A former soldier charged with attempting to murder a Northern Irish man in 1974 is set to address a rally in central London today, one of his former comrades has said.
Dennis Hutchings, 75 and from Cornwall, will be among those attending the gathering from 11am, which is aimed at drumming up support for former members of the Armed Forces who are facing charges linked to historic Troubles crimes.
His former superior officer Paul Hearson told the News Letter that he plans to attend and speak, but has “no idea” what he will say.
Hutchings is charged with attempted murder in relation to the shooting of John Pat Cunningham in 1974.
Mr Hearson, 65 and from London, retired from the Army about 40 years ago with the rank of captain.
When Mr Hearson was a troop commander in the Life Guards regiment, Hutchings had been his deputy – a role he adopted when they were stationed together in Germany, about a year after the fatal shooting.
Mr Hearson said: “He [Hutchings] is an absolutely first-class guy.
“You wouldn’t find a better soldier. He was exemplary.
“It’s quite disgraceful this should have been brought up now. The Army investigated it themselves back in 1974 when it happened... the Army were incredibly thorough, and they investigated properly when they had all the witnesses.”
He said he did not want the charges simply to be dropped.
Instead, he called for the Secretary of State to launch an independent review, by a QC or a judge, “who looks through the evidence and says ‘yes this case should go forward and there’s a case to answer’ or ‘there’s no case to answer’”.
“Exactly the same” should apply to other soldiers facing Troubles charges, he said.
It was put to him there will be people who will look at the case, involving the shooting of a mentally-impaired civilian who was reportedly running away, and believe someone should be held accountable.
“I don’t know how old you are – were you around in the ‘70s?” asked Mr Hearson.
“Well, it was a completely different situation to what Northern Ireland is like now in many respects.
“You have to understand it was that sort of situation.
“But everybody obeyed the rules, and the rules were very clear as far as the Army were concerned.”
He was based in Belfast himself in 1972, and in 1974 in Armagh.
“I was pretty horrific. I was only 21. I’d only been in there one day when I was first shot at, and you just think: ‘What the hell is going on?’
“And that was from the Protestant side actually. You got it from all sides in ‘72 – you didn’t know where you were.
“But I also made some good friends over there, nice people.”
He added that there are “far more important issues” affecting Northern Ireland, and the world, including Brexit and the election of Trump in the USA, and that there was a need to “move on” from a focus on the past.
Parliament has previously been told Mr Hutchings “vehemently denies” attempted murder, and whilst Mr Hearson said he cannot comment on the Cunningham shooting itself, “based on the character of Dennis Hutchings, which I know well, I feel sure he is innocent of any charges that could be put before him”.
As to numbers he expects at today’s rally in London, he said: “Maybe 500, maybe 1,000. I really don’t know. The more the merrier... If I know Dennis Hutchings, it won’t faze him in the slightest.”
The rally meets at Parliament Square at 11am, before marching to No 10 Downing Street at noon.