Sinn Fein has been accused of trying to drag the relatives of a boy who was killed by a soldier down “a road with no hope” by insisting prosecutors consider the case for a fourth time.
The Public Prosecution Service yesterday (Tuesday) announced that an ex-Army man – now in his late 60s and known only as Soldier B – will not face court for shooting two teenage boys in Londonderry.
There is no evidence that the boys – Daniel Hegarty, aged 15 and cousin Christopher Hegarty, 16 – had posed a threat to anyone. Daniel died as a result of the shooting.
It happened during Operation Motorman in 1972, aimed at reclaiming “no-go areas” in Londonderry from the IRA.
The case against the soldier was rejected because prosecutors had to disprove his claim that he thought he was acting in self-defence when he opened fire.
The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) do not believe this is possible to do.
Asked what the outcome may mean for other ex-personnel, a top prosecutor stressed each case is judged on its own merits, and “one shouldn’t draw any inferences from a particular case”.
It is the third time a prosecution against the soldier has been rejected by the legal authorities, but Sinn Fein yesterday called on the PPS to examine the case once more.
Ex-soldier Doug Beattie stressed his sympathies for the family, but said a further review of the case would now be “futile”.
It is the third time a prosecution against Soldier B has been rejected by the legal authorities.
The previous prosecutions were turned down in 1973 and in 2008, and then another review of his case was launched following a 2011 inquest into Daniel Hegarty’s death.
Doug Beattie, a UUP councillor and former soldier, repeatedly stressed his sympathies for the Hegarty family.
But he also said Sinn Fein should be cautious when calling for more effort to be made in prosecuting the man who killed him.
Mr Beattie (who holds a seat for the UUP in Portadown) said people “must reach out and feel sorry for the family of this young boy, who was taken away so early, and so tragically... you can’t detract from their grief, and no one should try to detract from their grief”.
Meanwhile, the soldier at the heart of the case had killed an innocent boy, he said, and “has to live with that”.
Sinn Fein dubbed the outcome of the case “hugely disappointing”, and called for a fresh review, adding: “The family of Daniel Hegarty, like the families of all victims of the conflict, are entitled to truth and justice.”
Mr Beattie said: “I think Sinn Fein really need to watch what they’re saying in this, because they’re trying to drag a family down a road where there’s no hope, and it’s kind of futile.
“They definitely do deserve truth, and they do deserve justice, but it’s got to be within the confines of what can be legally proven – and nothing can be legally proven according to the PPS as regards this one.”
He asked: “How do you prove a soldier who fired is not firing for the right reasons?
“It may be a flawed decision, it may be the wrong decision to fire...
“In this case it was a flawed decision. But the PPS believe they could not prove that he didn’t think his life was in danger.”
Jeffrey Donaldson, DUP MP for Lagan Valley and former UDR soldier, described the killing as a “tragedy”.
But he believes the prosecuting authorities in this case “made the right decision based on what appears to be a lack of evidence to support the allegation that this soldier committed a crime”.
As for Sinn Fein’s statement, he said: “I think the idea of a further review in this case is simply not on.
“We can’t continually expect the prosecuting authorities and investigative authorities to be focussing on a small number of cases. The reality is there are some 3,000 unsolved murders in Northern Ireland.”
He said the investigations should focus on paramilitary killings, which made up roughly nine-tenths of the total Troubles deaths, “rather than – for a fourth time – looking at a very tragic death”.
Soldier B had been in the Army for around a year when the incident happened.
He opened fire on July 31, 1972. Both boys were shot in the head.
Michael Agnew, assistant director of casework at the PPS, acknowledged that there was no objective justification for the shots fired by the soldier, saying neither boy “posed any threat to Soldier B or his colleagues”.
He said: “Our assessment remains that there is no reasonable prospect of proving to the criminal standard that Soldier B did not act in self-defence, having formed a mistaken but honest belief that he was under imminent attack.”
Mr Agnew said that when reviewing the case, prosecutors had gathered evidence from an expert ballistics witness who had previously addressed the inquest. In addition, a second expert was also consulted over the case.
Mr Agnew said: “The conclusions of both experts are such that they are not able to state that the ballistics evidence is inconsistent with the account provided by Soldier B of the circumstances in which he fired.”