Prosecution of former British soldier over Troubles killing defended

Dennis Hutchings (80) died in hospital in Belfast on Monday after contracting Covid

Dennis Hutchings arriving at Laganside Courts, Belfast, on October 8th, 2021. File photograph: Mark Marlow/PA Wire

Dennis Hutchings arriving at Laganside Courts, Belfast, on October 8th, 2021. File photograph: Mark Marlow/PA Wire

 

The North’s Public Prosecution Service (PPS) has defended its decision to prosecute former British soldier Dennis Hutchings, who died while on trial for the attempted murder of a man in 1974.

The Deputy Director of the PPS, Michael Agnew, said the decision to prosecute was in the public interest and High Court judges had ruled the “evidence was sufficient to put Mr Hutchings on trial.”

The file submitted to the PPS by the police contained “certain new evidence not previously available,” he said.

Mr Hutchings, who was 80, died in hospital in Belfast on Monday. He had been suffering from chronic kidney disease requiring dialysis and tested positive for Covid-19 on Saturday.

Mr Hutchings denied charges of attempted murder and of attempted grievous bodily harm with intent in relation to the death of John Pat Cunningham in Benburb in Co Tyrone in 1974.

Mr Cunningham, who was 27, was a vulnerable adult with learning difficulties who was afraid of soldiers. He was shot and killed as he ran away from a British army patrol.

Unionist politicians on Tuesday criticised the decision to bring the prosecution against Mr Hutchings in view of his age and ill-health.

The DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson told the BBC’s Good Morning Ulster programme Mr Hutchings had “been literally dragged through the courts” and there were “serious questions that need to be asked of those who took the decision that it was in the public interest to prosecute this man.”

“The question I have for the PPS is what was the new and compelling evidence that meant it was in the public interest to bring an 80-year-old in ill health on dialysis at severe risk to his health before the courts,” he asked.

In a statement issued on Tuesday on behalf of Mr Cunningham’s family by KRW Law and the Pat Finucane Centre, the family said “much of the negative reaction to this case within unionism and in sections of the British press has been determined by the fact that John Pat Cunningham, who posed no threat whatsoever, was an Irish Catholic.

“It is the status of the victim that has framed the reaction not the detail of the case,” they said.

Mr Hutchings’ solicitor, Philip Barden, said on Tuesday that he hoped the UK government “will now enact a statute of limitation that will end the shameful pursuit of [BRITISH]Army veterans in Northern Ireland.

“This should be known as Dennis’ Law as it is the cause that he fought and died for,” he said.

Earlier this year the UK government announced plans for a new approach to dealing with would effectively end all Troubles-related prosecutions, civil cases and inquests.

The plans are opposed by victims groups, the main political parties North and South, the Irish government and prominent Irish-American politicians and diplomats.

Separately on Tuesday a cross-community group of people who lost loved ones during the Troubles were in Westminster as part of their campaign against the new proposals.

Raymond McCord, whose son was murdered by loyalist paramilitaries in north Belfast in 1997, said they had received “total support from every political party at Westminster except the Tories.”

They signed a pledge at the meeting which said they “totally reject the British Government’s proposals for ‘dealing with the past’, including amnesties for those who committed murder.”

Additional reporting - PA