Ex-paratroopers deny 1972 murder of Official IRA member Joe McCann

Soldiers A and C, who will remain anonymous throughout the case, are accused of shooting 24-year-old in the back in Belfast during The Troubles

Kim Sengupta
Defence editor
Monday 26 April 2021 23:23
Two former paratroopers have denied murdering Official IRA member Joe McCann (pictured) in Northern Ireland almost 50 years ago
Two former paratroopers have denied murdering Official IRA member Joe McCann (pictured) in Northern Ireland almost 50 years ago

The trial of two former British soldiers accused of murdering an IRA member almost a half century ago in Northern Ireland has started in Belfast amid controversy and recriminations.

The ex-paratroopers, aged 70 and 71, who have been granted anonymity during the case, pleaded not guilty to the charges over the death of 24 year old Joe McCann, who was shot in the back in 1972 during some of the most violent days of The Troubles.

Johnny Mercer, the veterans’ minister who resigned last week over the government’s supposed failure to protect UK service personnel who had served in Northern Ireland, attended the case at Belfast Crown Court and declared that the prosecution was “unfair”.

Speaking before the start of proceedings, the Conservative MP said: “What I don’t think is, 50 years later, you get a truly accurate picture of what happened.

“I think it is unfair to try and apply today’s standards of operations and retrospectively apply them to that time and try to get justice.

“What is happening today, I don’t think is fair and that’s why I am here.

“They served their country, they did their best. I think in any conflict, it is messy, it is unpleasant, it is a horrible process to go through for both sides.”

Mr Mercer denied he was “interfering” with the trial, and insisted he was there to learn about the “process”.

The trial, taking place in front of a judge sitting without a jury, follows a number of legal challenges over a prolonged period.

It is described as a “legacy case” – alleged criminal acts before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 on which Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service has taken the decision on whether to prosecute.

The case comes in the wake of the recent outbreak of some of the most serious outbreaks of violence in Northern Ireland since the signing of the Agreement, and warnings from community leaders that the situation can get worse with the coming marching season which have traditionally venues of disturbances in the past.

Veterans and supporters of soldier A and C outside Laganside Courts in Belfast where two former paratroopers deny murdering a man in Northern Ireland almost 50 years ago

The two former paratroopers, referred to as Soldier A and Soldier C in the proceedings, sat wearing suits and masks in the area usually used by the jury, as the case for the prosecution was opened in front of Mr Justice O’Hara.

Mr McCann, the court heard, was shot in the back as he ran away.

“On any view of the facts, the level of force used was unreasonable,” the prosecuting lawyer said. “The prosecution case is that in all circumstances that shooting was not legally justified.”

The Crown stated that Mr McCann was a senior member of the Official IRA who was suspected of involvement in a number of attacks, including ones which had led to the death of British soldiers.

He was a skilled gunman whose modus operandi, it was believed, was to set up ambushes.

The fatal shooting took place, said the lawyer, after a RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) Special Branch Officer attempted to arrest Mr McCann on Joy Street in the Markets area of Belfast.

Mr McCann, according to the first witness to appear in the case, was in disguise, wearing glasses, and with dark hair on the day of the shooting.

The witness, a delivery driver who had given Mr McCann a lift, heard gunfire after he dropped him off, ran to the scene of the shooting and found him lying injured on the road.

Soldiers A and C had been manning a checkpoint and had opened fire along with Soldier B, who is now deceased. Mr McCann was shot in the back as he ran away.

Former veterans minister Johnny Mercer (left) talks with Northern Ireland veterans commissioner Danny Kinahan outside Belfast Crown Court

The Crown’s view, said the prosecutor, was that both soldiers were responsible for the murder, regardless of who fired the fatal shot.

However, the lawyer acknowledged that the judge had the option of deciding on alternative verdicts of attempted murder, or attempted wounding with intent.

In a statement provided after the shooting, Soldier A had claimed that Mr McCann spoke to them as he lay dying : “You got me cold, I’ve no weapon,” the IRA man allegedly said. No guns were found when the wounded man was searched.

Mr McCann, the judge was told, sustained three bullet wounds.

One round which entered his lower back and travelled upward through the torso, proved to be fatal.

No legal or disciplinary action was taken against the soldiers at the time of the killing.

The paratroopers were the subjects of an investigation into historic incidents in 2010, and were interviewed under caution after they gave voluntary statements.

Both soldiers maintained that Mr McCann was given the standard warnings such as “halt” and “stop”, which he ignored and continued to run zig-zagging across shop fronts.

The now deceased Soldier B fired two rounds over the suspect’s head to get him to stop, said the two defendants. They opened fire subsequently.

The two soldiers maintained in their 2010 statements that they used “reasonable force in all circumstances”.

The case continues.