Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley has said she is “profoundly sorry” for the “offence and hurt” caused after she suggested deaths caused by soldiers and police during the Troubles were not crimes.
Ms Bradley faced calls to resign following the comments on Wednesday, which sparked criticism from victims of the security forces and nationalist political leaders, while the Irish Government sought an explanation.
But Downing Street said that Prime Minister Theresa May still has full confidence in her.
In her apology, Ms Bradley said her language was “wrong” and “deeply insensitive” to many of those who lost loved ones.
She said: “Yesterday I made comments regarding the actions of soldiers during the Troubles. I want to apologise. I am profoundly sorry for the offence and hurt that my words have caused.
“The language was wrong and even though this was not my intention, it was deeply insensitive to many of those who lost loved ones.
“I know from those families that I have met personally just how raw their pain is and I completely understand why they want to see justice properly delivered. I share that aim and that is why I launched the public consultation on addressing the legacy of the Troubles.
“My position and the position of this Government is clear. We believe fundamentally in the rule of law.
“Where there is any evidence of wrongdoing this should be pursued without fear or favour, whoever the perpetrators might be. That is a principle that underpins our approach to dealing with legacy issues and it is one from which we will not depart.”
Northern Ireland’s former police ombudsman Baroness Nuala O’Loan urged the Prime Minister to seek Ms Bradley’s resignation.
Ahead of the apology, Baroness O’Loan said: “Those comments show a complete disregard for the operation of the rule of law.
“Moreover, they also demonstrate a total lack of understanding about Northern Ireland and utter contempt for those who suffered the loss of loved ones.”
John Kelly, whose brother was killed on Bloody Sunday in 1972, dismissed Ms Bradley’s apology as “too little, too late”.
Mr Kelly told BBC Radio 4’s The World At One: “What she said yesterday was a terrible, terrible statement. The families are very hurt by what she said.
“Her credibility has now gone, her impartiality has now gone. In my view, she should resign.”
Former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers said there was no need for Ms Bradley to resign.
Ms Villiers told The World At One: “She made an error and she’s corrected it and she’s apologised.
“In the back-and-forth of question time in Parliament, it’s easy to make a slip-up. Karen has corrected and apologised and the important thing is to ensure that where there is misconduct that is appropriately investigated.”
Ms Bradley returned to the House of Commons on Wednesday to clarify to MPs that alleged wrongdoing should always be investigated.
Next week, prosecutors will announce whether soldiers will face trial for the Bloody Sunday killings of 14 innocent civilians in Londonderry.
Ms Bradley initially told MPs on Wednesday: “The fewer than 10% (of killings) that were at the hands of the military and police were not crimes.
“They were people acting under orders and under instruction and fulfilling their duties in a dignified and appropriate way.”
She later returned to the Commons to say: “The point I was seeking to convey was that the overwhelming majority of those who served carried out their duties with courage, professionalism and integrity and within the law.
“I was not referring to any specific cases but expressing a general view.
“Of course, where there is evidence of wrongdoing, it should always be investigated – whoever is responsible.
“These are of course matters for the police and prosecuting authorities, who are independent of Government.”
Confirming that the PM has confidence in Ms Bradley, a Number 10 spokeswoman said: “She has issued a fulsome apology. She explained her language was wrong and she clarified the point she was trying to make.”
The spokeswoman said Ms Bradley had “a strong track record” as Northern Ireland Secretary, pointing to her leadership of a consultation on the handling of legacy cases and her efforts to ensure that public services function while the devolved executive is suspended.
She said Ms Bradley had not offered her resignation.