25 June 2005

USATODAY.com

IRA apologizes for shooting to death teenage girl in 1973

Posted 6/24/2005 2:26 PM

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) — The Irish Republican Army apologized Friday for shooting to death a Catholic girl in 1973 during a botched ambush on a British army patrol.

The IRA had long insisted that British soldiers killed the girl, 14-year-old Kathleen Feeney, in Derry, Northern Ireland's predominantly Catholic second-largest city. But in a statement published in the Derry Journal newspaper, the outlawed group said a new internal investigation had confirmed what the public had long believed — the IRA did it.

"Our failure to publicly accept responsibility for her death until now has only added to the hurt and pain of the Feeney family," the IRA statement said. "The leadership of Oglaigh na hEireann (IRA) wish to apologize unreservedly to the Feeney family for the death of Kathleen and for all the grief that our actions have caused to them."

The statement was the latest act of public contrition from the IRA, which killed about 1,800 people from 1970 to 1997 as part of a failed campaign to abolish Northern Ireland as a British territory. The underground organization called an open-ended truce that year as part of a peace process that produced Northern Ireland's Good Friday accord of 1998.

Usually, IRA apologies have been roundly criticized as cynically timed for political effect, for containing qualifications that offend the victims' families, or simply for coming decades too late.

Mark Durkan, the moderate Catholic who represents Londonderry in British Parliament, and the Irish government's justice minister, Michael McDowell, both said the IRA should have told the truth long ago on scores of such disputed killings.

"The IRA lied through its teeth at the time and blamed the killing on the British army and maintained that lie in a cowardly fashion for many years," McDowell said.

"No family should have had to wait so long for the truth. No family and no community should have been left for so long with a false understanding of such a great loss," Durkan said.

But the Feeney family, who always accused the IRA of responsibility, offered a muted welcome in a prepared statement. Siblings of the slain girl had approached IRA members in Derry earlier this year.

"In memory of our parents, Kathleen and Harry Feeney, the family of Kathleen Feeney decided to seek an unconditional apology from the Provisional IRA for the death of their sister," the family statement said, using the IRA's full formal name. "It is the family's wish that this will help bring closure."

A single bullet struck Kathleen on Nov. 14, 1973, as she played with friends in a street about 200 yards from a British army foot patrol, which came under fire from at least one IRA gunman. One of the British soldiers tried to resuscitate the girl.

Until Friday, the IRA's official position had been that British troops killed the girl, and the IRA began shooting afterward in retaliation. Although a 16-year-old IRA member was charged with murdering Kathleen and attempting to murder soldiers that day, he was acquitted on those charges in 1975 and instead received a 7-year prison sentence for possessing an assault rifle and ammo.

Statements of apology and regret, particularly by the IRA and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, have formed one particularly emotionally charged plank of Northern Ireland's peace process.

In the most sweeping but divisive gesture, the IRA in 2002 apologized for killing what it called "noncombatants" but insisted that most of its victims — including police officers and soldiers targeted while off-duty in their homes or private cars — were "legitimate targets."

In March, four IRA prisoners convicted of shooting to death a southern Irish police officer in 1996 said they were sorry.

In October, the IRA apologized for killing a 15-year-old Belfast boy and dumping his body in the city zoo in 1973. In October 2003, the IRA apologized for secretly burying nine Catholic civilians in unmarked graves from 1972 to 1981.

For his part, Blair pioneered the path of peace-process contrition just two months after taking office in 1997. He issued Britain's first official statement of regret for its role in the Irish potato famine of 1845-1850, which left 1 million dead and compelled 2 million more to emigrate.

He also authorized fact-finding probes into the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre by British soldiers in Derry, where 13 Catholic demonstrators were shot to death, and into four cases that involve accusations of British security-force collusion in killings.

In February, he apologized to a London family and Belfast man Gerard Conlon — subject of the Daniel Day-Lewis film 'In the Name of the Father'— for their wrongful imprisonment in the 1970s and 1980s over IRA pub bombings.

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