Men to be tried for Belfast shooting of Joe McCann in the first prosecution over British army killings in Northern Ireland
Henry McDonaldThe Guardian
16 December 2016Confrontation between British soldiers and the IRA in Belfast in August 1971. (Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images) Two retired soldiers have become the first members of the military to be charged with murder in connection with a Troubles-related death in Northern Ireland.
They are being prosecuted over the killing of Official IRA commander John McCann, who was shot dead in central Belfast in 1972. They are known as Soldier A and Soldier C and are believed to have been paratroopers.
Charging the pair 42 years after McCann’s death will provoke controversy over the retrospective prosecution of members of the security forces over killings related to the Troubles.
A Public Prosecution Service (PPS) spokesperson said: “Following a careful consideration of all the available evidence, it has been decided to prosecute two men for the offence of murder.
“The two defendants in the case are surviving members of the army patrol which shot Mr McCann. A third member of the patrol who also fired at Mr McCann died in the intervening years. At present, these individuals are not being named and are identified as Soldier A and Soldier C.”
The Official IRA leader was a republican legend even before his killing for organising the “Battle of Inglis’ Bakery” in the Market district of Belfast on 9 August 1971. Nine months later, McCann was shot dead by troops in the same area.
The original RUC investigation was conducted in 1972 and, based on the evidence then available, it was decided not to prosecute anyone.
The PPS spokesperson said: “The decision to prosecute is the outcome of a review which was undertaken after the case was referred to the director of public prosecutions by the attorney general for Northern Ireland in March 2014. The decision was reached following an objective and impartial application of the test for prosecution that was conducted in accordance with the code for prosecutors and with the benefit of advice from senior counsel.”
An annual commemoration of McCann’s death is held in Joy Street where he was gunned down and where there is a permanent plaque erected on a wall in his honour. His two sons, Ferghal and Ciaran, and his widow Anne run a website called bigjoemccann to commemorate the Official IRA commander.
The family claim McCann was shot in the back by members of the Parachute Regiment at a time when he was one of the most wanted republican gunmen in Northern Ireland.
McCann sided with the Marxist Officials when the IRA split in 1969. He took part in the Official IRA gun battle with the British army in the Lower Falls district a year later.
In 1971, McCann led an Official IRA unit that temporarily held back 600 British troops who had flooded into the Market district to arrest local men without trial when the late Edward Heath agreed to unionist demands for internment.
Photographed amid flames in Eliza Street, holding an M1 carbine rifle beside the Starry Plough – the flag of the Irish labour movement – McCann’s image during the gun battle became one of the earliest iconic images of the Troubles.
The PPS’ decision to prosecute two soldiers in connection with McCann’s death is bound to provoke fierce opposition from within the British military establishment, the Tories and the Conservative press.
Earlier this month, the Sun reported that police officers would be reinvestigating all 302 killings carried out by British troops. The paper said at least 500 ex-servicemen, many now in their 60s and 70s, would be “viewed as suspects” during the process.
The investigation was branded a witch-hunt by Conservative MP Johnny Mercer, a former army officer.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland said on Friday that it was not behind the decision to prosecute the two ex-soldiers.
ACC Mark Hamilton, head of the PSNI’s legacy and justice department, said: “The decision to prosecute two former soldiers in relation to the death of Mr John Joseph McCann in 1972 follows an internal review of the case by the PPS. Itt is not as a result of a police investigation or re-investigation and, as such, we are unable to comment further on this.”
However, the PSNI and the police-linked Historical Enquiries Team (HET) – the body that investigates unsolved crimes from the near 4,000 deaths of the Troubles – has been criticised by unionist politicians, loyalist paramilitary representatives and former senior army officers for being one sided.
They allege the HET and the legacy investigations are over-focused on killings involving police officers and soldiers between 1969 and 1997.
The PSNI is carrying out criminal inquiries into the actions of a number of British soldiers during the Bloody Sunday massacre in 1972 when troops opened fire on an anti-interment rally in Derry, killing 13 civilians. No soldier has ever been prosecuted over the Bloody Sunday deaths.
Denis Bradley, a former secret envoy between the IRA and the UK government and ex-chair of a consultative group investigating Northern Ireland’s past, has argued that putting the PSNI into the historic prosecutions from the Troubles is “polluting” policing in the region.
Bradley has expressed concern that Troubles-related crime inquiries could expose the identities of thousands of informers inside the IRA and loyalist terror groups if there was full disclosure of all British intelligence files in these investigations.