Opposition to amnesty bill boosted by conviction

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The response of the London government to the conviction of a British soldier for the death of a young Tyrone man has beeen described as “shocking”.

David Holden was found guilty of the manslaughter of Aiden McAnespie, shooting him in the back in Aughnacloy as he was walking to a football match. He then constructed a cover story to explain his actions, a story the judge dismissed as “a deliberately false account”

Following the guilty verdict, British Veterans Minister Johnny Mercer acknowledged the court’s decision but declared: “I remain committed to our manifesto promises made in 2019. David is being supported in all respects by MoD (Ministry of Defence) colleagues at this time.”

The Tory manifesto pledge was to introduce legislation to “tackle vexatious legal claims that undermine our armed forces”, but there was nothing “vexatious” about the prosecution of David Holden. There was also anger that he is being “supported in all respects” by the British Ministry of Defence.

The Peace Pledge Union (PPU), a leading British peace organisation, called on the British Ministry of Defence to explain.

Symon Hill, Campaigns Manager, said: “This is shocking. A minister has responded to a manslaughter conviction by declaring that his colleagues are ‘supporting’ the killer. Mercer offered not a word of sympathy for the victim’s family. How are Mercer and the MoD ‘supporting’ Holden? On what legal basis are they doing so? The questions must be answered.”

The trial court found that Holden shot Aidan McAnespie, who was walking to a football match, in the back. It was broad daylight on a Sunday afternoon when Holden fired from the border installation. The unarmed young man clearly posed a threat to no one, carrying only a kit bag as he headed across the border to a nearby Gaelic sports club.

Ten months later, Holden’s commanding officer fined him for handling the machine-gun “negligently” as to “cause it to be discharged”.

Eyewitnesses recall the fatally wounded 23-year-old, dressed in a leather jacket and jeans, lying on the ground with blood seeping out from beneath his white T-shirt.

He had endured a campaign of British Army harassment since he was 17, as he crossed the border twice a day to work in a Monaghan poultry farm. He would be detained for hours at a time.

After he was killed, there were phone calls to the family home in the middle of the night. “Will you put us onto Aidan?” his father John was asked when he answered. He heard people laughing in the background.

His mother Lizzie never lived to see David Holden’s trial. John did, but he was too frail to attend court when the case opened in March. He died two months ago.

Outside court Aidan McAnespie’s brother Sean (pictured, left) became emotional as he recalled those family members who had not lived to hear the judgment.

“We waited 34 years, we never thought we would have got it,” he said. “I’m thinking of my father and my mother that prayed and prayed for this day, and they’re not here to see it.

“As a family we’re very relieved and happy. We’ve such a big family, cousins, community and relations to help us through this, it took the whole lot to get us over the line.”

Amid the vindication for the McAnespie family after 23 years, many other families are still campaigning for justice for their loved ones. None of them will ever get it if the British government continues to support its amnesty legislation.

Claims of a “witch hunt” against former British soldiers have resurfaced, but only four soldiers have ever been convicted of killings while on duty. Between them, they served a total of 10 years in jail — and they all returned to the British Army afterwards.

The proposed legislation shuts the door on legacy cases. But Holden’s conviction proves that, even after 34 years, justice is possible.

Darragh Mackin, lawyer for the family of Aidan McAnespie, said the verdict at Belfast Crown Court “gives all victims’ families here hope that the courts remain open to families seeking justice.”

“That’s what my mum would have wanted that other families get hope from this,” read a message from the late Eilish McAnespie’s daughter Úna. “For her it was never just about Aidan.”

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