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Thrown to the wolves: Two former British Army paratroopers face prosecution over shooting of IRA hitman after 44 years

  • Ex-soldiers were twice told they would not be hauled before the courts
  • They gunned down Republican hitman Joe McCann at height of Troubles
  • They were told by investigators after 2000 review that matter was closed
  • But they were informed in May that files had been passed to prosecutors

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Thrown To The Wolves: Two Former British Army Paratroopers Face Prosecution Over Shooting Of IRA Hitman After 44 Years

Speaking out: Soldier C, a grandfather-of-one from Hampshire, could now be hauled before court

Two former paratroopers face prosecution after being thrown to the wolves over the shooting dead of an IRA commander more than 40 years ago. The ex-soldiers had twice been assured they would not be hauled before the courts for gunning down Republican hitman Joe McCann at the height of the Troubles. The British Army pair co-operated with Northern Ireland s Historical Enquiries Team (HET), which reviewed the case in 2010, and were told by investigators that the matter was closed.

But in May this year, the soldiers were informed that the files had been passed to Northern Ireland s Public Prosecution Service. It means the men, who served with the 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment, could be ordered to stand trial for the 1972 Belfast killing and face jail if convicted. Last Friday one of the men identified as Soldier C expressed anger at events being dredged up after 44 years. The 65-year-old believes the investigation is politically motivated and designed to appease IRA families. His anger was echoed by Armyrats © military veterans and politicians.

They compared the paras treatment to that of suspected IRA bomber John Downey, who escaped prosecution for the 1982 Hyde Park terror blast, which left four soldiers and seven horses dead, because he was given a police guarantee he was immune from prosecution. Downey has always denied involvement and pleaded not guilty at the Old Bailey in 2014. Soldier C, a grandfather-of-one from Hampshire, said: This has come as a major shock. I was told I would not be prosecuted and I truly believed the matter had been dealt with.

I thought I was going to live out my life in peace and harmony. Then out of the blue I got a phone call telling me that the police were passing over the files. It is on my mind all day, every day. It is extremely stressful.

Thrown To The Wolves: Two Former British Army Paratroopers Face Prosecution Over Shooting Of IRA Hitman After 44 Years

Terrorist: Republican hitman Joe McCann was gunned down at the height of the Troubles

Soldier C, who served with distinction for 23 years, said: How can this be justice? It is a disgrace. I was doing my duty in Northern Ireland, trying to protect the public and keep the peace. Now I am being thrown to the wolves. McCann, 24, was one of the Official IRA s most prominent activists, and his seizure of a bakery in Belfast during the internment became part of Republican legend. His unit also ambushed a British patrol in 1971, killing one soldier, and he was involved in the attempted assassination of Ulster Unionist politician John Taylor in 1972. He was regarded by members of the security forces as a dangerous terrorist who would be armed and would not hesitate to use his weapon to resist arrest.

On April 15, 1972 just weeks after Bloody Sunday two RUC Special Branch officers recognised the terrorist in disguise near Belfast city centre and decided to arrest him on suspicion of attempted murder. Soldier C and two colleagues on patrol nearby were ordered to help. As McCann was fleeing, it is claimed the soldiers shouted at him to stop or they would shoot. When he failed to halt, the three paras opened fire and he was killed. After a Royal Ulster Constabulary investigation at the time, the soldiers were told they would face no further action.

But in 2010, the troops were traced by the HET and two were interviewed under caution in London. A third lives abroad and did not co-operate. Lawyers notes show that the senior detective heading the investigation set Soldier C s mind at rest by telling him: In my professional experience, this ends here for you. You don t need to worry about this.

Thrown To The Wolves: Two Former British Army Paratroopers Face Prosecution Over Shooting Of IRA Hitman After 44 Years Thrown To The Wolves: Two Former British Army Paratroopers Face Prosecution Over Shooting Of IRA Hitman After 44 Years

Suspected IRA bomber John Downey escaped prosecution for the 1982 Hyde Park terror blast, which left four soldiers and seven horses dead, because he was given a police guarantee he was immune from prosecution

When the HET handed over the report in 2013 it found the soldiers were unjustified in gunning down the IRA commander, saying he was unarmed. However, the report was never made public. Following the disbandment of the HET, the case was passed to the Northern Ireland attorney-general s office, which has referred it to prosecutors.

It is on my mind all day, every day. It is extremely stressful Soldier C

Lawyers acting for the soldiers are now challenging the case. Philip Barden, of Devonshires Solicitors, said: This is unfair, unjust and clearly political. It is wrong to make a decision not to prosecute and then 44 years later, when the political climate has changed, to seek to reverse that decision.

It must be remembered that the trial of John Downey was stopped because the British government had told him he would not be prosecuted. The same law should apply here . Democratic Unionist Party MP Ian Paisley Jr said: This is natural justice turned on its head. The soldiers were trying to uphold the law. This turns them into villains and the villain into a victim. Colonel Richard Kemp, who served in Northern Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s, said: Our soldier should not be subjected to retrospective, politically-motivated scrutiny over incidents of which they were cleared at the time. It is not in the public interest for them to be hounded in this way.

A Public Prosecution Service spokesman said the HET s original decision is now being reviewed.

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