In light of the massive debate sparked over the treatment of historic crimes in Northern Ireland one case stands out as an example of how such issues can be handled.
Consider the case of Majella O’Hare, one of the most tragic of The Troubles.
She was just 12 years old in 1976 when she was shot twice in the back by a British Army private on her way to church in South Armagh.
It took until 2011, but the subsequent British apology and acceptance of wrongdoing set a very good precedent.
Majella and friends had just passed a British Army checkpoint on their way to church.
Her brother Michael, now 65, told the Guardian newspaper what happened.
“They came upon an army patrol, she had walked on about 20 or 30 yards when shots rang out from a general purpose machine gun. Three shells fell on the ground. Two bullets hit her in the back.”
The soldier, Private Michael Williams, was carrying the weapon cocked and ready, but he would have had to exert between 10 and 12 pounds of pressure to fire it.
Majella’s father came running when he heard the shots but she died in his arms.
Williams claimed he had fired in response to an IRA sniper attack. A judge, subsequently assassinated by the IRA, acquitted Williams on that basis.
There you have it – one of the worst atrocities of The Troubles.
But a belated form of justice has been rendered in this case and could well be a roadmap for how other atrocities are dealt with.
An inquiry by the PSNI Historical Enquiries Team (HET) found no evidence there was any IRA sniper.
The HET director Dave Cox wrote to the family, “I apologize for Majella’s death and offer you my heartfelt sympathy. The soldier’s actions resulted in the loss of a young and innocent life, causing sorrow and anguish. On behalf of the army and the government I am profoundly sorry.”
In addition, the Ministry of Defence issued an apology signed by the then Defense Secretary Liam Fox. Majella's mother Mary, then 88, was handed the letter by the Northern Irish Secretary.
“It is good to get this apology,” says Michael, Majella's brother. “It’s not going to bring Majella back, but at least it will set the record straight for history.”
Jane Winter head of the British Irish Rights Watch stated, “I have never seen a letter like this. We have tried to get apologies before. I hope this sets a precedent for other families.”
Indeed it could.
Here's an news report from 2011 on the initial apology: