Belfast Telegraph

1974: Soldiers kill man with learning difficulties running across a field - now it's a murder probe

By Deborah McAleese

The PSNI is to pursue soldiers for alleged murder after re-opening the investigation into the shooting of a 27-year-old man in 1974.

John Pat Cunningham, who was terrified of men in uniform, was gunned down after running away in fear from an Army patrol close to his home at Benburb in County Tyrone, four decades ago.

Mr Cunningham has been described as a "vulnerable adult", with a mental age of under 10, and was dependent on others to care for him.

He was hit by three bullets fired by soldiers on patrol on June 15, 1974.

Detectives from the PSNI's Legacy Investigations Branch - which has replaced the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) - said that, following an assessment of available evidence, a murder investigation has now been launched. However, Mr Cunningham's family said they have no confidence in the Legacy Investigations Branch and do not want the PSNI to investigate.

They said they would prefer an independent inquiry under a new Historical Investigations Unit, which was proposed as part of the Stormont House Agreement.

In a statement on behalf of the family, the Pat Finucane Centre (PFC) said: "We have no confidence in the PSNI's Legacy Investigations Branch... The family have never met with the PSNI and asked the PFC to attend a recent meeting to inform them that they had no confidence in this investigation.

"We fear that this appeal is being made by the PSNI for public relations purposes."

Mr Cunningham was killed while walking along a lane near his home. He ran across the road and into a field, pursued by two soldiers who shouted at him to stop.

When he didn't, the soldiers fired five shots.

The pair were interviewed briefly by police, but declined to comment.

No criminal charges were ever brought.

The detective in charge of the new police investigation, Detective Inspector Neil McGuinness, said he wants to speak to anyone who knew Mr Cunningham, or has knowledge of any previous encounters or incidents involving him and soldiers.

He has also appealed for anyone who may have witnessed the shooting or engaged with the soldiers at the time to come forward.

"Police have already made a number of enquiries about this incident and the circumstances surrounding the death of John Pat Cunningham.

"We have now reached a point where it is appropriate and necessary to ask for assistance from not only the local community in Benburb, but also from people who may have moved away from the area or are in other parts of the world, if the investigation is to be fully progressed," said Mr McGuinness.

He added: "I appreciate this happened more than 40 years ago but I believe there are people in the community today who remember this tragic incident, who knew John Pat and who may have information which would be of assistance to the investigation.

"Our objective is to get to the truth of what happened that Saturday morning so that justice can be served."

In January 2013, following a report by the HET, which said that Mr Cunningham's death was a tragedy that should never have happened, the MOD apologised to his family.

A statement to the family said: "The HET report makes it clear that John was blameless and, accordingly, I believe it is right and proper to make an apology to you on behalf of the Government."

Officers from the Legacy Investigations Branch are to be deployed to the Benburb area to engage with the local community.

Anyone who believes they can help can contact the officers on 028 9258 9140 or 07585 228 283.

Belfast Telegraph


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