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855 ex-soldiers quizzed over Troubles deaths in 'politically-driven witch-hunt'

By Adrian Rutherford

Hundreds of ex-soldiers who served in Northern Ireland have found themselves under the spotlight in what has been branded a politically-driven witch-hunt.

Almost 1,000 letters sent to former troops have questioned what they know about dozens of disputed Troubles-era deaths.

Bloody Sunday: 368 letters
Bloody Sunday: 368 letters

They include the case of an IRA man shot while acting as a lookout for a republican bomb team.

In some cases soldiers were left shocked after letters unexpectedly dropped on their doorsteps decades later.

The Belfast Telegraph has learned that at least 855 former troops have been contacted since 2013.

Earlier this week the Belfast Telegraph reported how two former paratroopers face prosecution over the death of Official IRA man Joe McCann.

Peter Barden, a solicitor acting for the soldiers, said there was huge anger at the way troops were being pursued.

"I have met over 100 of these former soldiers and they regard this as a political witch-hunt," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"Any society cannot expect the security forces to protect it and then seek to trawl over the split-second decisions made honestly by those charged with responsibility years later."

Mr Barden added: "Soldiers aged 17 to 20 were the main combatants and they fired in split-second decisions, and to seek to review those in a court over 40 years later is not fair or just."

At least 855 letters have been sent to former soldiers since 2013.

The total will be higher because the Ministry of Defence did not disclose figures for cases where the number of letters sent was less than 10.

This is the case in 18 of the incidents.

Brian Campbell: undisclosed
Brian Campbell: undisclosed

The details were released by the MoD after a Freedom of Information request.

The response states the letters were sent in relation to "inquests, ongoing criminal inquiries, and investigations".

A total of 368 relate to the deaths of 14 civilians on Bloody Sunday. Thirteen people were shot dead when paratroopers opened fire on a civil rights march in Londonderry in January 1972. The 14th died later.

Bernard Watt: 89 letters
Bernard Watt: 89 letters

In June 2010 Prime Minister David Cameron issued a formal apology for the "unjustified and unjustifiable" killings.

A further 153 letters seek information on the Ballymurphy shootings in August 1971.

Ten people were killed over three days following the introduction of internment in what the bereaved families refer to as the Ballymurphy Massacre.

An 11th person died of a heart attack after a confrontation involving a soldier.

In some cases the letters seek information on the deaths of IRA men.

These include Daniel McAreavey. The 21-year-old was shot during a bomb attack on an Army observation post in the lower Falls area of Belfast in October 1972. He was said to have been providing cover for an IRA bomb team.

In another case soldiers received letters questioning their role in the deaths of Colm McGirr and Brian Campbell.

The pair were killed by undercover Army members while walking across a field towards an arms cache near Coalisland in 1983.

A small number of letters related to the deaths of soldiers.

One set of correspondence focuses on the death of UDA leader Ray Smallwoods, shot by the IRA in 1994.

Comparisons have been drawn with the case of suspected Hyde Park bomber John Downey. Downey escaped prosecution for the 1982 attack in which four soldiers died after being given a letter stating he was immune from prosecution. He has always denied involvement in the attack.

DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said there seemed to be a one-sided approach to justice.

"We are concerned that there appears to be an increasing focus on what the State did rather than the actions that were carried out by terrorists," he said.

"This is despite the fact that 90% of deaths in Northern Ireland were caused by terrorists.

"This is why I feel it is important that a new Historical Investigations Unit is up and running as soon as possible. It is vital that innocent victims and their families, including soldiers and police officers, receive justice and we will be pressing the Northern Ireland Secretary of State to introduce the legislation that will help to support those innocent victims, as we move ahead to establish a Historical Investigations Unit.

"I fully support the armed forces and believe it is totally wrong that they have been targeted in this way with such letters, when on the other hand those who carried out terrorist activity were given comfort letters."

The Ministry of Defence did not respond to requests for comment.

Revealed: number of letters sent

Ballymurphy: 153

Daniel Barrett: *

James Bell: *

Bloody Sunday: 368

John Boyle: *

Seamus Bradley: 73

Marion Brown: *

Leon Bushe: *

Daniel Carson: *

Joseph Corr and John Laverty: *

Geoffrey Curtis: 12

Manus Deery: *

Paul Duffy: *

Stephen Duffy: *

Kevin Heatley: *

Frederick Jackson: *

Daniel McAreavey: *

Stephen McConomy: 10

Colm McGirr and Brian Campbell: *

Francis McKeown: 10

John Moran: *

Leo Norney: 24

Joseph Parker: 39

Nicholas Malakos; Anthony Rapley; Daniel Holland: *

Keith Richards, Alan Ayrton, William Beck and Simon Evans: *

Ray Smallwoods: *

Springhill: 22

Bernard Watt: 89

Unaccounted/others: 55

* Number of letters sent was under 10 and exact total not disclosed

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