Up to 12 witnesses in case against soldier murder accused John Downey ‘are already dead’

Potential witnesses in the case against a pensioner charged with murdering two British soldiers 49 years ago are no longer alive, a court heard on Wednesday.

Wednesday, 16th June 2021, 1:57 pm
John Downey at an earlier court appearance
John Downey at an earlier court appearance

Confirmation that some have died came as a judge indicated any trial against John Downey will be delayed until next year.

Downey, 69, is being prosecuted over a bomb attack in August 1972 which killed Ulster Defence Regiment members Alfred Johnston and James Eames.

The soldiers were carrying out checks on a car on the Irvinestown Road in Enniskillen when a command wire initiated device detonated, killing them instantly. The bomb went off as a truck carrying 13 off-duty soldiers approached, blowing it onto its side and injuring some of the troops inside.

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Downey, of Creeslough in Co Donegal, was extradited from the Republic of Ireland in October 2019 to face criminal proceedings.

He is currently on bail charged with two counts of murder, as well as aiding and abetting an explosion likely to endanger life. The case against him involves alleged fingerprint evidence on insulating tape used to construct the device.

Previous courts heard analysis was carried out on prints taken from Downey following his extradition, and also in an earlier arrest for the 1982 bombing at London’s Hyde Park.

Downey’s trial for alleged involvement in that attack, which killed four members of the Royal Household Cavalry, collapsed in 2014 when it emerged he had a letter of assurance from the British Government that he was not wanted for any offences.

A preliminary investigation into the strength of evidence against him was due to be held earlier this year.

But those proceedings have been held up amid difficulties in holding face-to-face legal consultations during the pandemic and attempts to establish a full list of witnesses.

At Belfast Magistrates’ Court today prosecution counsel confirmed details have been provided of those individuals now understood to be deceased. Up to a dozen names are believed to be on the list.

Downey’s barrister, Sean Devine, questioned how realistic that figure is in a case involving alleged offences nearly 50 years ago. However, Samuel Magee QC, for the Crown, expressed frustration at the steps taken by the defence.

“We are going round in circles here... the court cannot let this continue, it’s beyond the pale,” he contended.

Adjourning the case for two weeks, District Judge Fiona Bagnall stressed she wanted progress made on a provisional list of witnesses from both sides. She acknowledged that a hearing to determine if Downey is to stand trial will not take place until the autumn at the earliest.

“The earliest would be the week of October 25, but it may be that is actually ambitious and we are going to have to look at Christmas.