Joe McCann murder trial: ‘Case shouldn’t have got off ground’

The solicitor who represented soldiers A and C in the Joe McCann murder trial, has called for an “urgent independent review” of the Northern Ireland Public Prosecution Service’s handling of the case.

Tuesday, 4th May 2021, 9:03 pm
Updated Wednesday, 5th May 2021, 12:49 pm

Philip Barden said his firm made legal submissions back in 2016 making clear that the evidence from their clients would not be admissible.

The veterans’ trial at Belfast Crown Court collapsed after the PPS confirmed it would not appeal against a decision by Mr Justice O’Hara to exclude statements given by the ex-soldiers about the shooting of the 24-year-old in 1972.

“The stress of these proceedings on the soldiers and their families cannot be underestimated,” Mr Barden said.

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Supporters of the two veterans accused of the murder of Joe McCann in 1972 celebrate hearing the case at Laganside Court in Belfast has collapsed. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

“For the last five years, the soldiers have fought hard to maintain their anonymity on the basis that they would face real and imminent risk to their lives and physical safety from terrorists, were their names to be published.”

Mr Barden, the senior partner at Devonshires solicitors, added: “This is a prosecution that should never have got off the ground. Before initiating the prosecution, the PPS had all the relevant information to conclude that the evidence was clearly inadmissible.

“Despite this, the prosecution proceeded. In so doing, the soldiers’ lives were placed at risk by a potential adverse anonymity decision, and having both served their country for over 20 years, they have spent five years of their retirement facing an entirely unjustified prosecution for murder nearly 50 years after the event.

“I call for an inquiry by a senior judge to investigate the decision-making process and to ensure that the decision to prosecute these veterans was not political.

Former veterans minister Johnny Mercer pictured at Laganside Court on Tuesday. Picture: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker.

“Justice must be seen to be done and we need to know why those directing historic prosecutions elevated Joe McCann’s case as a priority and didn’t focus on those many people who witnessed loved ones gunned down by terrorists.”

The PPS has defended its decision to take the prosecution forward.

Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions Michael Agnew said the decision was taken in 2016 after the evidence received was subjected to a “very thorough and careful examination by a team of experienced lawyers”.

Mr Agnew said that, despite Tuesday’s outcome, “the PPS remains satisfied that this case was properly brought before the courts”.

He acknowledged the “enduring pain of the McCann family,” and added: “It was always recognised that there were difficult issues in relation to the admissibility of the interviews having regard to the approach taken by the HET.

“However, the prosecution took the view that there remained a reasonable prospect of conviction and that it was proper for the court to determine these issues.

“The evidence has now been tested in the course of the adversarial trial process and we fully respect the judge’s ruling.”

Former defence minister Johnny Mercer has called on the government to introduce legislation to end prosecutions of veterans who served in Northern Ireland.

Speaking after Tuesday’s verdict, he said: “I’m delighted for the soldiers who can now hopefully go and live the rest of their lives in peace.

“But the government has made very clear promises, and the prime minister has made very clear promises, on legislation to end the relentless pursuit of those who served their country in Northern Ireland.

“It is time to deliver on that.”

The Justice for Northern Ireland Veterans campaign group has also said its members are delighted that the soldiers have been acquitted.

“Our veterans’ thought are solely with the families of Soldier A and C and those that are coming next in the show trials to follow,” JFNIVO senior advisor Paul Young said.

“The verdict has confirmed what Northern Ireland Veterans campaign groups have been saying since these one-sided legacy trials began some years ago.

“There are many pressing questions now that need to be answered, not least of which is why were Soldiers A and C facing trial for murder when at an early stage of the trial it was revealed that the 1972 soldiers statement would be inadmissible.

“Surely the Attorney General and the Office of the Public Prosecution Service must have seen and known that the statements would be inadmissible but still went ahead and took the soldiers to trial.

“There are many other questions that the PPS need to answer and in due course those questions will be asked.”

Mr Young added: “Veterans’ campaign groups now belief the time has come for a review of all legacy cases and those that are awaiting trial must be suspended until a full independent review of the evidence is carried out.

“For now our thoughts and joy are with the families of Soldiers A and C, their families and friends and we as fellow veterans will hope that they can now start to live the rest of their lives in peace and anonymity without the threat of injustice hanging over them.”

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