Wednesday 22 November 2017

Two ex-British soldiers facing murder charge 44 years after killing of unarmed IRA man

Joe McCann
Joe McCann
Ex-UVF leader Gusty Spence. Photo: Paul Faith/PA Wire
John Downing

John Downing

Two former British soldiers are to be charged with the murder of an IRA member in Northern Ireland over 40 years ago.

Official IRA commander Joe McCann (25) was shot dead in disputed circumstances in Joy Street, in Belfast's Markets area, on April 15, 1972.

Notoriously linked to several killings and gun attacks, he was unarmed at the time of the killing by the British Paratroopers, who later said they had expected him to be carrying a gun.

Two retired Paratroopers, known only as Soldier A, now aged 67, and Soldier C, aged 64, are said by prosecutors to have been part of a patrol whose members fired on McCann that day. A third patrol member, Soldier B, has died in the years since the incident.

"Following a careful consideration of all the available evidence, it has been decided to prosecute two men for the offence of murder," the Public Prosecutions Service said.

The controversial decision followed years of investigations and protests from nationalists about the circumstances of the killing. It will cause consternation among some Unionists and elements of the British military and security services.

The case was referred to the North's Director of Public Prosecutions, Barra McGrory, by the Northern Ireland Attorney General, John Larkin QC, in 2014.

The dead man's family had been pressing for several years for a new inquest to be held.

"The decision was reached following an objective and impartial application of the test for prosecution that was conducted in accordance with the code for prosecutors and with the benefit of advice from senior counsel," a Public Prosecution Service official added.

The two former British soldiers are expected to appear in court next year.

Joe McCann was among the IRA's best-known activists in the early days of the Troubles.

The old Royal Ulster Constabulary investigated the killing in 1972 and the authorities decided not to prosecute anyone.

The Historical Enquiries Team set up to investigate unresolved killings in the North examined McCann's death in 2012. This is the second military prosecution involving Northern Ireland since the 1990s.

Files on the infamous Bloody Sunday killings in Derry in January 1972 are still with prosecutors for decision.

Prior to his death, Joe McCann had topped the RUC's most-wanted list and was sent by IRA commanders to Dublin for his own safety. An Official IRA ceasefire was called six weeks after his death. Republicans have always disputed claims that his death was a "set-up" because he opposed a ceasefire. In 1997, republican paramilitaries of all factions attended the unveiling of a commemorative plaque on the 25th anniversary of this death.

His funeral was one of the biggest ever seen in Belfast with a cortege which stretched for a mile. In an unlikely tribute, loyalist UVF leader Gusty Spence wrote to McCann's widow from Long Kesh where he was detained. Spence wrote: "I salute your husband as an honourable and brave soldier." The letter was related to an incident where McCann is said to have brokered the release of UVF men detained by the OIRA.

Already notorious during his lifetime, in death his legend grew. Up to five people died violently in disturbances in the days following his death.

A poster depicting him armed and in silhouette became one of the Troubles' iconic images and he was celebrated in a song still widely sung in nationalist circles.

The British government issued a statement signalling that the charges will be contested. "Any member of the military affected by this legal case will rightly be supported throughout and will receive free Ministry of Defence legal representation," the statement said.

Another former soldier, Dennis Hutchings, aged in his 70s and from Cornwall, was last year charged with attempted murder dating to 1974.

Irish Independent

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