British government apologises over shooting of disabled man

John Pat Cunningham was unarmed when he was shot by soldiers in Co Armagh in 1974

Charlie Agnew, nephew of John Pat Cunningham, 27, with a MOD apology and picture of Mr Cunningham at a press conference in Belfast today. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA Wire

Charlie Agnew, nephew of John Pat Cunningham, 27, with a MOD apology and picture of Mr Cunningham at a press conference in Belfast today. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA Wire


The British government has apologised after the shooting of a disabled farm worker who ran away from soldiers almost 40 years ago in Northern Ireland.

John Pat Cunningham (27) had a mental age of less than 10 and a great fear of men in uniforms. He was unarmed when shot dead by soldiers from the Life Guard Regiment near his home in Benburb, Co Armagh.

Two soldiers suspected of the killing have refused to give an account.

The Historical Enquiries Team (HET), independent detectives investigating all conflict murders, said there were no grounds for their rearrest and no new lines of enquiry - a view disputed by his family.

Mr Cunningham’s nephew Charlie Agnew said: “John Pat may have been disabled but he was a human being with exactly the same rights as anyone else.

“The question must be asked: did the British Army consider John Pat ‘disposable’?”

The victim was walking home from the Servite Priory, where he helped out, in June 1974, along the Carrickaness Road when he was approached by a military patrol.

It had been deployed on follow-up operations after a different patrol was involved in a shooting incident with IRA gunmen two days previously.

A GP had already made representations to the Army about Mr Cunningham‘s fear of men in uniform.

Mr Cunningham appeared startled by the soldiers, jumped into a field and began to run for home pursued by two servicemen shouting commands for him to stop.

Evidence from another soldier, Soldier E, suggested he believed the man may have been armed, the HET report said.

Two troops then fired five shots and the victim died where he fell. It was not possible to determine who fired the fatal shot. The cause of death was recorded as bullet wound to the trunk, the HET added.

Soldiers A and B were interviewed briefly by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) under caution and exercised their right to silence. The Director for Public Prosecutions (DPP) decided against criminal proceedings.

The HET concluded that, because of the absence of original case papers, it was not possible to establish whether the investigation into the death was independent.

Its report added: “HET also concluded that by not obtaining the soldier’s (sic) account of what happened more vigorously, the investigation was not as thorough or effective as it could have been.”

It said interviewing soldiers A and B represented the only realistic lines of enquiry. HET requested interviews, but both declined - one after seeking legal advice.

The HET said: “They have both chosen not to engage and there are no grounds to arrest and further interview them under caution. There are therefore no new lines of enquiry to progress the investigation into John Pat’s death.”

The Team said his death was a tragedy which should not have happened.

“He was a vulnerable adult who was unarmed and shot as he was running away from soldiers. There is no evidence that he posed a threat to the soldiers or anyone else.”

It said the soldiers’ decision not to cooperate meant the full facts had never been established.

Andrew Robathan, minister for the armed forces, said it was right and proper to make an apology on behalf of Government.

“I do not believe that anything I can say will ease the sorrow you feel for the death of a much-loved relative, but I hope that the findings of the HET and our full and sincere apology will be of value by setting the record straight on these tragic events,” he told relatives.

Mr Agnew said the soldiers had never been compelled to account for themselves.

“He was a completely innocent man who did not deserve to die,” he said.

“In our opinion those who murdered him disgraced themselves, their uniform and the state in whose name they bear arms.”

Family solicitor Kevin Winters has written to Attorney General John Larkin QC asking for a fresh inquiry, has sought a new compensation settlement after £750 was granted originally, and asked PSNI chief constable Matt Baggott to make the soldiers accountable.