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‘John Pat is the only victim in this ... and he’s the one people are talking about least’

Charlie Agnew says his uncle’s death and the Hutchings trial became ‘political football’ in North

Charlie Agnew, nephew of John Pat Cunningham, in the field where his uncle was shot dead in Benburb, Co Tyrone, in 1974. Photograph: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

When Charlie Agnew looks out over the field where his uncle, John Pat Cunningham, died, he thinks of how afraid he must have felt.

“I stand here, and I tend to think of John Pat running, running down there in what were those last few seconds of his life, and the amount of fear he would have out there. There were the soldiers in uniform, big men with guns, with English accents, shouting at him.

“They [the soldiers] probably didn’t know John Pat’s mental capabilities, but I know, and I think of the fear.”

One of those soldiers was Dennis Hutchings, then a 33-year-old staff sergeant in the Life Guards and the commander of the British army patrol, who last month went on trial in Belfast accused of the attempted murder of Mr Cunningham. The trial was halted when Hutchings, now aged 80, died after contracting Covid-19. He was buried on Thursday in Devon with full military honours and applause from the watching crowd, watched on by the Democratic Unionist Party leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, and the Upper Bann MP Carla Lockhart.

The coffin of Dennis Hutchings leaves St Andrew’s Church on Thursday in Plymouth, England. Photograph: Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images
A crowd gathers outside St Andrew’s Church during a funeral service for Dennis Hutchings on Thursday in Plymouth, England. The 80-year-old British army veteran died after contracting Covid-19 while on trial for the attempted murder of John Pat Cunningham in 1974. Photograph: Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images

Hutchings become a figurehead for the campaign backing the UK government’s controversial proposals to introduce a statute of limitations for Troubles-era crimes, championed by British army veterans, unionist and Conservative politicians and by sections of the British media.

They argued that a man of his age and ill-health – the trial sat only three days a week, to allow Hutchings to receive kidney dialysis – should not have been “dragged through the courts” and claimed he was the victim of an alleged “witch-hunt” against former soldiers.

He was "a great man", the UK's former veterans' minister, the Conservative MP Johnny Mercer, told mourners; his "determination to see his name cleared of the erroneous charges brought against him, despite ill health, was inspiring", commented Lockhart.

“Whether it was Dennis Hutchings or [another soldier known as] Soldier B who fired the fatal shots that day, the fact is that one of those two soldiers murdered my uncle,” says Agnew, in his first interview since Hutchings death.

“I personally believe that John Pat’s mental disability may have allowed people to think he was less important, and as a result of that he has almost been airbrushed out of this whole sequence of events.

“The first thing that is undisputed is that John Pat was murdered, and the second thing that’s undisputed is the fact that John Pat was innocent.

“He is the one and only victim in this... and he’s the one people are talking about least.”

John Pat Cunningham was 27 was he was shot dead in Benburb on June 15th, 1974. Photograph: Collect image from Pacemaker

Shortly before midday on June 15th, 1974, John Pat Cunningham was heading home along a country lane in Benburb, Co Tyrone. Though 27 years old, he had a mental age of between six and 10, with a strong fear of men in uniforms. A year previously, he had been found by his GP hiding from soldiers in a ditch.

Today, the lane has changed little in almost 50 years; it remains a narrow road lined with hedges and fencing, and fields on either side. John Pat lived nearby; “just over the next hill”, Agnew points out.

He shows The Irish Times where the two British army Land Rovers came along the lane, caught sight of John Pat, and pulled up alongside a hedge.

Ten soldiers got out, and John Pat ran across the road and into the field; there were were shouts for him to stop, and to put his hands up. The gate where we are standing, Agnew explains, is roughly where Hutchings followed him.

In the courtroom, the 10 seconds John Pat ran across the field were counted out: “it felt like a lifetime, very poignant.”

Hutchings fired three shots with an SLR rifle from 100m; he would have had a clear view of John Pat as he ran. Soldier B – also deceased – who was positioned at a lower gate near trees, fired twice.

“When you’re out here, and you see the direction he was running, he wasn’t trying to get away, or to avoid the soldiers, he was running to get home,” says Agnew.

The case was reopened in 2013 on the instruction of the North’s attorney general and Hutchings was arrested in 2015. He died two weeks after the opening of the trial against him.

The report found John Pat posed no threat and described his death as 'an absolute tragedy that should not have happened'

“It was almost as if someone belonging to me had died, because over 10 years Dennis Hutchings had become a big part of my life,” says Agnew. “My first initial thought was, John Pat’s lost again. I’ve failed him. I have failed my uncle again.”

Immediately after John Pat’s death Hutchings and Soldier B were briefly interviewed under caution for no more than 20 minutes; but the director of public prosecutions did not bring charges.

The case was reopened by the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) in 2010. Both soldiers chose not to be interviewed. In 2013, the HET – set up to investigate “cold” Troubles cases – noted that “the full facts of the case” about Cunningham’s death had “never been established”.

The report found John Pat posed no threat and described his death as “an absolute tragedy that should not have happened”. It led to a British government apology, but Agnew questions its value given the military trappings that surrounded Hutchings’s funeral.

Agnew emphasises that his family “did not press for Dennis Hutchings to be arrested”, or for the case to be looked at again; instead it was considered by legal experts, the attorney general, the PSNI and the Public Prosecution Service (PPS). “The investigation was done and it met the test for prosecution.”

Following criticism after Hutchings's death, the PPS defended its decision to prosecute, saying there had been rulings by High Court judges that the evidence "was sufficient to put Mr Hutchings on trial" and that it had been in the public interest.

In answer to the challenge that there was no new evidence, the PPS said this was not required but the police investigation had led to a file being submitted to the PPS “which included certain evidence not previously available”.

Efforts had been by the trial judge, including reduced sittings to allow for Mr Hutchings’s treatment and an offer for him to appear remotely instead of appearing in the dock, but this was declined by Hutchings.

I got no pleasure from Dennis Hutchings's family having to suffer because in a way they suffered in the latter part of his life in the same way we suffered from John Pat dying

“I totally understand where people are coming from with that,” says Agnew. “You look at it and go, an elderly man with underlying health problems, taken through the courts, but where do you stop?

“At what point do you turn and say, right, go and commit a crime and if you live until a certain age, don’t worry about it? That makes a mockery of the law.

“I got no pleasure from Dennis Hutchings’s family having to suffer because in a way they suffered in the latter part of his life in the same way we suffered from John Pat dying.

“I never, ever wanted to meet Dennis Hutchings, I never wanted to see Dennis Hutchings, all that was sprung upon us, but going back to the victim in this, it’s John Pat, and as John Pat’s nephew, why is he not entitled to have the person who was there, the chief suspect in his murder, why is he not entitled to have him answer for what he did or didn’t do?

“The law is there and there’s nothing in the law to say it’s too late . . . this is due process of law.”

Writing in the Daily Telegraph last month, Hutchings's solicitor, Philip Barden, said that had he got to his evidence, "Mr Hutchings would have explained that he fired shots into the air and had not fired at Mr Cunningham at all.

“The prosecution received witness evidence from soldiers stating that Mr Hutchings did not shoot Mr Cunningham, while another soldier [Soldier B] admitted that he had shot Mr Cunningham.”

British army veteran Dennis Hutchings arriving at Laganside Courts in Belfast for his trial in October. He died on October 18th. Photograph: Mark Marlow/PA Wire

This correspondent interviewed Dennis Hutchings in 2018. He was angry, claiming that already been "cleared" twice – by the DPP and by the HET, though neither had done so – and that he was being made a "scapegoat" and a "victim of the system".

The attempted murder charge, he said, was a "disgrace"; it was a case of the government in Northern Ireland "being terrified of upsetting Sinn Féin" and servicemen were being "hounded" because it was "easier than chasing terrorists".

Asked if he agreed with the basic principle of law, that if a crime was suspected then there should be a trial, he said: “Yes, and I agree with the process of law with the exception of this.”

Why was this different? “There is no new evidence linking my case, no new evidence, never has been, in fact they’ve lost most of the evidence. It’s nothing to do with the law, it’s politics.”

He made other claims, too; that his regiment, the Life Guards, had “lost, I think, about three or four of the lads during the tours. We lost one two weeks before the incident with John Pat Cunningham.”

In fact, there is no record of a member of the Life Guards losing their life in June 1974. According to the British ministry of defence list of fatalities, only one member of that regiment was killed during the Troubles, in February 1973.

There have also been claims – carried here in his obituary in the London Times – that the day before John Pat was killed Hutchings “came across an IRA unit with weapons being readied for an attack. He engaged them in a firefight and, in a demonstration of proportionate force, arrested several of them. Others escaped.”

According to the HET, during their four-month tour of Northern Ireland from May to September 1974, the Life Guards shot and killed three other people, had five of their regiment wounded by gunfire and there were five unconfirmed reports they had hit gunmen who fired at their patrols; Hutchings did not shoot them, or at the five gunmen, and there are “no records to indicate” he was involved in any shooting incident other than that involving John Pat.

“It became really difficult when Mr Hutchings passed away, which is a tragedy because his family have lost a loved one and they have to grieve and I totally get that,” says Agnew.

The narrative put forward “by others for their own gain”, he says, was that of a heroic veteran who had been “cruelly persecuted” to death; he recalls sitting in the car with his son listening to a radio interview the day after Hutchings died, and to “stuff being said about him being a hero, and being honourable”.

He defends their right to do so – “I don’t know Dennis Hutchings well enough to make any observation on his personality or what he was” – but says “I have never seen a case where the person who was accused got so much sympathy, so much support”.

There have been “hurtful mistruths” about John Pat – such as that he was an IRA gunrunner, that his mental impairment was fabricated, or that the Cunningham family was at fault because he “should not have been allowed out” – and he is deeply critical of the politicians and sections of the media who “basically aligned themselves to one side irrespective of the facts”.

Alan Brecknell from the Pat Finucane Centre which works with the Agnew/Cunningham family. ‘For me, for supposedly one of the leading western democracies to allow their MPs and press to react like this is just beyond me.’ Photograph: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

The human rights organisation the Pat Finucane Centre, which works with the Agnew/Cunningham family, has complained to both to the Independent Press Standards Organisation in the UK and to individual newspapers.

It has written to the Speaker of the House of Commons following “numerous interventions in the House of Commons”, says Alan Brecknell from the centre, to remind MPs “this was an ongoing case, it was sub judice for that very reason, and they should not be commenting”.

“For me, for supposedly one of the leading western democracies to allow their MPs and press to react like this is just beyond me,” he says.

Who killed him will never be known now, probably, but what we do know now is it's one of those two people [Hutchings or Soldier B]

Arriving outside the courthouse in Belfast on the first morning of the trial, “it was like a scene out of a movie,” says Agnew, with Hutchings’s supporters there with slogans on their masks and banners: “Mr Hutchings was standing there getting photographs taken with everybody, and they were shaking hands with Mr Mercer... I felt really, really uncomfortable.”

One day he saw “one of our own elected representatives, an MP, was standing with her arms round him, and I thought, this can’t be right.”

It was a “fanfare coming in the gate... and all I kept thinking was that the guy who these people are taking photographs with and supporting is actually going in here to sit in front of a judge on a charge of attempted murder”.

Agnew’s reading is that Hutchings “started the trial as a celebrity” but as it went on “it got less, he became a wee bit more quiet... I think Dennis Hutchings was very uncomfortable when it was read out that my uncle was shot in the back, that he posed no threat, that he was running away.”

Yet “had the court come out and said he didn’t do it, I had to accept that, and that was a real possibility”, says Agnew. “Who killed him will never be known now, probably, but what we do know now is it’s one of those two people [Hutchings or Soldier B].”

Agnew feels let down by politicians – particularly in Northern Ireland – and by successive UK governments, and describes their plans to introduce a statute of limitations for Troubles-era killings as an “absolute disgrace and an insult to the families of all the victims”.

“What this particular murder proves is that if things are done right there is a legal outcome that is achievable,” says Brecknell.

“Without an investigative process we will never know, are there other cases to answer out there, and anything that takes away the notion of a proper, thorough, independent police investigation should be morally and legally off the table.”

Brecknell’s belief is that it “goes way beyond ‘standing up for our vets’”; they are being used as “pawns” in “the cover up over the dirty war that the British state was involved in”.

Agnew agrees. “The whole reason behind this process is to protect a political setup. Look at the political football our family’s case has become, and the name John Pat Cunningham, who was the least political person, he hadn’t the capacity to have a political belief, has become such a vibrant part of the process.”

Charlie Agnew, nephew of John Pat Cunningham, in Armagh this week. He said the ‘fanfare’ on the first morning of the trial about his uncle’s killing made him ‘really, really uncomfortable’. Photograph: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

Today people will gather in solidarity with John Pat Cunningham in Armagh and online at 1pm.

“His name is going to be remembered again,” says Agnew. “We’re going to come out and the idea is to let people remember the victim, I can’t stress this enough, he is the victim in this.”

Agnew was four years old when his uncle was killed; his only memory of him is of “a big, strong guy who used to throw you up in the air”. Now, he says, he is “talked about again, people [are] telling you stories about him when he was at the bowls... if this hadn’t happened I wouldn’t have all these stories.

“I find myself now in certain circles being introduced as John Pat Cunningham’s nephew. He went from being nobody, obscure, disposable... to being somebody.”