About a year before John Pat Cunningham was shot three times in the back near his home in Benburb, Co Tyrone, a local doctor came upon British soldiers pushing him into a Saracen armoured car.
The doctor spoke with the soldiers, who said they had found John Pat hiding in the bushes and acting suspiciously.
The inquest into the 27-year-old’s killing in June 1974 was told there was no question of his having been a gunman, but simply a man with learning difficulties who was terrified of soldiers.
That same doctor who had come on the scene 12 months previously told the hearing John Pat was his patient and was “born with incomplete development of mind and required special care”.
He was afraid of many authority figures who wore uniforms.
Earlier this month, a former British soldier, Dennis Hutchings, at 80 years of age, sat in the dock of Belfast Crown Court and pleaded not guilty to a charge of the attempted murder of John Pat Cunningham more than 47 years ago.
Wearing a suit, to which were pinned several tiers of service medals, the former Life Guards member also pleaded not guilty to an attempt to cause grievous bodily harm.
Hutchings listened to proceedings via a headset due to deafness and was reportedly stricken by other health problems including chronic heart and kidney ailments. After two weeks of hearings, the trial was suspended as the former soldier was hospitalised. Late on Monday, he died from Covid-19 complications.
The latest development has once more put the spotlight on British government plans to grant an effective amnesty for all offences relating to Northern Ireland’s three decades of horrific violence and killing.
The plan would apply equally to loyalist and republican paramilitaries as well as UK security forces and would put a statute bar on police or the police ombudsman investigating Troubles-related incidents.
The proposal to halt all prosecutions also puts a stop to a raft of other court cases – including civil cases estimated to include about 1,100 compensation claims against the British authorities. It would affect inquests and effectively close every potential judicial remedy for victims and their families.
Last July, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the London parliament the proposal would allow Northern Ireland “draw a line under the Troubles” and “move forward”.
But the Irish Government and the main parties in the North united in opposition. They were joined by a clatter of human rights activists and organisations.
The amnesty idea emerged as a Conservative Party general election manifesto promise in December 2019, which promised the ending of “vexatious” prosecutions of former services personnel for alleged crimes while on active overseas service.
For many it was more about drawing a veil over Northern Ireland’s “dirty war” than about drawing lines to allow things move on.
The proposal further upended a central element of the 2014 Stormont House Agreement, endorsed by the DUP, Sinn Féin, SDLP and Alliance Party and both London and Dublin. It provided for a historical investigations unit to revisit incidents, leaving prosecution up to the DPP.
The untimely death of Mr Hutchings plays to those who argue it is time to end such prosecutions. They also point to the difficulties of securing safe convictions given the passage of time.
Prosecutors have staunchly defended their decision to proceed, saying it arose from fresh evidence dating from 2015, and involved a very serious charge that merited prosecution. They further argued that Mr Hutchings’ medical problems had been accommodated by medical care and rest breaks.
Bereaved families still seeking closure and information surrounding their loved ones’ deaths were equally trenchant about the need to proceed with prosecutions.
I stood in the Bogside in Derry earlier this year and heard the story of ‘Soldier F’, who first shot Patrick Doherty as he tried to crawl along the ground.
When Bernard McGuigan, waving a white handkerchief, went to his aid, ‘Soldier F’ dropped to one knee and shot McGuigan in the head.
The 2010 Saville report into the Bloody Sunday killings in 1972 concluded none of the soldiers fired out of fears their human targets had bombs or guns. Yet that soldier will not have to face the courts as charges against him were dropped last July.
“Soldier F is as guilty today as he was in January 1972. What has the passage of time got to do with it?” our guide in the Bogside asked.