A decision by a non-jury court in Belfast to hand only a suspended sentence to a former British soldier found guilty of the manslaughter of 23-year-old Tyrone man Aidan McAnespie at a border checkpoint 35 years ago has been greeted with shock and disappointment.
David Holden (pictured) is the first soldier to be convicted of a conflict killing in the North of Ireland since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and one of only a handful to ever face prosecution.
His claims to have accidentally shot Mr McAnespie were dismissed as the least likely explanation for the killing of the prominent young Gaelic sports player, shot in the back as he passed through Holden’s checkpont in 1988. The High Court judge ruled that the soldier had given a ‘deliberately false account’ of what happened on the day.
Holden was found guilty of Mr McAnespie’s manslaughter last November, but today was sentenced to three years in prison, suspended for three years. As a result he will not serve a day in jail, fuelling public suspicions that no British soldier will ever be punished for their actions in the North.
The McAnespie family described the suspended sentence as disappointing, but said there main goal had been “truth and justice”.
He said: “The whole talk was all about ‘poor him’.
“He (Holden) had a chance at the start of this trial to come out and tell the truth and to admit to what he done. He dragged us through the courts for years. We lost our father and sister in the duration of that.
“We weren’t looking for a pound of flesh. We were just looking for truth and justice.
“We would have liked to see him get some sort of sentence, but it wasn’t the be-all-and-end-all. As long as he was found guilty, that was the main thing.”
Brian Gormley, a cousin of Mr McAnespie, added: “The most disappointing thing for us is that John, father of Aidan McAnespie, was there at the very start. The most important thing he wanted was to hear the truth.
“David Holden had ample opportunities in the court case to give an honest version of events of what happened on that day. He didn’t take that opportunity.
“Obviously, we are still extremely sad. We miss Aidan every day, but this will give some solace to the family.”
Sinn Féin MP Michelle Gildernew said victims and families need to continue to have access to truth and justice through the courts.
Following the sentencing of a British soldier for the 1988 killing of Aidan McAnespie, Michelle Gildernew said:
“For over 34 years, Aidan McAnespie’s family have faced down delays, lies and cover-up by the British state, and his mother and father, and his sister Eilish, have died without ever seeing justice.
“They have campaigned with strength, dignity and determination.”
She said the case “offers hope” to other families and that accountability “is possible”. She said the door needs to be left open for other families to access the courts.
“Sinn Féin backs the family’s call for the British government’s cruel and callous Legacy Bill to be scrapped and mechanisms to give truth and justice to families agreed at Stormont House in 2014 to be implemented.
“Sinn Féin will continue to support victims and families on their ongoing campaigns for truth and justice.”
Almost simultaneous to the sentencing, Britain’s Direct Ruler in Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris, announced that there will be an independent public inquiry into the role of state forces in the 1998 Omagh bomb in which 29 people died.
Police and military forces on both sides of the border have been accused of deliberately allowing the Real IRA device to be driven to its destination in the County Tyrone town centre, the intended commercial target for the attack.
Telephoned bomb warnings then inexplicably failed to clear the area around the device, resulting in a devastating loss of life in the predominately nationalist town.
It is believed that British forces deliberately allowed the bombing to proceed for their own military purposes, possibly including the generation of a wave of public outrage which would bring an end to the campaigns of breakaway IRA groups.
In 2021, a British High Court judge recommended that the British government should carry out a human rights-compliant investigation into what he described as ‘security failings’ in the lead-up to the attack.
Justice Horner found it was potentially plausible the attack “could have been prevented”.
His ruling came after a legal challenge by a bereaved family member against the government’s refusal to hold a public inquiry. The judge also recommended that the Dublin government establish its own inquiry.