Northern Ireland prosecutors drop Troubles-era cases against ex-soldiers

By Rory Carroll

Prosecutors in Northern Ireland have dropped murder charges against two former British army soldiers for Troubles-era killings, including on Bloody Sunday.

The decision halted the trial of the veteran known as Soldier F, the only member of the Parachute Regiment to be prosecuted in connection with the killing of 14 people during a civil rights demonstration in Derry in January 1972.

He had been charged with murdering James Wray and William McKinney, plus five counts of attempted murder. Prosecutors also dropped a murder case against another soldier who was charged with murdering a Catholic teenager, Daniel Hegarty, in Derry in July 1972.

“In both cases a decision has been taken that the test for prosecution is no longer met and that therefore the proceedings should be discontinued,” the public prosecution service said in a statement.

The announcement dismayed families of the victims and put a question mark over the prosecution of other army veterans for Troubles-era killings.

So-called legacy cases have tangled policing and politics and undermined reconciliation in Northern Ireland. Nationalists accuse the British state of shielding former soldiers from justice, while unionists, Conservative party members and veterans’ groups say old soldiers have been subject to a witch-hunt.

The family members of James Wray in Derry, Northern Ireland.
The family members of James Wray in Derry, Northern Ireland. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

A statement from Bloody Sunday families said Soldier F had not been vindicated and accused him of targeting people who had posed no threat.

Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin’s deputy first minister, said it was a bad day for justice. “We will continue to stand by the Bloody Sunday and Hegarty families,” she tweeted.

Prosecutors dropped the two cases after a review based on a court ruling in May that appears to have set a precedent.

Two defendants, known as soldiers A and C, had been accused of murdering an Official IRA commander, Joe McCann, in Belfast in April 1972. The case hinged partly on statements the soldiers gave to the Royal Military Police – without caution – soon after the shooting. They also gave statements to the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s historical enquiries team in 2010. The case collapsed after the judge excluded the statements as inadmissible.

Prosecutors cited that “emphatic” ruling in their decision to drop the two Derry cases, which hinged on legally questionable statements.

Ciarán Shiels, a solicitor for the relatives of the alleged victims of Soldier F, condemned the decision as a “damning indictment” of the British justice system and said the families would seek an immediate judicial review.

A total of 26 unarmed civilians were shot, 14 of whom died, during a protest march in Derry against internment without trial.

Victims’ families said up to 15 soldiers could have been charged under joint enterprise laws, but prosecutors charged only Soldier F. The case began before a district judge in Derry magistrates court in September 2019 and was adjourned.

Prosecutors also dropped the prosecution of a veteran known as Soldier B for the murder of Hegarty, 15, who was shot twice in the head in July 1972, seven months after Bloody Sunday, during Operation Motorman, which cleared IRA strongholds. The British government apologised to the Hegarty family in 2007 for having previously described him as a terrorist.

Legacy cases have polarised the public and political parties, with nationalists and unionists trading accusations of selectivity and rewriting history.

From left, Joe, Mickey and John McKinney, the brothers of the Bloody Sunday victim William McKinney, after their meeting with prosecutors.
From left, Joe, Mickey and John McKinney, the brothers of the Bloody Sunday victim William McKinney, after their meeting with prosecutors. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

Veterans groups and Tory politicians have lobbied Downing Street to ban prosecutions of former soldiers. The government has signalled it wishes to move away from prosecutions for unresolved Troubles-era cases and towards a truth and reconciliation model.

Any de facto amnesty for British troops would almost certainly also apply to members of the IRA and other paramilitary groups, a prospect that appals victims’ groups. Most of the more than 3,500 killings during the Troubles are unsolved.

Last month British and Irish officials agreed a “process of intensive engagement” with stakeholders to deal with legacy cases, raising expectations that both governments plan to amend the Stormont House agreement. The 2014 deal outlined a strategy for legacy cases that has become stalled.

“The current situation where all the parties are committed to a narrow interpretation of the Stormont House agreement guarantees neither truth nor justice,” said Padraig Yeates, a historian and legacy campaigner who advocates a conditional amnesty. “That’s why we need a truth recovery process that provides victims and survivors with alternatives to the courts.”