What price a life? May’s rhetoric and the MOD’s reality

This post originally appeared on Spinwatch on 16 November 2016.

In the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, recent months have seen an increasingly chauvinistic tone in British politics. One aspect of this has been a concerted campaign against investigations of abuse by the Armed Forces. Conservative MPs have pressed Theresa May to curtail the activities of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, prompting the Prime Minister to warn of 'an industry of vexatious allegations coming forward' in comments to journalists in New York in September. May's conference speech, a key turning point in the post-Brexit political mood, featured the promise that "we will never again – in any future conflict – let those activist, left-wing human rights lawyers harangue and harass the bravest of the brave – the men and women of Britain’s Armed Forces." Her words were backed up by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) the with the announcement that it would seek a derogation from the European Convention on Human Rights in future conflicts.

The irony is that these moves come at the very moment when new evidence suggests that the spectre of ambulance-chasing lawyers running rings around the MOD is almost the direct opposite of the reality in past conflicts. New light is being shed on MOD practices in the early years of the Northern Ireland Troubles in a trickle of documents obtained by the Pat Finucane Centre (PFC). They show that rather than being dragged to the courts, the MOD was often anxious to go down the legal route, an avenue in which the balance of power was very different from the one portrayed in the media, leaving bereaved families to settle for derisory sums, a fraction of the MOD's own private estimate of what was warranted.

One such case is that of Christopher Quinn, a father of five children shot dead by soldiers  close to his home in West Belfast in November 1971. In a 1977 MOD memo found by the PFC, a civil servant stated that 'it is fairly certain that Quinn was not involved with the gunman, but simply got in the way.' She nevertheless went on to write:

The case was valued at some £10,000 and it has been our intention to fight the case on the grounds that the soldiers concerned were justified in opening fire when they did, and had acted in accordance with their instructions. We knew that the chances of winning the case were not good, as a jury is likely to be sympathetic with a widow left with a young family to support, however we felt that the onus should be put upon the Plaintiff to prove her case in Court. Thus we would be seen to support the soldiers' action.'

The document goes on to record that in fact the case was settled before it came to court, with the family accepting £750 and judgement for the MOD. This not only left Christopher Quinn's widow and children facing real hardship, it also left a question-mark over his name, despite the MOD's private acceptance he was innocent.

Other documents concern the case of Kevin Heatley, a 12-year-old shot dead in Newry in February 1973. Civil servants preparing another settlement in 1975 expressed concern at legal advice that a case was regarded as having 'a realistic potential of between £1,000 and £1,500' rather than the £750 the MOD had offered. 'By offering above the accepted rate for a minor, are we not creating a precedent for future cases?' one official complained. Just what is meant by the 'accepted rate for a minor' is one of many questions that the Heatley family has been asking since the documents emerged. 

Members of both the Heatley and Quinn families visited London this week to put the new evidence to MPs, and highlight the contrast between their experience and Theresa May's rhetoric. Roberta Quinn, daughter of Christopher, said: “My mother was left to raise five children and scrape to make ends meet after my father’s shooting.  How dare Theresa May talk about ‘vexatious allegations’ when we see the MoD was prepared to drag my mother through the courts and ended up paying her a miserly £500 knowing that my father was an innocent man?’

Kevin Heatley’s brother, Martin, asked:  “Who could have been so cruel and heartless to say that the ‘acceptable rate for a minor’ shot in the head by a soldier, was £750?  This was the final blow for my parents. The MoD offered us about £60 for each year Kevin lived. What an insult’. 

Just in case Whitehall thought it could ignore the two families, the PFC hired an advertising van for a week-long tour of central London, in conjunction with the #whatpricealife social media campaign, ensuring that the policymakers of today would have ample opportunity to acquaint themselves with the record of their precursors.

“These two selected cases are just the tip of the iceberg," the PFC's Paul O'Connor said. "We support another family where £84.07 was offered after soldiers shot a mother-of-six, Kathleen Thompson, and another where £750 was paid to the family of a 27-year-old vulnerable adult, John Patrick Cunningham, described in the Regimental Log of the Life Guards Regiment as ‘the village idiot’ after his shooting in June 1974. Is this why his family was offered the rate normally reserved for “minors”?

 “The MoD stands guilty of decades of racist and often illegal behaviour in response to wrong-doing by British soldiers,' O'Connor added. 'A culture of impunity still exists in respect of the actions of the British military in Iraq and Afghanistan.” 

The record of the British Government's own archives demonstrates the bankruptcy of Theresa May's rhetoric. Far from being at the mercy of an omnipotent legal profession, successive governments have shown a hardnosed and cynical determination to defend their own interests at the expense of bereaved families and natural justice.







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