Mr. Speaker, I should like to raise as a matter of privilege a statement made by the Minister of State for Defence in the House last Thursday. I apologise first to the Minister for the short notice I gave him in asking him to come to the House, but, like the majority of Members, I did not see anything amiss when the statement was made.
The statement referred to negotiations taking place over claims received for compensation of the relatives of those killed on Bloody Sunday in Derry. The Minister stated quite clearly in the House—and his statement was reported in the Irish newspapers—that negotiations were taking place. That statement was made on the afternoon of 22nd June. On the afternoon of 25th June, I received a telephone call from Mr. Christopher Napier, the legal representative for all 13 families concerned. Mr. Napier was understandably upset, and he asked me what steps he could take about the Minister's statement. I therefore asked him to furnish me with evidence in support of his claim that the Minister had made a statement that was not true, either in an attempt to mislead the House or because he was ignorant of the facts. I received on the afternoon of 28th June the necessary documents, and therefore came before the House with the evidence as soon as I could do so.
I ask the House to bear with me while I briefly go through the facts. On 15th February, 1972, Mr. Napier on behalf of each individual family wrote a separate letter to the Defence Department Claims Commission in Windsor Park, Belfast. I will read the relevant paragraph from one of the letters in which he said:
I am instructed that in the afternoon of January 30 1972 Patrick Doherty was shot dead by a British soldier near the Rossville Street flats in Derry. I am further instructed that the soldier in question was acting as a servant or agent of the Ministry of Defence at all material times.
I would be grateful if you could confirm that the soldier was so acting, or, if not, please confirm in writing that he was acting outside the scope of his employment and agency so that I may correspond with him about the matter.
That letter was formally acknowledged on 16th February by the Area Claims Officer, who wrote:
We acknowledge receipt of your letter of 15th February, which is receiving our attention.
There was no further communication from the Department, and on 26th May Mr. Napier was forced to write again, stating that since he had not had any communication since 15th February it was necessary to write again. He wrote:
Your lack of communication in this regard can only lead me to the conclusion that you are not prepared to honour the commitment which was made on your behalf by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons and accordingly unless I hear from you with an assurance that this commitment will be honoured I propose to institute proceedings against you on behalf of Mrs. Eileen Theresa Doherty the personal representative of the above deceased without further notice to you.
That letter was acknowledged on 5th June in a reply on behalf of the President of the Claims Commission, which said:
You will appreciate…that there is a great deal of evidence to be reviewed and the issues involved are complex. We assure you that a decision will be reached as soon as possible.
Mr. Napier wrote back making a number of relevant points, including the fact that the Department could not negotiate and could not come to any decision unless it asked the relevant questions of the only person who had the information, the legal representative of the families. Since the Department was represented at all times at the Widgery hearing, there were only two points on which it could yet come to a decision—the question of liability or the question of quantum. The Department refused to furnish any more details to Mr. Napier, and as a result on 5th June proceedings were instituted by Mr. Napier against the Department, naming the Department, the Minister of Home Affairs, the Attorney-General and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Those proceedings were instituted not for failure to negotiate. On 22nd June an appearance was entered for the Department. Evidently, the Crown Solicitor was instructed by someone in the Department to accept the issue of proceedings.
An appearance was entered on or before the day the Minister made his statement, and therefore when he said in the House on 22nd June that negotiations were taking place on the matter he was aware, or should have been aware, that proceedings had been issued against his Department and had been accepted on the basis of breakdown or non-existence of negotiation.
Therefore, Mr. Speaker, I submit, and ask you so to rule, that either he was misleading the House or he was acting out of culpable ignorance not in keeping with his position. He is either a fool or a liar.