Ex-soldier told of attempted murder charge move just before 76th birthday

Dennis Hutchings has been facing criminal charges since last year in relation to the 1974 shooting
Dennis Hutchings has been facing criminal charges since last year in relation to the 1974 shooting

An ex-soldier who has just marked his 76th birthday is in “disbelief” after learning prosecutors have moved to reinstate a charge of attempted murder against him.

That is according to campaigner Alan Barry, who spoke to accused former military man Dennis Hutchings at the weekend about the latest twist in his case.

Mr Hutchings – with an address in Cornwall, and whose birthday was on Sunday – is being prosecuted in relation to the fatal shooting of John-Pat Cunningham in 1974.

Mr Cunningham, a civilian who had learning difficulties, was said to have been running away from soldiers in the Benburb area of Co Tyrone when he was shot.

This March, a judge said there was “ample evidence” Mr Hutchings had opened fire at Mr Cunningham, but that he should be tried for attempted grievous bodily harm, not attempted murder, because he could not see how a jury could find that he had intended to cause death.

On Saturday the News Letter revealed that, despite the judge’s ruling, the PPS was still pursuing the attempted murder charge.

“I think he is shocked,” Mr Barry said of Mr Hutchings.

“And very upset. And, you know, he’s in a state of disbelief that something like this could happen ... What’s the point in having a hearing and then ignoring the recommendations of the judge?”

Mr Barry – who has helped organise protests in support of UK military veterans – said he had been aware of suggestions since early April that moves may be afoot to reinstate the attempted murder charge, but that this was only officially confirmed last Wednesday.

When the News Letter broke the story, a trio of unionist figures – Jim Allister (TUV), Danny Kinahan (UUP) and Trevor Ringland (former NI Conservatives chairman) – were all quoted raising concerns about the move.

And in Monday’s edition, DUP man Jeffrey Donaldson added his voice too, saying that many people “are now losing confidence in the ability of the PPS to take a balanced approach to legacy cases”.

Mr Barry said that politicians have been “making all the right noises” about the case in recent days.

He said the next hearing is expected on June 16, adding: “Let’s hope all the same politicians are all still as vocal after the election.”

Amid a renewed focus upon the prosecution of soldiers for alleged Troubles-era crimes, Mr Barry – himself a former soldier – is encouraging former personnel to start pressing for prosecutions of paramilitiaries who tried to hurt them.

He called upon “every single veteran who served in Northern Ireland who was involved in any incident where they were fired upon, or where their life was put in danger by a bomb or any terrorist activity, to go and report that now as an attempted murder, and demand that it’s reinvestigated”.

“Believe me – quite a few hundred of us will do that – myself included,” he told the News Letter.

The News Letter had last week asked the PPS why it is reinstating the attempted murder charge, and whether theDirector of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Barra McGrory was involved in the decision.

It did not answer those questions, but issued a statement which read: “The prosecution can confirm that the indictment presented at the Crown Court in this case includes the charge of attempted murder.

“As this case is currently before the courts it would be inappropriate to comment further. All decisions are taken in strict accordance with the PPS Code for Prosecutors.”

Following criticism of the move, on Sunday a PPS spokesperson said: “While there has been some political commentary over the recent period, political considerations play no part in any decision taken by the PPS.

“Our decision-making is fair, independent and impartial and is not influenced by improper or undue pressure from any source, in line with the Code for Prosecutors.”