PAUL JOHNSTON: Inquiry into allegations against troops in Northern Ireland was a pursuit that was unfair and utterly unjust
The Historical Enquiries Team was independent of the police and its aim was always to provide answers to family questions about the death of a loved one during the conflict in Northern Ireland, irrespective of whether they had been a member of the public, a member of the security forces or a terrorist.
No moral or political judgments were made about the victims.
The HET asked the families what questions they would like it to attempt to answer.
A veterans supporter is photographed outside court as the trial of two Northern Ireland serving paratrooper veterans accused of murdering Official IRA member Joe McCann in 1972 collapses
It had three aims:
- To assist in bringing resolution to those families of victims whose deaths are attributable to the Troubles;
- To re-examine all deaths attributable to the Troubles and ensure that all investigative and evidential opportunities were subject to thorough and exhaustive examination in a manner that satisfied the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s obligation for an effective investigation;
- To do so in a way that commands the confidence of the wider community.
The Public Prosecution Service knew all along that the HET process was not designed for use in the criminal courts and that its reports were intended only for a victim’s family.
The PPS also knew that the HET had not found any fresh and compelling evidence in Joe McCann’s case – which meant they had not referred it to the police for a new criminal investigation. If the case was referred to the police in later years through another mechanism, then the job of their investigators should have been to make sure the evidence met the standards expected under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act.
The PPS knew that the HET had not found any fresh and compelling evidence in Joe McCann’s case
That would have included interviewing the former soldiers under caution. Clearly, that did not happen.
The only evidence the PPS had was that which existed nearly 50 years ago – the same evidence seen by the director of public prosecutions who decided back then that there was insufficient evidence to bring a case.
So what was it that made the PPS think a second bite of the cherry was justified now?
McCann’s family said they wanted no more than to be told the truth about their father; they had no interest in retribution nor in the prosecution of the soldiers; they wrote a personal letter to the former soldiers saying just that.
The veterans were told what McCann’s family wanted from the HET. They agreed to share what they could remember about April 15 1972 because they felt a moral obligation to help the family find the answers to their questions.
The reality was that the former soldiers did not have to say anything at all; they didn’t even have to speak to the HET, but they did because they thought it was the right thing to do.
Had they decided to say nothing, they would never have ended up on trial for murder.
McCann’s family (pictured outside court on Tuesday) said they wanted no more than to be told the truth about their father
The PPS boasts it acts impartially and in the interests of justice at all times, applying the highest professional standards and treating everyone fairly and with respect.
It failed on every count. Nothing it did in this case was professional, nor was it in the interests of justice.
What the PPS did was not fair to the former soldiers nor did it respect the stated wishes of the McCann family.
Instead, someone chose to embark upon a lengthy, costly and painful process for everyone concerned.
It was always going to fail because there was no new evidence.
I am not aware of any other HET case, including those involving murder by Republican and Loyalist terrorists, where the fresh and compelling evidence test was not applied before a decision was made to prosecute.
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