to be ashamed of. We’re proud of what is done here. I understand the grief and the pain of those families, and I share it with themI can’t undo what’s been done. All I can do is to try to make sure if things need to be fixed they will be fixed.”
“ I’ve met the individual families. In some cases more than once and we’re working our way through that. They have their remedies, and indeed in the case of one of the incidents there’s still that coroners inquest to take place. That’s outside my hands completely. The police investigations are outside my hands completely. I can’t answer for all of that. I can only answer for what we do here.”
“Even in those days we were producing high quality recruits going right into the frontline of the British Army, and that has continued ever since.“
The issue of recruitment may well explain the MOD’s decision to go ahead with the controversial visit. The Army is having increasing trouble filling its ranks. The situation is worse in the infantry than in the logistic roles trained at Deepcut. Nevertheless, officers admitted that according to the Army’s own research, the ‘Deepcut factor’ has played a role in the shortfall.
“We’re not here to talk about what happened in the past, But obviously there has been a negative impact,” Deepcut’s commander Lt Col Chris Griggs said.
“Inviting the press in is part of a series of programmed events that are being hosted by the Minister for the Armed Forces, to give the press and media greater access to training environment; to talk to our young recruits, and get a feeling at first hand, from them, how their being treated. Certainly we hope they will demystify some of the conjecture and the confusion about the British Army and how we train our young soldiers.”
Everybody I met at Deepcut, from senior officers to raw recruits was polite, pleasant and professional. However, given the nature of the event it would have been extraordinary if it had been otherwise.
It stuck me as I spoke to the keen young soldiers at Deepcut, that I would have encountered similar enthusiasm if I had met Private Geoff Gray before he died.
His father agrees: “He would have been exactly the same. It was his dream come true to join the army.”
It’s clear that there have been changes at the barracks. There are more staff, and trainees have been relieved of most of the guard duty at the camp, both moves which Mr Gray welcomes.
However, such developments cannot substitute for answers about the fate of the four soldiers who died.
“If and I very much doubt it, my son committed suicide, somebody’s responsible. Somebody drove him to it. It’s my firm belief that Geoff was murdered,” Mr Gray says. “I don’t think we’ll get to the truth through the Blake Inquiry. I think what Nick Blake needs to do is to recommend a public inquiry.”
Unless there is truth and accountability for the families of the four soldiers who died at Deepcut, it is surely futile to try and persuade other parents that the Army is an appropriate place for their children.