Two former British soldiers were not legally justified in opening fire on an Official IRA Volunteer as he ran away from them, a court has heard.
Joe McCann, aged 24, died after being shot in the Markets area of Belfast by a gang of RUC and British soldiers near the city centre in April 1972. He was unarmed at the time.
The legendary Official IRA man was shot up to three times in the back after the RUC Special Branch identified him as he walked towards the Markets. His family have pursued a justice campaign spanning five decades.
A Historical Enquiries Team (HET) report in 2013 confirmed that members of the murderous Parachute Regiment ignored the British army’s own rules of engagement when they carried out killing.
Two former soldiers appeared at Belfast Crown Court on Monday at the opening of their non-jury trial. They pleaded not guilty to his murder. Allowed to remain anonymous, they are known only as Soldiers A and C.
Former British minister Johnny Mercer, who has advocated impunity for British soldiers accused of war crimes, attended the court in support of the pair. Mercer resigned his ministerial role last week after expressing anger over the British government’s failure to protect killer soldiers from prosecution.
The fatal shooting took place after a plain-clothes RUC Special Branch officer failed to detain Mr McCann. That RUC man’s identity has never been revealed by the police, complicating the prosecution’s case.
A statement provided by the RUC man said he had been travelling in a car in the area when his driver spotted Mr McCann, who was on the run from the authorities at the time.
In his statement, he said he had tried to stop Mr McCann, whom he described as being a “three-star suspect”, but as he ran away, he dropped to the ground and called “Halt, halt”.
He said he heard similar calls from behind him, where the soldiers were positioned at a checkpoint. As Mr McCann ran, the soldiers opened fire.
The court heard that in a statement provided in the aftermath of the shooting, soldier A said Mr McCann spoke to them as he lay dying. Mr McCann said: “You got me cold, I’ve no weapon.”
STATEMENTS THROWN OUT
But the admissibility of the statements made by the soldiers has been the subject of a discrete legal process within the trial.
Soldiers A and C both made statements admitting they fired the fatal shots at Joe McCann in 1972, and did so again when they were interviewed by the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) in 2010 in London –– but that they didn’t expect to be prosecuted for it.
At Belfast Crown Court on Friday, Justice O’Hara said that these statements should be excluded from the trial.
The judge said this was because they were acting under orders when they made their statements to military police in April 1972, rather than volunteering to do so. He also claimed there was “oppression” of the soldiers when they made similar statements to the HET.
The judge agreed to adjourn the hearing until next week to allow the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) time to consider whether it wanted to appeal the decision.