British government apologises over shooting of mentally disabled man

Family of John Patrick Cunningham, shot dead by British soldiers in 1974, say officials failed to ensure soldiers held to account

Charlie Agnew, nephew of John Pat Cunningham,  with the  apology from the British ministry of defence and a picture of Mr Cunningham at a press conference in Belfast yesterday. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA

Charlie Agnew, nephew of John Pat Cunningham, with the apology from the British ministry of defence and a picture of Mr Cunningham at a press conference in Belfast yesterday. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA

Wed, Mar 20, 2013, 06:00


The British ministry of defence has apologised to the family of a 27-year-old man with a mental disability who was shot dead by British soldiers near his home in Benburb in 1974.

Relatives of John Patrick Cunningham, however, have complained that the police and ministry of defence failed to ensure the soldiers who killed him were held to account.

His nephew Charlie Agnew, at a press conference in Belfast yesterday organised by the Pat Finucane Centre (PFC), said: “There is no other conceivable situation in any democracy anywhere in the world where soldiers can shoot a defenceless man dead and are not held to account for their actions.”

The PFC released details of an inquiry by the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) into the killing of Mr Cunningham near Benburb, which is in Co Tyrone but close to the border with Armagh.

Mr Cunningham had a mental age of between six and 10, “was easily confused” and had an inherent fear of men in uniform and armoured vehicles, according to the HET. This fear could have come from an incident in 1973 when a local doctor intervened to prevent Mr Cunningham being arrested by a British army patrol.

On Saturday, June 15th, 1974, Mr Cunningham was walking home from Benburb Priory, where he did part-time work, when a two-vehicle British army patrol approached.

“He turned towards the patrol appearing startled and he immediately ran across the road in front of the vehicles towards a gateway to a field,” the HET reported.

He climbed over the gate and ran. A number of soldiers pursued him, including soldiers identified as Soldier A and Soldier B, who between them, after stating several warnings had been shouted, fired five shots at Mr Cunningham. Another soldier, Soldier E, suggested he believed Mr Cunningham was armed.

Soldiers A and B, when interviewed under caution, exercised their right to silence at the time, and have maintained that right during this HET investigation.

“Although HET cannot be critical of them for exercising their legal rights, the consequences of their decisions has resulted in the full facts of the case about John Pat’s death never being established,” it reported.

“John Pat’s death was an absolute tragedy that should not have happened,” it added.