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Ex-para who may face court over IRA man's death slams justice system

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 19/07/2016

Joe McCann during the battle for Inglis Bakery in the Markets area of Belfast
Joe McCann during the battle for Inglis Bakery in the Markets area of Belfast
Joe McCann

A former soldier facing prosecution over the fatal shooting of an Official IRA commander more than 40 years ago has branded the justice system a disgrace.

Two ex-paratroopers could be dragged before the courts over the death of Joe McCann.

McCann, one of the Official IRA's most prominent activists, was shot by soldiers in disputed circumstances in 1972.

Three years ago, a report by the now-defunct Historical Enquiries Team (HET) concluded the killing was not justified.

The two former paratroopers cooperated with the HET's investigation and believed the matter was closed.

But they have been told that files have now been passed to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS).

The men, who served with the 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment, could be ordered to stand trial - and face jail if convicted.

It has led to claims of a two-tier justice system.

One of the men, Soldier C, is a grandfather from Hampshire, England, who served with distinction for 23 years.

"How can this be justice?" he asked. "It is a disgrace. I was doing my duty in Northern Ireland, trying to protect the public and keep the peace. Now I am being thrown to the wolves."

McCann (24) was commander of the Official IRA's third Belfast battalion.

His unit's seizure of Inglis bakery in the Markets area during internment became part of republican folklore.

In February 1972, McCann was involved in the attempted assassination of Ulster Unionist politician John Taylor.

He was regarded by the security forces as a dangerous terrorist.

McCann was shot by soldiers in disputed circumstances in Joy Street in the Markets area, close to his home, on April 15, 1972.

A HET report from January 2013 said he was shot several times while unarmed as he ran away from police. An RUC investigation conducted at the time concluded with the soldiers being told they would face no further action.

But in 2010, the troops were traced by the HET and were interviewed under caution in London.

A third who lives abroad did not cooperate.

The PPS confirmed the original decision not to prosecute was currently being reviewed.

But the threat of prosecution has been strongly criticised. Philip Barden, from Devonshires Solicitors in London, who is acting for the soldiers, said that it was further evidence of a two-tier approach to justice.

"Former soldiers who served in Northern Ireland in the 1970s see that there is one law for the terrorist, who walks away, and another for the soldiers, who were only there to protect civilians and who are being investigated and prosecuted," he added.

Mr Barden also told how the soldiers would fight to clear their names.

"They are accused of killing a murderer who was on the run and was an Official IRA leader," he added. "They acted lawfully, as has been upheld before."

Comparisons have been drawn with the case of John Downey, who escaped facing the courts for the 1982 Hyde Park bombing after being given a letter stating he was immune from prosecution. Downey denies involvement in the attack.

Ulster Unionist MP Tom Elliott said there was a reluctance to pursue republicans over past crimes.

"It highlights the unfairness that there is within the system," he added.

"I have been at several HET reviews with families, and I don't remember any of them questioning Sinn Fein or the republican movement.

"Yet they are quite open about asking soldiers to cooperate, and when they do cooperate this is what happens."

DUP MP Ian Paisley said justice had been turned on its head.

"The soldiers were trying to uphold the law," he explained. "This turns them into villains, and the villain into a victim.

A spokesman for the PPS told the Belfast Telegraph:"A review of the original decision not to prosecute in the case relating to the fatal shooting of Mr Joseph McCann in 1972 is currently being conducted.

"This follows a referral of the case to the Director of Public Prosecutions by the Attorney General of Northern Ireland."

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