Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley has said she is “profoundly sorry” for saying that killings at the hands of soldiers and police during the Troubles were “not crimes”.
The apology comes after her remarks, made in the House of Commons on Wednesday, caused a controversy in Ireland and Northern Ireland and led to calls for the minister to resign.
She was responding to a DUP MP about legacy issues related to the conflict when she made the comments.
She said: “Over 90% of the killings during the Troubles were at the hands of terrorists, every single one of those was a crime.
“The fewer than 10% that were at the hands of the military and police were not crimes.
“They were people acting under orders and under instruction and fulfilling their duties in a dignified and appropriate way.”
She has now issued a full apology and has said her words were “wrong” and have caused “offence and hurt” to victims’ loved ones.
Police in Northern Ireland are currently re-investigating the 3,532 deaths which took place during the Troubles.
The Troubles was an ethno-political conflict in Northern Ireland, which started in the late 1960s and was brought to a close with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
While it had its roots in history, the modern conflict was fought largely between mainly-protestant loyalist paramilitaries (such as the UVF), who wanted to preserve the region’s status as part of the UK, and mainly-Catholic republican paramilitaries (principally the IRA) who believed in a united Ireland.
The British army was deployed at the request of the unionist Northern Ireland government in response to riots in 1969 and was regarded as an occupying force by nationalists throughout its 38-year deployment in the region.
Northern Ireland’s Police Ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire concluded in 2016 that the British army, in some cases, colluded with loyalists and Special Branch officers had adopted a “hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil” mind-set when gathering intelligence.
In one of the worst incidents of the Troubles, Bloody Sunday in 1972, British soldiers shot 28 unarmed civilians during a protest march in Derry, killing 14 people.
In total, the military killed 306 people during the operation. About 51% were civilians and 41% were republican paramilitaries.
Bradley had returned to the House of Commons on Wednesday in a bid to make clear her position, saying: “The point I was seeking to convey was that the overwhelming majority of those who served carried out their duties with courage, professionalism and integrity and within the law.
“I was not referring to any specific cases but expressing a general view.
“Of course where there is evidence of wrongdoing, it should always be investigated - whoever is responsible.
“These are of course matters for the police and prosecuting authorities, who are independent of government.”
But following a number of calls for her to retract her comments overnight, including from victims’ families, Bradley has now offered a full apology.
She said in a statement: “Yesterday I made comments regarding the actions of soldiers during the Troubles. I want to apologise. I am profoundly sorry for the offence and hurt that my words have caused. The language was wrong and even though this was not my intention, it was deeply insensitive to many of those who lost loved ones.
“I know from those families that I have met personally just how raw their pain is and I completely understand why they want to see justice properly delivered. I share that aim and that is why I launched the public consultation on addressing the legacy of the Troubles.
“My position and the position of this government is clear. We believe fundamentally in the rule of law. Where there is any evidence of wrongdoing this should be pursued without fear or favour whoever the perpetrators might be. That is a principle that underpins our approach to dealing with legacy issues and it is one from which we will not depart.”
In an interview with the Press Association in Belfast on Thursday evening, Bradley said there were “no excuses” for what she said.
She continued: “I want to be very clear – I do not believe what I said, that is not my view.”
It is not the first time questions have been raised over Bradley’s position as Northern Ireland Secretary.
In comments to The House magazine last year, she admitted she was unaware that nationalists did not vote for unionists and that unionists did not vote for nationalists. This is regarded as one of the most basic facts about Northern Irish politics.
“I freely admit that when I started this job, I didn’t understand some of the deep-seated and deep-rooted issues that there are in Northern Ireland,” she said.
“I didn’t understand things like when elections are fought, for example, in Northern Ireland – people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice versa. So, the parties fight for election within their own community.
“Actually, the unionist parties fight the elections against each other in unionist communities and nationalists in nationalist communities.”