The prosecution of two former British paratroopers for the killing of Official IRA Volunteer Joe McCann brings hope to his family who have campaigned for justice since the Historial Enquiries Team ruled the shooting unlawful.
Mr McCann was unarmed when he was shot from behind and then executed in public in April 1972. Soldier A, now 67, and Soldier C, 65, are surviving members of the patrol which fired more than ten bullets into him in the Markets area of Belfast city centre. A third member of the unit who fired on him died in the intervening years.
Following the HET report of 2013 his family pointed out that he could and should have been arrested rather than shot. Mr McCann, who had been one of the Official IRA’s most prominent activists in the early days of the conflict, remains an iconic figure within republicanism featuring on murals and also in republican ballads.
The original RUC police investigation was conducted in 1972 and a decision based on the evidence available then was taken not to prosecute any individual. The Historical Enquiries Team (HET) carried out a subsequent investigation into Mr McCann’s death in 2012.
The McCann case is only the second prosecution of the British military in Ireland since the 1990s. Another former soldier, was charged with attempted murder last year in connection the shooting of John-Pat Cunningham, 27, who had special needs, in County Tyrone in 1974. The last case before that was in 1999, when Paratrooper Lee Clegg had his conviction for the murder of a Belfast teenager controversially quashed.
The lawyer for Vol. McCann’s widow Aine welcomed the decision, saying: “This is some measure of justice after all these years.” Sinn Fein Assembly member Gerry Kelly added that “no one should be above the law”, and that McCann’s family “have been campaigning for more than 40 years and they are entitled to justice”.
But the decision to charge Soldiers A and C has triggered a predictable response from right-wing Tories and British militarists, who believe there should be full immunity for all British soldiers operating in the north of Ireland.
UUP justice spokesman Doug Beattie, a former British soldier, argued the prosecutions supported a view that the judicial system was “unfairly weighted against the forces of the State, and in favour of the terrorists”.
Earlier this week in the House of Commons Henry Bellingham claimed there was a political effort by prosecutors to “move away from credible evidence to political decision-making, which I find very worrying.”
“It has to be stopped,” he added. “There are potentially 278 more cases involving the security forces,” he noted.