Northern Ireland news

Mother left 'speechless' over handling of son's death files

Paul Whitters (15) died ten days after being hit by a plastic bullet in 1981.
Seamus McKinney

The mother of a Derry boy killed by a plastic bullet in 1981 has condemned NIO officials' handling of a request to see government files on her son's death.

Paul Whitters (15) died ten days after he was struck on the head by a plastic bullet in April 1981. An investigation into his death in 2007 by then Police Ombudsman, Nuala O'Loan found that the use of the plastic bullet was “wrong and unjustifiable”. Despite this, government files on the teenager's death are to remain sealed at the British national archives at Kew until 2059.

Earlier this year, his mother, Helen Whitters called for the files to be opened so that she could get the full facts surrounding her son's death. Mrs Whitters said that at a meeting with former Secretary of State, Karen Bradley and NIO officials in July, she was told the Northern Ireland Secretary did not have the legal power to access the closed files.

However, the National Archive at Kew in London subsequently told Mrs Whitters that this was not the case. In a letter to the Pat Finucane Centre, a spokesman said under The Public Records Act 1958, the files could be “temporarily” accessed by the Secretary of State or her department.

Mrs Whitters said: “I am absolutely clear in my own mind that the former Secretary of State (Karen Bradley) and a number of civil servants told me that they could not access closed files.” She said there should be no mystery surrounding “the death of a 15-year-old child”.

The Irish News asked the NIO if Ms Bradley had been inaccurately briefed and if current Secretary of State, Julian Smith would provide the Whitters family with a reason for keeping the files closed until 2059.

In its response, a spokesman said: “The government has great sympathy for the terrible loss suffered by these families (plastic bullet victims) and all those who lost loved ones as a result of the troubles. Officials will continue to work with the families as they seek further information on the deaths of their loved ones.”

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