British army veterans protest about Troubles ‘witch-hunt’

Demonstrations by supporters and dissident republicans in Belfast pass off peacefully

 

A rally of up to 1,000 British army veterans and their supporters and a counter-demonstration by a republican group outside Belfast City Hall passed off peacefully on Friday.

The veterans protested over what they claim is a “legal witch-hunt” against former soldiers who served during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Across the road a group of some 150 republicans from the Saoradh group, established with the support of dissident republican prisoners, assembled at a police line on Donegall Place.

They carried placards and banners stating “British state murderers have Irish blood on their hands”. Among those joining the protest was the well-known Lurgan dissident republican Colin Duffy.

There was a significant police presence creating a buffer zone between the two groups. There was some cheering and cat-calling between the two sides but there was no trouble.

The Saoradh group said they were protesting against the “paid mercenaries of British rule in Ireland”.

The main rally was organised by the Justice for Northern Ireland Veterans group which was highlighting what it alleges is a prosecutorial bias against former British soldiers over killings during the Troubles.

The group has cited how two former soldiers are to be charged with murdering Official IRA member Joe McCann in west Belfast more than 44 years ago.

Separate from the Saoradh protest, a group representing the Ballymurphy families also protested against the veterans’ rally. They have been seeking justice for the deaths of 10 people who were shot dead by the British army in Ballymurphy in west Belfast in 1971 and for an 11th person who died of a heart attack.

Justice

Among those addressing the veterans’ rally was Ulster Unionist Party Assembly member and former British army officer Doug Beattie. He said the Ballymurphy families also deserved justice.

“We all deserve justice,” said Mr Beattie who won a military cross for bravery while serving in the British army.

“But what we are seeing now is a Frankenstein version of justice which is all focused one way and no other way. We don’t want preferential treatment. If you break the law you should face the law, be you a soldier, policeman, be you a member of the public or be you a politician. We all should face the law,” he said.

“But what we are seeing here is an imbalance, and that is why we are standing here,” he added.

Mr Beattie also said the dissident group had a right to protest.

Dissident republican group Saoradh protest as a Justice for Northern Ireland Veterans rally takes place outside Belfast City Hall. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
Dissident republican group Saoradh protest as a Justice for Northern Ireland Veterans rally takes place outside Belfast City Hall. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

The chairman of Saoradh David Jordan said that the veterans’ rally was an “extension of the imperialist agenda to carefully foster divisions in this country”.

The North’s Public Prosecution Service has previously insisted there is no “imbalance” in the approach to cases. It stated that it dealt with 17 “legacy” Troubles cases since 2011, of which three related to former British soldiers and 11 to republican and loyalist paramilitaries. Two related to former police officers.