The campaign in Britain to free Private Lee Clegg, jailed for life for killing an 18-year-old girl when he opened fire on joyriders, has been greeted with surprise and bemusement in Northern Ireland. In Belfast one of the most common complaints from republicans, nationalists, Catholic Church sources and civil libertarians has been the alleged lack of accountability of the security forces.
On-duty regular soldiers have been responsible for about 300 killings, with RUC officers killing another 51. Those shot have ranged from armed members of the IRA to civilians and in some cases children. Only a handful of prosecutions have resulted from these incidents, almost all of them unsuccessful. There have been occasional convictions for manslaughter, but the Clegg case is only the second in which a soldier has been convicted of murder.
The first involved Pte Ian Thain who, like Clegg, was found guilty of murder and given a mandatory life sentence. It later emerged that he had, without publicity, been released from prison after serving less than three years. He was then reinstated in the Army. The freeing of Pte Thain generated a storm of protest in Northern Ireland. Critics said that by releasing him the Government had subverted the legal processes and contradicted its own insistence that members of the security forces were subject to the same laws as everyone else.
There have been other criticisms that the authorities have been unduly lenient with soldiers who have fallen foul of the law. In 1989 a Royal Scots corporal convicted of passing on photographs and information on suspected IRA members to loyalist assassins received a suspended sentence.
He was not required to leave the Army and was transferred to England as a training instructor. The Ministry of Defence described the corporal as "a very fine soldier".
Although Clegg is in prison in England, he is technically on temporary transfer and thus comes under the authority of Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Sir Patrick has absolute discretion on when to release prisoners serving life sentences and could technically free the soldier after a short time, as happened in the Thain case. The general routine for prisoners, however, is that cases are normally examined after 10 years by the Northern Ireland Life Sentence Review Board, which passes on a recommendation to the Secretary of State.
Over the past decade more than 300 republicans and loyalists serving life sentences, usually for murder, have been released on licence under this procedure. The time served generally ranges from about 12 years to 17 years.
In the Clegg case, one of the key witnesses was an RUC constable who was with the Parachute Regiment patrol during the fatal incident. In his initial statement, he said the soldiers had opened fire only after the stolen car had hit one of them. Later he made another statement saying no soldier had been struck and that soldiers had invented a false story to justify opening fire.
Another soldier, Pte Barry Aindow, was given seven years' jail for the attempted murder of the driver of the stolen car. This was cut to four years, the Northern Ireland appeal court judges reducing the charge to one of malicious wounding. The trial judge rejected the soldiers' claim that Pte Aindow had been struck by the car, finding that his injury had been deliberately caused by a comrade hitting him with a rifle. Four other soldiers were acquitted in the case, one of attempted murder and three of perverting the course of justice and obstructing police investigations in the shootings. One of the latter was the patrol leader, a captain.
After the shooting, paratroopers built a large model of the car in their canteen, together with a papier-mache model of a bloodstained head. A notice read: "Vauxhall Astra. Built by robots. Driven by joyriders. Stopped by A Company.''
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