Nicola Sturgeon has personally apologised to the families of three Scottish IRA murder victims after one of her MSPs claimed members of the terrorist organisation could be considered freedom fighters.
The First Minister also revealed she has reprimanded John Mason, the SNP MSP for Shettleston, in her letter of apology to relatives of three Scottish soldiers executed in 1971.
The letter from Ms Sturgeon was in response to the outrage caused by remarks made by Mr Mason when the deaths of John and Joseph McCaig, aged 17 and 18, and Dougald McCaughey,23, were discussed on twitter.
In her letter, obtained by the Belfast News Letter, Ms Sturgeon acknowledged that her colleague’s views had caused “understandable offence and upset”.
Her intervention comes after repeated calls for her to distance herself from Mr Mason and to condemn the murders of the Royal Highland Fusilier soldiers. It also underlines just how damaging Mr Mason’s ill-judged remarks have become for the SNP.
Mr Mason himself did not apologise until he had been rapped on the knuckles by SNP Chief Whip Bill Kidd, who was concerned that Ms Sturgeon had been dragged into the row.
Mr Mason was asked via twitter to support a private prosecution of those suspected of murdering the three young men.
The SNP MSP replied: “You say Irish murderers. Others say freedom fighters. I support Scottish soldiers if they do good but not if they do bad.”
Writing to David McCaughey, a cousin of the oldest victim, Ms Sturgeon passed on her “deepest sympathies”, adding that “the appalling circumstances of their deaths mean that the pain you feel will never go away”.
“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,” Ms Sturgeon wrote.
“I am therefore aware that recent comments made by John Mason MSP will have caused you and your family understandable offence and upset. While Mr Mason has stated that his comments were in no way intended to be a reference to the murder of your loved ones, I have made clear to him that the constraints of social media are no excuse for comments that offend or cause hurt and upset. Mr Mason has made clear that he regrets the offence and upset that has been caused by his comments, and that he is extremely sorry that this has happened.”
The First Minister 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.”
Mr Mason’s conduct saw the SNP attacked by politicians in Scotland and Northern Ireland.The row intensified as Mr Mason initially refused to withdraw his comments. After almost a week of controversy he eventually apologised late on Tuesday afternoon. Last night it emerged the apology was not forthcoming until after he met in private with Mr Kidd.
An email to Mr Mason from Mr Kidd said: “I’ve been told that the issue of the newspapers continuing interest in your recent Tweets is now causing concern for fellow MSPs in the Group, who have constituents contacting them directly asking their comments on the subjects of concern and that’s unacceptable to happen.
“The Government are also now being approached and this could cause the First Minister embarrassment, which I know you wouldn’t want. Therefore, I’ve rightly been asked to say that there should be no more media or Tweet comments on the subjects at interest and I’d ask you to go down that line; and this without further explanation from yourself to any further enquiries for comment which might be made of you.
“I’m asking further that you can come along to my office this Tuesday at 3.00pm so that we can talk about the way this story has developed publically and find a way to avoid a repeat of it.”
Nelson McCausland of the DUP said: “I welcome the apology from Nicola Sturgeon to the families of the three Scottish soldiers. Her statement as First Minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party is very important.
“I sincerely hope that she will now take up the invitation from the families to meet with them and to hear more about their campaign.
“I also hope that she will then commit her government and her party to support that campaign for justice in every way possible. That meeting and that support would undoubtedly do much to encourage the families of those who were so brutally murdered by the Provisional IRA at White Brae.’”