The sentencing of a British soldier for the 1988 killing of Aidan McAnespie has met with a muted response, with most nationalists and republicans condemning the suspension of the three-year sentence which has ensured David Holden will not spend a day in prison for the crime.
Holden’s conviction in November last year helped to bring a rare degree of closure for the family of the 23-year-old Sinn Féin election worker who was shot in the back as he passed through a border checkpoint.
The sentence for his killer was predictably in line with other hugely unjust outcomes in prosecutions of British soldiers. The dismay among nationalists was summed up by Sinn Féin’s Pádraig Mac Lochlainn.
“Just one of the thousands of Irish Republicans imprisoned during the conflict served more years in prison than all of the years served by the British soldiers and British military agents who killed hundreds of our people,” he wrote.
Holden was the first British soldier to be found guilty of a conflict-related crime since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. He will also be the last, if controversial British legislation for an amnesty is passed later this year.
The trial judge said he was satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that Holden was guilty of manslaughter by gross negligence. He found that Holden had pointed a machine gun at McAnespie and pulled the trigger on the fatal shot, and then invented a story to cover up the killing.
In sentencing, Justice O’Hara said: “In his evidence during the trial, the defendant did not take the opportunity to express remorse. He could have done so, even in the context contesting the case. That would have been helpful.”
The judge added: “The defendant gave a dishonest explanation to the police and then to the court, to some limited degree that is an aggravating feature.”
The judge drew attention to victim impact statements given by Mr McAnespie’s family to the court.
He said: “Aidan was the youngest of the six McAnespie children.
“The statements described the devastating impact the killings had on the whole extended family, how it changed their lives and how hugely challenging it has been over decades.
“I have no doubt this was made worse by the family’s sense of injustice that Mr Holden was not brought to trial at the time.
“This is something the family shares with far too many other families in our society who have not seen anyone held to account for all manner of killings, bombings and shootings.
“Included in the statements is a haunting description of Mrs McAnespie walking from her home every night past the Army checkpoint to the point where her son was killed in tears saying the rosary.”
He said: “When I consider the sentence I bear in mind everything which is put before me by counsel and the McAnespie family.”
Members of Mr McAnespie’s family were in court for the sentencing hearing.
Aidan’s brother, Sean McAnespie, said: “The most important point is that David Holden was found guilty of the unlawful killing of our brother Aidan.
“We are glad we had our day in court. David Holden could have given an honest account of what happened that day but didn’t. The judge was clear he had given a deliberately false version of events.
“Not a day passes when we don’t miss Aidan.”
Despite the conviction, Holden will continue to receive a British military pension.
Speaking to Sky News about the sentencing, Sinn Féin MP John Finucane condemned the amnesty legislation currently going through parliament which he said would make any prosecution “impossible for victims for their families. There will be no court processes and there will be no justice.”