Ministers have been urged to end the hounding of Northern Ireland veterans after the sensational collapse of a landmark murder trial.
Almost 50 years after first being questioned over the shooting of Official IRA commander Joe McCann, two former Paratroopers, now 71 and 70, were allowed to walk free from court on Tuesday.
A trial judge ruled that crucial interview evidence was inadmissible, raising grave questions as to why prosecutors pursued charges against the pair for five years.
Veterans and supporters celebrate as the trial of two Northern Ireland veterans accused of murdering Official IRA member Joe McCann in 1972 collapses
It was the first case against servicemen deployed during the Troubles since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
Its collapse will bolster an estimated 200 other veterans at risk of prosecution.
But it was a day of shame for the Government, which has repeatedly failed to bring in promised legislation to protect the former soldiers. Johnny Mercer, a former veterans minister, described the witch-hunts as an ‘appalling national scandal’.
And a retired detective chief superintendent whose report on the death of McCann was used to justify the charges accused prosecutors of failing to act ‘in the interests of justice’.
In bombshell comments, Paul Johnston, who was deputy director of the Historical Enquiries Team, said his investigators had found no ‘new or compelling evidence’ against the ex-Paras, identified as Soldier A and Soldier C, in 2010 and concluded there should be no criminal probe.
As McCann (pictured) fled a checkpoint in 1972 he was shot three times
But the case was referred without his support to the Northern Ireland Public Prosecution Service, which charged the men with murder in 2016. He said: ‘The PPS boast they act impartially and in the interests of justice at all times, applying the highest professional standards and treating everyone fairly and with respect.
‘They failed on every count. Nothing they did in this case was professional, nor was it in the interests of justice.’
Last night, it emerged prosecutors will re-examine evidence in seven other cases involving veterans following the collapse of the McCann case.
Soldiers A and C were manning a checkpoint in Belfast in April 1972 when a Royal Ulster Constabulary officer asked for their help in arresting the 24-year-old.
As McCann fled he was shot three times. Following his death, plaques commemorating ‘IRA staff captain’ McCann were erected in Belfast.
The soldiers gave statements about the shooting on the day and were told they would face no action.
Then in 2010 they were interviewed by the HET, set up five years earlier to investigate unsolved Troubles deaths.
The prosecution’s case was left in disarray last week after the judge, Mr Justice John O’Hara, ruled that both sets of statements the men had given to authorities were inadmissible.
He decided they had been ‘compelled’ to give the 1972 statements without legal representation, while the men were not told they were suspected of murder in 2010. They had instead agreed to help when they were urged by McCann’s family to voluntarily co-operate to offer ‘truth not retribution’.
Yesterday the prosecution formally offered no evidence during a three-minute hearing which meant the case collapsed after just six days.
Johnny Mercer (pictured), a former veterans minister, described the witch-hunts as an ‘appalling national scandal’
Addressing the defendants, Justice O’Hara said: ‘In these circumstances, Mr A and C, I formally find you not guilty of the charges of murder. You are free to leave.’
Following the hearing a solicitor acting for the McCann family branded the elderly veterans ‘cowards’.
Insisting the ‘journey for justice’ had not ended, Niall Murphy said the family would push for a fresh inquest. ‘Let there be no doubt that the two cowards who hid behind anonymity did shoot Joe McCann in the back,’ he said.
The trial ruling calls into question any prosecutions relating to Troubles veterans who were first interviewed prior to 1973 – when the Army began cautioning soldiers involved in fatal incidents – and those which relate to HET interviews.
Seven former soldiers who operated in a plain-clothes unit known as the Military Reaction Force are awaiting a decision on charges including murder relating to shootings in 1972.
One ex-serviceman known as Soldier B has been charged with the murder of a teenage boy in Londonderry in July 1972 during an Army operation.
As many as 50 soldiers who were interviewed by HET investigators could yet face criminal charges, it is understood.
Mr Mercer, who was sacked from the Government last month after raising concerns about the treatment of Northern Ireland veterans, said: ‘The judge was very clear on the admissibility of the evidence.
Prosecutors will re-examine evidence in seven other cases involving veterans following the collapse of the McCann case. Pictured: McCann’s familiy
Those making prosecutorial decisions need to ask serious questions of themselves. We are trashing people’s lives with these decisions. I will keep campaigning on this until the Prime Minister and the UK Government does what it has promised to do.
‘For me, this is a scandal up there with contaminated blood or Windrush. It’s appalling. These are men who served in the military 50 years ago. Their crime? Serving here to prevent civil war.
‘These men have been totally abandoned by their country.’
Danny Kinahan, veterans’ commissioner for Northern Ireland, said: ‘This case should never have reached trial based on the evidence that the prosecution presented. An urgent review should be carried out on any similar cases that are pending.
‘These two veterans along with their families, have gone through a terrible ordeal, over many years. Veterans deserve to be treated with respect as they bore the brunt of terrorism and all its horrors, and did so on behalf of us all.’
Michael Agnew, deputy director of Public Prosecutions in Northern Ireland, yesterday defended the decision to bring charges against the men. He said prosecutors would assess whether the judge’s ruling on the admissibility of statements could affect other cases before the courts.
Philip Barden of legal firm Devonshires, which represents a number of veterans including Soldiers A and C, called for a judge-led inquiry to ensure that the decision to go after the veterans ‘was not political’.
A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: ‘The MoD has noted the court’s decision today, which was welcomed by Defence Secretary Ben Wallace.
‘Soldiers A and C have received independent legal representation, funded by MoD throughout these proceedings. The Secretary of State for Defence has ensured that legal and welfare support is provided for all those involved in this process, whether serving or veteran.’