The Troubles should not live on in British courts

Does putting British troops on trial in Northern Ireland allow justice for victims or simply open old wounds?

Soldiers and civilians in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, 16th August 1969. (Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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The collapse of a controversial trial involving two former British paratroopers accused of murdering an IRA gunman nearly 50 years ago has highlighted the extreme difficulties of bringing prosecutions relating to the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

The trial related to the case of Joe McCann, a notorious IRA commander in Belfast at the height of the unrest in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s. Apart from being held responsible for killing at least 10 British soldiers, he was also involved in the attempted assassination of the Ulster Unionist politician John Taylor in February, 1972.

McCann’s notoriety as one of the IRA’s most feared gunmen meant that he was soon at the top of the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s wanted list. So when McCann was spotted in Belfast by two RUC officers the following April, British paratroopers, who had been deployed to the province in support of the local police force, were asked to help the police detain him.

Some fear elderly veterans could be used as political pawns by Republican campaigners

But as the security forces approached, McCann, who had dyed his hair and was wearing glasses to disguise himself, attempted to flee, with the result that he was shot dead by the three paratroopers as they gave pursuit.

It soon transpired that, despite his previous history of violence, on this occasion McCann was not armed, prompting accusations from IRA sympathisers that he had been deliberately killed to avenge the deaths of British soldiers.

An inquiry undertaken by British military police immediately after the shooting subsequently decided that there had been no wrongdoing.

The fact that, nearly 50 years later, two surviving paratroopers involved in the shooting have found themselves on trial for murder in a Belfast court is mainly due to the Northern Ireland peace process masterminded by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, which resulted in the 1998 Northern Ireland Agreement.

As part of the deal, the British government agreed to set up the Historical Enquiries Team, which began work in September, 2005 to investigate 3,269 unsolved murders committed during the Troubles.

People hold flags outside Laganside Courts during the trial into the 1972 killing of official IRA member Joe McCann, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, May 4, 2021. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne
Opinions are divided as to whether soldiers and terrorists should remain accountable. Reuters

And it was as part of this investigation that prosecutors in Northern Ireland believed they had uncovered sufficient evidence to prosecute the paratroopers – who are now frail and elderly – for murder, despite the fact that no evidence was found to press such charges at the time.

But the wisdom of seeking to achieve justice nearly five decades after the event has now been called into question after the trial collapsed earlier this week when the judge decided there was no fresh evidence, and acquitted the accused men.

This has provoked a political storm in Britain, with Conservative politicians accusing Northern Ireland prosecutors of indulging in a “witch hunt” against British Army veterans who served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.

It has also prompted concern in military circles that Boris Johnson’s government is not doing more to protect military veterans from such prosecutions.

The sense of betrayal among veterans is particularly acute because, as part of the Good Friday Agreement, former IRA members accused of carrying out atrocities during the Troubles were given an amnesty by Mr Blair in an attempt to win Republican support for his deal.

As a result, an estimated 200 IRA members are said to have received letters from the British government assuring them that they were no longer wanted by the police, and will therefore not face prosecution for any crimes they may have committed.

Anne McCann (centre), widow of Joe McCann, reacts outside Laganside Courts with her daughters Maura McCann (left) and Aine McCann (right), after the trial into the 1972 killing of official IRA member Joe McCann, where two British soldiers were formally acquitted, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, May 4, 2021. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne
Anne McCann, widow of Joe McCann, after two British soldiers were formally acquitted of murdering her husband. Reuters

The injustice of this arrangement, whereby members of the IRA have, in effect, been granted immunity from prosecution, while British military veterans of the Troubles face the prospect of being put on trial, is particularly controversial following accusations that Sinn Fein, the party which represents the Republican community in the Northern Ireland Assembly, is driving the prosecutions.

Prior to the trial commencing, legal experts raised concerns that the case against the two accused – referred to in court as Soldier A and Soldier B – contained serious flaws, and was unlikely to result in a conviction. Even so, Barra McGrory, Northern Ireland’s director of public prosecutions, gave the go-ahead for the trial, prompting accusations that the prosecution of the two paratroopers was politically motivated.

This has raised concerns that elderly veterans of the conflict are being used as political pawns by Republican campaigners seeking to highlight British wrongdoing in the conflict.

Apart from the two paratroopers who were accused of McCann’s murder, there are said to be another 200 cases under review by Northern Ireland prosecutors which could lead to further charges being laid against British veterans.

Mr Johnson’s government is now coming under pressure to enact legislation that will provide some measure of protection for them.

The extent of the anger felt by former officers at the treatment of their colleagues was expressed by General Sir Peter Wall, who served as the head of the British Army during Mr Cameron’s premiership.

“It's an utter disgrace that former soldiers going about their duty on operations can be brought to court on such flawed evidence 50 years later,” he said. “This is a politically motivated witch-hunt and it has to stop. It's not too late for the Government to step in and regain some trust from its veterans.”

British ministers have previously pledged to take action that would provide better protection for military veterans from historical prosecutions. There have recently been reports of a possible statute of limitations to exempt former soldiers and terrorists from standing trial over alleged crimes committed before 1998, the year that the Good Friday agreement was signed.

While the British government has initiated action to protect troops from historical allegations relating to British involvement in the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, they have so far shied away from taking similar measures relating to Northern Ireland for fear of alienating Sinn Fein, whose support is deemed crucial to maintaining the peace in the province. Even if Mr Johnson is being forced to consider new legislation, whether he acts on it remains an entirely different matter. But with anger mounting over the treatment of British veterans of the Northern Ireland conflict, he may soon realise that it is in his political interests to provide Britain's soldiers with better protection against historical allegations than giving in to the calls of Irish Republicans.

Con Coughlin is a defence and foreign affairs columnist for The National