UK veterans call for stop to ‘witch hunt’ prosecution of ex-soldiers in Northern Ireland

Historic Joe McCann murder trial collapses due to lack of evidence

Solicitor for the McCann family, Niall Murphy, with Joe McCann's family, (L-R) son Fergal, widow Anne, daughter Nuala, nephew Fergal and daughter Aine. Reuters 
Solicitor for the McCann family, Niall Murphy, with Joe McCann's family, (L-R) son Fergal, widow Anne, daughter Nuala, nephew Fergal and daughter Aine. Reuters 

Former British military leaders called for an end to the prosecution of ex-soldiers who served in Northern Ireland after a historic murder trial collapsed within six days.

The veterans, identified in a court order as Soldier A and Soldier C, were on Tuesday cleared of the 1972 shooting of Official IRA member Joe McCann.

Prosecutors requested judge John O’Hara find the pair not guilty as they could offer no further evidence against the men.

Mr O’Hara on Friday ruled statements the men gave to Royal Military Police hours after the shooting were inadmissible owing to several deficiencies – including that the soldiers were ordered to provide them and were not given legal representation.

Expected to last four weeks, the trial promised to unpick aspects of the messy legacy of British military operations in Northern Ireland.

But veterans’ lawyers say that a number of future cases in the province are now in jeopardy because they rely on interviews British soldiers were forced to give at the time.

Gen Sir Richard Dannatt, head of the British Army from 2006 to 2009, urged the British Prime Minister to intervene and stop such prosecutions going ahead.

“Boris Johnson promised he would stop these prosecutions but they are still going on,” he said.

Gen Sir Peter Wall, who served as British Army chief from 2010 to 2014, also called for proceedings to end.

"It's an utter disgrace that former soldiers going about their duty can be brought to court on such flawed evidence 50 years on,” he said.

“This is a politically motivated witch hunt that the government has to stop."

Mr McCann's daughter Aine said on Wednesday “the cards were stacked against the case from the very beginning” and described the original inquiry into the murders as a “tea-and-sandwiches affair”.

“This case exposed the professional malpractice, collusion and corruption from the British government from the very beginning,” she told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

Former UK defence secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind said firmer evidence was needed in future prosecutions.

This is a clear warning to those who are contemplating bringing prosecutions that they're not going to have much public support if it turns out to have been all based on what seems to be very unimpressive legal advice,” he said.

“It hasn't taken the court very long to throw it out."

Veterans and supporters celebrate as the trial of two Northern Ireland serving paratrooper veterans accused of murdering Official IRA member Joe McCann in 1972 collapses. Getty.
Veterans and supporters celebrate as the trial of two Northern Ireland serving paratrooper veterans accused of murdering Official IRA member Joe McCann in 1972 collapses. Getty.

Philip Barden, a senior partner at Devonshire Solicitors, who represented soldiers A and C, called for a formal inquiry into the process that led to the court case.

"The stress of these proceedings on the soldiers and their families cannot be underestimated," he said.

"They have spent five years of their retirement facing an entirely unjustified prosecution for murder nearly 50 years after the event. This is a prosecution that should never have got off the ground."

Mr McCann was shot while evading arrest in the Market Quarter of Belfast at the height of The Troubles, when armed soldiers patrolled streets of the British-ruled province riven by fierce sectarian conflict.

The decision to prosecute kindled anger among serving and former members of Britain's military, and the government has vowed to legislate to prevent more flimsy prosecutions.

Prosecutions from the era of The Troubles remain fraught with controversy in Northern Ireland, which remains split along sectarian lines despite a 1998 peace deal under the Good Friday Agreement.

British soldiers arrived in the province on a mission to keep the peace in 1969 but were embroiled in some of the bloodiest chapters of the conflict, in which 3,500 people were killed.

Representing the McCann family, lawyer Niall Murphy said that despite the verdict a murder had still occurred.

"This ruling does not acquit the State of murder. This ruling does not mean that Joe McCann was not murdered by the British Army,” he said.

He said the family want the former soldiers cross-examined at a coroner's inquest.

Ulster University's Sutton Index of deaths says the British Army was responsible for about 300 killings over the course of operations, which ended officially in 2007.

Six former military personnel have been charged with offences relating to The Troubles, a UK parliament briefing paper published in February said.

The McCann trial was told he was a senior member of the Official IRA and was suspected of involvement in a number of attacks.

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