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Ex-soldier Dennis Hutchings takes government to court over 'failure' to protect Troubles' veterans

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Former soldier Dennis Hutchings has said he is unable to travel to Northern Ireland for his trial because of coronavirus fears (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Former soldier Dennis Hutchings has said he is unable to travel to Northern Ireland for his trial because of coronavirus fears (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Former soldier Dennis Hutchings has said he is unable to travel to Northern Ireland for his trial because of coronavirus fears (Gareth Fuller/PA)

A former soldier who is facing trial in connection with a fatal shooting carried out during the Troubles is taking the UK Government to court over its alleged failure to protect veterans from "vexatious" prosecutions.

Dennis Hutchings has been charged with the attempted murder of 27-year-old John Pat Cunningham, who was shot in the back as he ran away from an Army patrol near Benburb, County Tyrone, in 1974.

Mr Hutchings (77), who is in ill-health and on dialysis for renal failure, has also been charged with attempting to cause grievous bodily harm.

The ex-soldier denies the charges and his lawyer has previously argued that it is unfair to try his client.

On Tuesday, veterans minister Jonny Mercer announced legislation to protect former soldiers from "vexatious" historical investigations.

The legislation would put a five-year time limit on bringing prosecutions against soldiers and veterans who served abroad, except in “exceptional circumstances”.

Actions carried out by military personnel in Northern Ireland, however, would not be covered under the bill. Separate government proposals have been outlined dealing with Troubles-related cases.

In a statement, McCue and Partners solicitors, acting on behalf of Dennis Hutchings, said the former soldier "has little confidence that such legislation extending to Northern Ireland will ever be passed given the tensions and historical stalemate between Westminster and Stormont on this issue."

Mr Hutchings' legal team have raised a public law challenge against Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis calling on the government "to make good on its election promise" to protect Troubles veterans from prosecutions and to announce exactly what protections, come April, veterans will be given.

“Politics has let us down as it normally does," he said.

"We’ve waited years for legislation to be passed to protect Northern Ireland veterans and it still hasn’t happened. Our only option now is to let the court decide."

Announced by the government on Wednesday, separate proposals dealing with the Troubles would see the majority of around 2,000 unsolved cases closed and prevented from ever being re-opened.

Unresolved cases would be "swiftly" assessed by a new independent body and a full investigation would only be carried out if there was "new compelling evidence and a realistic prospect of a prosecution".

Matthew Jury of McCue and Partners solicitors said it is time for the courts to decide on what is "clearly a violation of veterans’ human right to fair treatment".

“On one hand, the government has explicitly stated and acknowledged that veterans are receiving unfair treatment in Northern Ireland. On the other, its lawyers are denying its even happening," he said.

"This is obviously absurd. Johnny Mercer should rightly be praised for what he’s achieved for veterans who served overseas but the fear is that the Westminster 'blob' will thwart his efforts to include those who served during the Troubles."

Belfast Telegraph