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Questions of the past should be answered in full


SDLP activist Denis Mullen

SDLP activist Denis Mullen

SDLP activist Denis Mullen

It is not unusual for ministers to avoid answering the questions put to them. Only last week, the Speaker took David Cameron to task at Prime Minister's Questions.

"It is a good idea to try to remember the essence of the question that was put," he remarked. One can only assume Anna Soubry wasn't listening.

The new junior defence minister – the first woman MP appointed to the MoD – is seen as something of a rising star.

If Tuesday's dismissive response to Mark Durkan over Army collusion with loyalist terrorists is anything to go by, she has a long career of avoiding questions ahead of her.

There was an unforgettable moment during the 30-minute debate, organised by Durkan, when he came close to tears.

The small audience watched and waited to see if he would be able to maintain his composure. He did, but it would have been entirely understandable if he had not.

He was talking about the murder of SDLP branch secretary Denis Mullen in September 1975.

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The weapon used to gun him down at the front door of his family home in Collegeland, Co Armagh, had been stolen from Glenanne UDR base four years earlier. His wife fled in fear of her life, "with bullets slamming into the walls behind her".

"Their daughter, Denise, aged four, heard the shots and got out of bed to find her father bleeding and dead at the front door," Durkan said.

"She stood over his body for an hour, her nightdress soaked in blood, before the police considered it safe enough to remove her and her 11-month-old brother, who was still in his cot."

Durkan wants the MoD to address two points: its own 1973 archives "casually and frequently refers to collusion in its internal documents, when describing overlapping membership between the UDA and UDR".

A Government report on subversion in the UDR "indicated 5% to 15% of UDR soldiers would also have been members of the UDA, the Ulster Vanguard Service Corps, the Orange Volunteers, or the UVP".

And the MoD did little to stem the theft of large amounts of Army weapons by the UDA. "It was not just an embarrassing lapse of security; they were then used by an absolutely ruthless killer gang network," Durkan said.

Soubry claimed it was nothing to do with her. "Such serious allegations should properly be dealt with by the police, so I can say little about them," she said.

Durkan tried to steer her away from platitudes and generalities to the content of his speech. "The Ministry of Defence knew one thing in private, but told an entirely different story in public," he said.

"It would not be appropriate for me to comment," she replied. Instead, Soubry threw out some boilerplate speech-filler about devolution, tourism and our "backdrop of relative peace".

David Cameron's Government is rightly proud of bringing the G8 to Northern Ireland and focusing on boosting the economy. But, if the past is to be dealt with, everyone must take responsibility for their actions.

Soubry's performance on Tuesday was an unwelcome flashback to the arrogant Whitehall of the 1970s.

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