Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has apologised to relatives of three Scottish soldiers murdered by the IRA in Belfast after one of her party members described the terror group as “Irish freedom fighters”.
The drama unfolded after John Mason, a Scottish National Party member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP), declined to support a social media fundraising campaign for a private prosecution of the IRA suspects in the murders.
Mr Mason replied: “...you say Irish Murderers. Others say Irish freedom fighters. I support Scottish soldiers if they do good but not if they do bad”.
He initially defended his comments but after sustained pressure from this paper for comment from Ms Sturgeon, he apologised on Tuesday.
However, the next day the News Letter presented an email to the soldiers’ relatives, from the SNP chief whip to Mr Mason. It said other MSPs were being quizzed on the matter by constituents and highlighted the risk of “embarrassment” to Ms Sturgeon.
Mr Kidd called Mr Mason to a meeting, and the latter issued his apology some two hours later.
But the families said the email betrayed a “political motivation” for the apology. Ms Sturgeon then sent them a written apology on Thursday.
She said: “You have my deepest sympathies for the loss of your loved ones. Although some years have now passed, I am sure that the appalling circumstances of their deaths mean that the pain you feel will never go away.”
David McCaughey, a cousin of one of the soldiers, said he would now be keen to meet Ms Sturgeon.
“A face to face meeting would be really good,” he said. “A lot of people have been up in arms about this. A lot of mothers have been saying ‘these were three young boys’.”
Fusiliers Dougald McCaughey, 23, John McCaig, 17, and Joseph McCaig, 18, were lured from a Belfast bar by the IRA in 1971 on the pretext of meeting girls and shot dead in north Belfast.
Ms Sturgeon told the families: “No family should ever have to experience what yours has - and there can never be any excuse or justification for the murder of your loved ones, nor for any act of terrorism.”
All UK armed forces serve with “bravery and distinction” and she was therefore aware that recent comments by Mr Mason will have caused them “understandable offence and upset”.
She added: “I would like to offer my own personal apology to you for the upset that has been caused to you as a result of comments made by a member of my Party.”
The Three Scottish Soldiers Campaign Director Kris McGurk said the families welcomed her “heartfelt” apology and said they will be writing to ask for a private meeting “to discuss ways in which the Scottish Government may now support our campaign”.
North Belfast DUP election candidate Nelson McCausland, who first drew attention to Mr Mason’s comments, said he hopes Ms Sturgeon will “commit her government and her party” their campaign.
• Cheques for the private prosecution of the IRA suspects can be sent to ‘The Three Scottish Soldiers Fund’ may be sent c/o McCue & Partners LLP, 4th Floor, 158 Buckingham Palace Rd, London, SW1W 9TR or visit www.crowdjustice.org/case/three-scottish-soldiers