Prosecutors have re-instated attempted murder charges against an elderly soldier for a Troubles killing in 1974.
In March a judge had said there was insufficient evidence to proceed with the charge against Dennis Hutchings, 75, over the shooting of John-Pat Cunningham.
But yesterday the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) brought back the charge, prompting an outcry among unionist politicians and veterans.
The News Letter asked the PPS why they had re-instated the charge and whether the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Barra McGrory was involved in the decision.
They did not answer those two questions, and a spokesperson gave us the following statement: “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.”
Even so, the outgoing Ulster Unionist MP for South Antrim Danny Kinahan, a former Army officer who has campaigned on behalf of Northern Ireland veterans, said: “Barra McGrory’s reign as Director of Public Prosecutions has run its course and for the sake of public confidence, he should pack his bags and get out of the Public Prosecutor’s office.”
Jim Allister described the PPS decision to bring back the attempted murder charge as “unnecessary, high-handed and unusual”.
John-Pat Cunningham, who had learning difficulties, was shot dead by an army patrol as he ran away near the village of Benburb in June 1974.
In March this year, District Judge Alan White said he believed there was “ample evidence” that Hutchings might have fired three shots at Mr Cunningham but went on to explain why he was dismissing the attempted murder charge.
Judge White said in March: “When considering the circumstances the soldiers found themselves in and the time they had to reach a decision, I can’t see that any reasonable jury, properly directed, could find beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant intended to kill the deceased as opposed to causing him grievous bodily harm.”
At a Belfast Crown Court hearing yesterday at Laganside Courts, when the case against Mr Hutchings was listed for mention, it emerged that the attempted murder charge was being brought back. The case was put back until next month.
Mr Kinahan told the News Letter last night: “The credibility of the DPP and his office has been shot to pieces by their pursuit of a 75-year-old veteran. I have in recent months been inundated with messages from people expressing their disgust.
“The pursuit against Corporal Major Dennis Hutchings is perceived by many as a witch hunt. While ‘On the Run’ IRA suspects received comfort letters from the government effectively making them immune from prosecution, Dennis Hutchings is being re-tried for a case that he has twice been told he has no case to answer, and where he is the only living witness.
“Barra McGrory’s reign as Director of Public Prosecutions has run its course and for the sake of public confidence, he should pack his bags and get out of the Public Prosecutor’s office.”
Mr Kinahan added: “I have always been clear that no-one is above the law, however the approach to dealing with the past must be fair, balanced and proportionate.
“There is mounting anger across the whole of the United Kingdom about the way in which this and other cases have been handled and I can understand why. This is contributing to a re-writing of the narrative of the past which masks the real truth that terrorist groups, republican and loyalist, were responsible for 90% of Troubles killings.
“We cannot turn a blind eye to it. In order to restore the confidence of the wider community, Barra McGrory has to go.”
Trevor Ringland, the former Ireland rugby international and unionist politician, said: “This prosecution of a soldier for attempted murder, after a judge ruled that a properly directed jury could not find beyond reasonable doubt that he intended to kill, is a clear indication that we now have to do it all with regard to legacy cases, and do it properly no matter the consequences.
“We cannot bring prosecutions against individual, often low-ranking members of the security forces – ordinary squaddies who found themselves in a difficult situation – without putting terrorist leaders on trial. That should mean some leading members of Sinn Fein going to jail.”
Mr Ringland added: “It would be good to get an update on where those investigations are at this point in time, particularly the evidence of Stakeknife, which should enable the IRA hierarchy to be prosecuted.”
Alan Barry, a co-founder of the Justice for NI Veterans campaign, said: “If this is true that the case is being re-instated, this is truly shocking. The Public Prosecution Service have decided to ignore the recommendations of Judge White and to proceed with a charge that a qualified legal mind has told them will not stand up in court.”
Mr Barry, a former Grenadier Guard who was born in Dublin and now organises marches on behalf of Northern Ireland veterans, said: “If this is true, it is an absolute abominable situation for a 75-year-old veteran who is currently battling illness to be persecuted in this manner.”
He added: “Veterans feel that they are the victim of a one-sided process and that our human rights are totally neglected. We have held two rallies. In our last rally we had 3,000 veterans in London, 1,500 veterans in Northern Ireland, and nearly 2,000 veterans in Scotland. We mobilised 6,500 veterans.
“Our next campaign is going to be where we bring three ferry-loads full of veterans and fly veterans in on planes and we are going to march on Stormont. We are not wasting our time any more going to Parliament with this. We are going straight to the head of the viper and that is Stormont.”
Mr Barry added: “We will be effectively returning to Northern Ireland for the first time. We left as serving soldiers and we will be returning as veterans, wearing our same berets, medals and our same regimental cap badges. We will join our brothers and sisters in the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Irish and we will march on Stormont.”
He said: “Under the Good Friday Agreement veterans were sold to appease republicans and IRA members. We have had convicted terrorists walk free from prison, terrorists given On The Run letters and letters of comfort.”
The North Antrim MLA Jim Allister expressed concern about the PPS decision to reinstate the attempted murder charge.
The TUV leader, who is a QC with long-standing legal experience, told the News Letter: “There should be no room in the law for that which has the appearance of being capricious.”
Mr Allister added: “Just over a month ago Armagh District Court ruled that 75-year-old Dennis Hutchings should not be returned for trial on an historic attempted murder charge, but that his trial should proceed only on a gbh charge.
“This considered judgement was delivered by a very experienced district judge – himself a former senior officer in the PPS.
“The nub of the ruling was expressed by District Judge White in these succinct and compelling terms: ‘When considering the circumstances the soldiers found themselves in and the time they had to reach a decision, I can’t see that any reasonable jury, properly directed, could find beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant intended to kill the deceased as opposed to causing him grievous bodily harm.’
“Yet, today in an unnecessary, high-handed and unusual action the PPS has moved to reinstate the attempted murder charge.”
Mr Allister continued: “Given that a judge had ruled that no reasonable jury, properly directed, could convict of such a charge and given that a key part of the test for prosecution is a reasonable prospect of success, it is hard to find an explanation for the PPS’ actions.
“The fact that Mr Hutchings is likely to be tried by a ‘Diplock Judge’, rather than a jury, makes no difference to the standard or test for bringing a prosecution. Thus the district judge’s salient finding is not a plaything.”
Mr Allister concluded: “The handling of this case could seem to be part of a disturbing wider trend where former security personnel are seen as easy pickings, while terrorists continue to go Scott free.”