Private Clegg's friends in high places

Today the soldier who shot dead a joyrider could go free. If he does, it will be a triumph for an extraordinary campaign. Paul Vallely reveals how it was put together
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If they take any notice of petitions, Private Lee Clegg will be freed today from his life sentence for murdering Karen Reilly, a teenage joyrider whose car burst through a Paratroop Regiment checkpoint in Belfast in 1990. Two million people have signed documents protesting about the harshness of the soldier's punishment. The numbers are a testimony to the efficacy of a campaign which has raised a storm over the issue in the five months since the House of Lords dismissed his appeal against conviction.

The thrust of the campaign has been straightforward. Pte Clegg was on duty in Northern Ireland when IRA terrorism was at its height. One dark night a car came from nowhere and burst through the roadblock he was manning. Assuming the car was driven by terrorists intent on killing him and his colleagues, he opened fire. When the car crashed its occupants turned out to be teenage joyriders - but the soldier could not have known that in advance. Pte Clegg, aged only 25, was charged with murder simply for doing what he had been trained to do in the service of his Queen and country.

If only it were as simple as that.

Pte Clegg was convicted in 1993 at Belfast Crown Court where the judge found that he had fired three shots in the belief that a colleague's life was at risk. But the fourth, fired into the back of the car, aimed directly between its tail lights when it was 50ft past the checkpoint, was without justification. The story was briefly reported in the national press.

Ten months later Pte Clegg lost his appeal when the chairman of the Northern Ireland Appeal Court, Lord Chief Justice Sir Brian Hutton, ruled that the firing of a high velocity rifle amounted to the use of lethal force which was grossly disproportionate to any crime that might have been committed by the people in the car. Six months after that the Lords backed the appeal court judgment.

It was then that an extraordinary campaign began in which Middle England, so sceptical about previous allegations of miscarriages of justice in connection with Northern Ireland, mobilised a singular sense of indignation.

It was the right-wing newspapers which, publicly at least, made the running. It began with the sober sense of injustice of the Daily Telegraph but the bandwagon was soon hijacked by the more vivid Poujadist outrage of the Daily Mail, with the Sun bringing its black and white view of the world to bear: "He was in bandit company," it quoted the Paras' former colonel commandant, Lt-Gen Sir Michael Gray, as saying.

The reporting swiftly gave way to commentary of a more lurid hue. "Political prisoners do not exist in civilised, liberal Britain. It is one of the proudest boasts in our democracy. Private Lee Clegg of the Parachute Regiment might be forgiven for thinking otherwise," proclaimed the Mail in January, setting the tone for what was to come in the months that followed.

"Can we condemn Lee Clegg as a murderer, someone on the level of the street-corner yobbo who bludgeons an old lady for the contents of her purse?" it fulminated. "After a lengthy delay, the law certainly seems to have arrived at that conclusion."

"At Christmas," it continued, "some 350 terrorists - many of them foul murderers, the most vile dregs of society - were let out on home leave. Appeals to let Lee Clegg out for a visit to his family and friends fell on deaf ears."

The reports were based almost entirely on the evidence Clegg had given to the court, taking small account of the evidence against him. They ignored the fact that the trial judge had rejected the soldiers' claim that one of them had been struck by the car, and the finding that the troops had invented a false story to justify opening fire and then deliberately injured one of their number to substantiate the lie.

Incensed readers deluged the Mail with messages of support. "The response was truly astounding," said one insider. "It gobsmacked us, we printed a form with a fax number on it and you couldn't get a fax into the Daily Mail for days. There were huge sacks of mail. It was a full-time job opening it."

But much of the newspapers' rage was sham, or at least disingenuous. "Why - and this is a question that won't go away," the Mail thundered, "was a charge of murder preferred to one of manslaughter?" Anyone with the slightest knowledge of the British Army in Northern Ireland would have known. Army chiefs have always insisted that where charges follow any fatal shooting, they must be of murder or nothing. "A soldier didn't discharge a weapon unless he intended to kill. Manslaughter revolves around intention, so it was considered unsuitable," said one security source.

"Paratrooper Clegg is an Englishman denied the most basic right known to English justice: trial by 12 men and women who are chosen for that service to embody the common sense of the common people," pontificated another Mail scribbler, as if the soldier had been specially selected for this process, which has been the norm in all Northern Ireland courts during the years of conflict.

All of which only goes to underscore the gulf between Middle England and the Irish. The truth is that a jury of Ulstermen and women might well have convicted the benighted Clegg. And not just those nationalists who feel, with Gerry Duddy of the Bloody Sunday Justice Campaign, that "the Private Clegg roadshow, carefully managed by the media, is one of the most despicable campaigns ever witnessed on these islands."

There may well be less sympathy for Pte Clegg among Loyalists than might be imagined. "If Clegg had been a member of the UDR, would there have been a campaign by the Mail and the Sun to free him. What about the UDR Four?" said one Unionist yesterday. The Ulster Defence Regiment, as it was then known, is a regiment of the British Army recruited in Northern Ireland. Four of its members were convicted of shooting a Catholic and jailed for life more than 10 years ago - three were released after a miscarriage of justice was revealed, but only a couple of years ago, and one is still in jail.

The newspapers have not been the only activists. The committee of the Free Pte Clegg Campaign includes four former Para officers as well as the Rev Fred Preston, former chaplain to the regiment. It boasts the support of Lt-Gen Sir Napier Crookenden, a former commander of the Paras, as well as Lt-Gen Sir Michael Gray.

There was more to it, too, than the public protests of MPs such as Julian Brazier, Andrew Robothan and Lady Olga Maitland. Or, indeed, of the suggestion by Clegg's MP, Gerry Sutcliffe, Labour member for Bradford South, who - in yet another demonstration of the ignorance and prejudice which have characterised the English attitude to Ireland for generations - met the Prime Minister and called for his constituent to be exchanged with an IRA prisoner.

Behind the scenes more influential figures, including Sir James Spicer, MP for Dorset West, a former major in the Parachute Regiment, began privately to lobby John Major and Patrick Mayhew, passing on the widespread backbench Tory view that Clegg's punishment was too severe and that he should be released soon on licence. "Once we put the ferrets in things got moving," one prominent Tory MP said yesterday.

Publicly the newspapers continued to manufacture fresh pressure - "Private Lee Clegg has written from prison to the Daily Telegraph", "Prince of Wales is taking a sympathetic interest in the case", "Lord Denning yesterday criticised the decision of the House of Lords". The reporting reached its nadir with a sly innuendo: "It emerged that the father of Karen Reilly, the joyrider shot dead by Pte Clegg, was an IRA terrorist who was also killed by the Army, 19 years ago." As if that changed anything.

Privately the political wheels began to turn. The Defence Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, recommended to the Northern Ireland Secretary that it would be useful if the province's Life Sentence Review Board, which meets today, were to free Clegg on licence. Meanwhile the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, announced a review of whether soldiers could in future be charged with some intermediate offence, such as reckless discharge or unjustified shooting.

The speed with which all this has moved - there was less than one week between the Law Lords' decision and the matter being raised in the Commons, and not much longer between that and the announcement of a Home Office review - is in stark contrast with the years of hostile scepticism faced by those who campaigned against what turned out to be miscarriages of justice against the Birmingham Six or the Guildford Four.

Lee Clegg may well be more a victim of Ireland's Troubles than a wilful agent of their exacerbation. But if the parole board decides to release him today, there will be those who will question whether justice has really been done.