Comments by Westminster election candidate Tom Elliott about the arrest and charging of a former British soldier for the attempted murder of a man with special needs in 1974 have been described as “an outrageous slur”.
Dennis Hutchings was charged this week with the attempted murder of John Pat Cunningham in County Armagh 41 years ago. Hutchings is the first person ever to be charged in connection with the killing. He was arrested on Tuesday of last week by the PSNI Legacy Investigation Branch in England and was granted bail the following Saturday.
John Pat, a farm worker with a learning disability, was shot three times in the back as he ran from a British army patrol near his home in Benburb in June 1974.
He was 27 but had a mental age of between six and 10. After being approached by a British patrol as he walked home, John Pat appeared startled, ran away and was shot.
Elliott, a former Ulster Unionist leader who is running for election as MP for the constituency of Fermanagh/South Tyrone, described the charging of the former British soldier as “one sided” and “unfair to many innocent victims”, apparently excluding Mr Cunningham.
He compared the arrest with the failure to arrest and charge former IRA Volunteers ‘on the run’ who subsequently received letters to assure them they faced no prosecution, as “double standards”.
The Pat Finucane Centre lobby group said that given the UUP MP’s previous public utterances on the matter, the category of “innocent victims” appears to exclude Catholics killed by loyalists or the British Army. It condemned Elliott’s claim of “double standards”.
“The reality is that ‘letters of comfort’ were exchanged between the GOC [the British Army’s General Officers Commanding] and the Attorney General in the early 70s to ensure that soldiers would not face prosecution. This meant that only four soldiers were prosecuted for murder and all were released early from life sentences and allowed to return to their regiment.
The PFC also pointed to the ‘double standards’ of the British Minister of Defence in allowing convicted murderers to serve in the British Army. Two soldiers received life sentences for the 1992 murder of Belfast teen Peter McBride yet rejoined their regiment after serving just three years.
“When members of Tom’s former regiment, the UDR, appeared in court in connection with their involvement in the Glenanne Gang the RUC withheld their membership of the UDR from the court. Double standards? There are many families on all sides of the divide who have suffered greviously at the hands of republicans, loyalists and British security forces.
“Sectarian headcounts of ‘innocent victims’ is unhelpful and insulting. Tom Elliott should apologise to the family of John Pat Cunningham.”