Belfast Telegraph

MoD sent me 'comfort letter' says soldier on murder bid charge over man shot in back in Northern Ireland

By Rebecca Black

A soldier being prosecuted over the killing of a man in Northern Ireland more than 40 years ago has said he received a 'comfort letter' from the Ministry of Defence at the time.

Dennis Hutchings (77) denies charges of attempted murder relating to the death of John Pat Cunningham in June 1974.

Mr Cunningham (27), who had learning difficulties, was shot in the back as he ran away from an Army patrol near Benburb, Co Tyrone.

The former soldier has now said that he received a letter from the MoD in November of the same year, telling him he had been cleared of any wrongdoing.

The letter, reported in the Daily Express, stated there had been a joint police and military investigation and there would be no prosecution of any military personnel arising from the incident.

It reads: "I have been informed by the Director of Public Prosecution that he has directed that there is to be no prosecutions of any military personnel arising out of this incident."

The trial of IRA Hyde Park bombing accused John Downey (right) collapsed in 2014 after it emerged he had received a so-called comfort letter from the Government telling him he was no longer being sought by police.

It sparked outrage with questions asked over how many people suspected of IRA activities had received similar letters.

Last week Mr Hutchings was told his trial will go ahead after the failure of his appeal, which claimed that the case was an abuse of process.

His lawyer had previously said it was unfair to try his client. The judge, Mr Justice Colton, said that although he was "uneasy" about a prosecution being taken more than 40 years after the incident, he felt Mr Hutchings should stand trial.

Mr Hutchings, from Cornwall, who suffers from kidney and heart disease, said that troops who served in Northern Ireland "were only there doing a job".

"Unfortunately things happen. Regarding this incident, a young man got killed - not by me, I might add," he said. "But I am the only one left alive that they can charge."

He also expressed concern that his is a test case to pursue more former soldiers over Troubles incidents.

Files relating to 18 former soldiers are being considered for prosecution over Bloody Sunday, and next month two ex-soldiers are due to appear in Belfast Crown Court charged with the murder of Official IRA man Joe McCann (24) in 1972.

Earlier this month Prime Minister Theresa May criticised how the past is being investigated.

"The situation we have at the moment is that the only people being investigated for these issues that happened in the past are those in our Armed Forces or those who served in law enforcement in Northern Ireland - that is patently unfair," she said.

"Terrorists are not being investigated, terrorists should be investigated and that is what the Government wants to see." However, PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton contradicted Mrs May, saying her claim is not supported by official figures.

"Our figures are out there, the facts speak for themselves," he said.

"There's about 30% of our caseload within legacy investigations branch that is focused on former military personnel, so-called state actors."

Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland Crown Forces Veterans for Justice group is to hold a protest in support of Mr Hutchings at Belfast City Hall on Monday, May 28.

It will coincide with a similar event in Manchester.

Spokesperson Wilfie Brown, who served with the Royal Irish for 22 years, will be among the speakers at the Belfast protest.

He said the main focus of the rally will be in support of Mr Hutchings, as well as what he described as the betrayal of former soldiers by the Government.

"There are around 141,000 veterans in Northern Ireland, including RUC, UDR, RIR and the Prison Service, as well as their families," he said.

"We gave years of our lives to protecting the public, and now we are thrown to the wolves."

Belfast Telegraph

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