Johnny Mercer discusses help for veterans on BBC Breakfast
The two men, in their 70s, who served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, walked free from court after five years of hell. Admiral Lord West, left, a former head of the Royal Navy, said: “It is time to stop the cruel hounding of our veterans. “We need to draw a line under it now.” The two elderly NI veterans, one of whom had suffered a stroke, were charged over the shooting of Ireland’s most-wanted terrorist Joe McCann in Belfast in 1972.
After his death, the Official IRA said he had killed 15 British soldiers.
Judge Mr Justice O’Hara ruled on Friday that statements Soldiers A and C gave at the time were inadmissible as evidence.
The prosecution yesterday decided not to appeal his decision, leading to the acquittal of the elderly pair, who are in their 70s and cannot be named for their safety.
The ruling was hailed as just, but there was intense anger at the decision to pursue the two veterans all the way to a criminal trial.
Admiral Lord West added: “It seems a travesty in Northern Ireland that terrorists who have committed terrible atrocities are not pursued, yet ageing servicemen who were doing their best to do their duty are reinvestigated again and again.
Supporters of Soldiers A and C celebrate the news
“These events were so long ago, it ceases to make sense.
“The Government made a promise in their manifesto that they would do something about this. While they have done something about overseas operations, they have not done anything about Northern Ireland.
“These men have been put under terrible pressure and that is not the way to continue. We have got to do something about it.”
Legal experts have also slammed the proceedings.
Hilary Meredith, chairman of Hilary Meredith Solicitors, said: “This trial should never have taken place.
“The Government should hang its head in shame. Where is the legislation to protect our veterans who served in Northern Ireland? This witchhunt needs to stop right now.”
The senior partner at Devonshires who represented Soldiers A and C, Philip Barden, demanded an independent inquiry to investigate whether the decision to prosecute was “political”.
The IRA’s Joe McCann was shot dead in Belfast in 1972
Mr Barden said: “The stress of these proceedings on the soldiers and their families cannot be underestimated.
“For the last five years, the soldiers have fought hard to maintain their anonymity on the basis that they would face real and imminent risk to their lives and physical safety from terrorists, were their names to be published.
“I call for an inquiry by a senior judge to investigate the decision-making process and to ensure that the decision to prosecute these veterans was not political.”
The trial is thought to have cost the taxpayer about £1million and subjected the two old soldiers to immense stress.
The Public Prosecution Service of Northern Ireland hinted the case’s collapse could affect the trials of other veterans over so-called “legacy” killings from the Troubles. Now, prosecutors are to examine the evidence in seven other cases involving veterans in Northern Ireland following the collapse of the Joe McCann murder trial. In four of the cases, a decision to prosecute has already been taken.
In the three other cases a decision is still pending.
This picture is alleged to show Joe McCann with a rifle
The Daily Express’ Betrayal Of Our Veterans campaign is demanding justice for NI servicemen.
Former soldier Johnny Mercer MP, who was sacked as a defence minister last month after complaining at the failure to protect NI veterans, said: “I’m delighted for the soldiers who can now hopefully go and live their lives in peace. But the Government has made very clear promises, and the Prime Minister has made very clear promises, on legislation to end the relentless pursuit of those who served their country in NI. It is time to deliver on that.”
Mr Mercer is expected to lead a veterans rally outside Parliament on Saturday.
Boris Johnson now faces pressure to honour a manifesto pledge to protect service personnel and veterans from “vexatious” prosecutions.
Johnny Mercer was sacked last month after complaining about the failure to protect NI veterans
The new Overseas Operations Act sets a five-year time limit for prosecutions unless there is new and compelling evidence – but it does not apply to Northern Ireland.
The family of McCann will now seek an inquest into his killing, at which Soldiers A and C could be compelled to give evidence.
Mr McCann was shot after resisting arrest by a plain-clothed policeman. He was unarmed at the time.
His daughter Aine said: “The judge was right when he used the word appalling to describe the failure of the state at all levels in relation to the murder of Joe McCann.
“The criminal justice failed, not only in this case but in the case of many other families.”
An Ministry of Defence spokesman said: “The MOD has noted the court’s decision, which was welcomed by Defence Secretary Ben Wallace.
“Soldiers A and C have received independent legal representation, funded by MOD, throughout. The Defence Secretary has ensured legal and welfare support is provided for all those involved in this process.”