Ex Para: We soldiers feared becoming the 16th victim of the IRA terrorist Joe McCann

In 1972, a few months after the incident where Mr McCann lost his life, at the age of twenty I was posted by the army to my native city Belfast.

By Bill Duff
Thursday, 6th May 2021, 12:35 pm
Updated Thursday, 6th May 2021, 1:25 pm
The Official IRA terrorist Joe McCann, whose 1972 killing led to two elderly soldiers being tried for murder. "The sad fact is that had he not died he would probably have gone on to kill many more times," writes Dr Bill Duff
The Official IRA terrorist Joe McCann, whose 1972 killing led to two elderly soldiers being tried for murder. "The sad fact is that had he not died he would probably have gone on to kill many more times," writes Dr Bill Duff

I found myself patrolling the streets in the immediate aftermath of the slaughter of innocents known as Bloody Friday.

Our primary role was to dominate an interface area where public disorder and murder were regular occurrences and but for our presence would have been the more so.

I witnessed a young soldier being shot and severely wounded and less than 150 yards away, four years later, as a constable in the RUC I held not one but two dying young soldiers in my arms.

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I remember, and everyone who is not old enough should note, that the state of chaos within Northern Ireland at the time was such that the police were not in charge of security but that responsibility had to be vested with the Army. It was the General Officer Commanding who was in charge of security, not the chief constable.

If the Army had not been Northern Ireland in 1972, with the better part of 30,000 troops and with a police force of barely 4,000, it is entirely possible that something akin to civil war with massive loss of life and widespread destruction of property would have resulted.

The British Army did not ask to come to Northern Ireland, it was ordered to deploy by politicians, quite correctly, in order to save life.

If Mr McCann and his IRA colleagues had not been shooting and killing soldiers and policemen whose main endeavour was to keep two extremes apart then he would not have died when he did.

The sad fact is that had he not died he would probably have gone on to kill many more times. He would appear to have been quite good at it.

Yesterday, after the acquittal of two paratroopers on the charge of Mr McCann’s murder, the Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions acknowledged “the enduring pain of the McCann family”.

He made no mention of the enduring pain of the families of the 15 soldiers Mr McCann claimed to have killed nor the two paratroopers and their families who have endured years of turmoil on a charge unsupported by any credible evidence.

Let me be clear, I do not advocate special treatment for veterans; I do not seek to place them above the law, I do not advocate amnesty nor a statute of limitations.

If any soldier or policeman willingly, knowingly, broke the law they must, wherever possible, be held to account and accept the consequences of their actions. I advocate exactly the same standards of treatment for soldiers and policemen, civilians and terrorists, that is equality before the law, a level playing field.

At the moment it is anything but level. How many terrorists are currently undergoing investigation and facing prosecution?

In spite of the fact that terrorists were responsible for over 90% of the better part of 4,000 killings a former soldier or policeman is reported to be 54 times more likely to be under investigation or facing prosecution for incidents up to 52 years old (‘Protections for ex soldiers are being thwarted by the politics of Northern Ireland,’ May 4, see link below).

This is the current criminal justice system which the Deputy DPP appears to think is working rather well and is satisfied that the decision to prosecute without any evidence, was correct. I fear there may be something fundamentally wrong in an institution in which all citizens should have total confidence.

What is required in historical examinations is above all, credible new evidence.

Additionally the context of the times should be taken into account, the physical and mental pressure, the tension, even terror experienced in the situation then pertaining, the requirement to make split second decisions in stressful situations.

We remember in this case that 1972 was the worst year in the history of the Troubles with almost 500 dead. In 1972 it was all but impossible to walk the streets in Belfast on any day of any week without hearing shots fired and bombs exploding!

No soldier or policeman on duty in Belfast on the day of Mr McCann’s death knew the millisecond when he might become Mr McCann’s 16th victim.

It is also important to take account of the vagaries of memory after decades. It is impossible to get multiple witnesses to agree exactly as to what occurred in an incident four or five minutes previously; what chance is there if the incident were four or five decades ago?

Unless of course that individual memories gradually merge into an agreed narrative with deliberate or inadvertent addition and deletion of ‘facts’.

Such merged agreed narratives cannot be the basis for establishing the truth after the passage of many years — but they can be the basis for the rewriting of history!

Given the difficulties in amassing credible new evidence, the well proven difficulties of relying on memory after many years and the circumstances and context pertaining at the time, it must only be in very exceptional circumstances that any person, veterans or not, must ever again be put through such an ordeal.

The Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland recently sent a file to the DPP, which I believe may even have recommended prosecution, with regard to an incident which occurred 52 years ago!

The IRA, many of whom were guilty of the most heinous of crimes, were given early release, letters of comfort and even Royal Pardons while veteran soldiers and police officers, doing their duty as instructed by politicians, are being targeted.

We have to acknowledge that after forty or fifty years the chances of obtaining credible new evidence, establishing accurately what happened or achieving a fair trial are remote.

It is regrettable but it is a fact. It is also a fact is that there is an attempt to rewrite history taking place and it is funded by the British taxpayer via legal aid and encouraged by institutions of the state itself.

This pursuit of veterans, both military and police is but one aspect of this cynical attempt to rewrite history.

Up until now it appears sufficient to simply aver ‘collusion’ or ‘the protection of an informant’ to start the legal aid cash machine rolling and a resultant bill to the British taxpayer of millions of pounds per year.

This trial and its inadequate preparation, over many years, may not be too bad; because of its early collapse the total bill might be under £1 million.

But I would not bank on it!

• Dr Bill Duff is a former member of the Parachute Regiment and the Royal Ulster Constabulary

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