Pressure for legal action widens as politicians flounder over Troubles legacy

Two very different newspaper stories reveal how reaching consensus over dealing with the past is looking increasingly difficult, with the balance appearing to tilt in favour of  legal action.  One based on a letter from unnamed paratroops accuses Lord Saville of a “cynical exercise” in blaming Col Derek Wilford, OC 1 Para, to avoid condemning junior soldiers but produces no fresh evidence or admissions. The soldiers involved could of course clear the matter up even yet.

The other story shows just how big is the can of worms over army responsibility for unsolved killings. With so many independent bodies involved – the DPP, the judiciary, Westminster and Stormont with Justice freshly devolved – not to mention the discretion of families wanting redress –  no single instiution is responsible for gripping the problem and buck passing is likely to continue for quite some time.  Ironically, the initiative and therefore the pressure rests mainly with the families at this stage, even though the whole of society is involved. The next step as I’ve argued before, should be the fullest possible disclosure of the papers on all Troubles cases, over which questions remain. These include the HET reports and the Stalker-Sampson and Stevens files. Then we might have a better idea of what we’re facing. Following that, if we’re more interested in the truth than trials, it follows that the the informal amnesty whuch has long been in force should be given legal recognition. The issues of compensation and private prosecutions would remain.

The Pat Finucane centre in Derry has told the Guardian that up to 150 killings committed by soldiers were never fully investigated, according to a report they’ve received from the Historical Enquiries Team. The report was into the Billy McGreanery killing which I referred to in my thread on reconsidering a legacy commission. Presumably the figure of 150  was supplied by the HET.  The total number of killings the army is held responsible for is 301. The Finucane centre’s account quotes a cycle of comments by the Chief Crown solicitor at the time which although they don’t prove cover-up, suggest a cursory approach to the evidence.

I feel that the only way to establish the truth of the incident to the satisfaction of everyone is to proceed against soldier “A” for the murder of William Francis McGreanery. I am satisfied that a prima-facie case of murder has been established against him and I recommend proceedings accordingly.

On the 15th November The Chief Crown Solicitor asked the Attorney General ( Basil Kelly QC MP) for his opinion on whether charges should be proferred. As a result of the advice given by the Attorney General the Chief Crown Solicitor said that because the soldier was acting in the course of his duty he could not be prosecuted for murder.

As a result of what the Attorney General said, the Chief Crown Solicitor responded to the Chief Constable on December 23, 1971 in the following terms:If soldier A was guilty of any crime in this case, it would be manslaughter and not murder. Soldier A whether he acted wrongly or not, was at all times acting in the course of his duty and I cannot see how the malice, express or implied, necessary to constitute murder could be applied to his conduct.

And finally..

Having regard to all these circumstances, and adding the fact that gunmen had been sniping in the area over a period of time before soldier A fired his shot, I cannot say that I am satisfied there is a prima-facie case of criminal negligence amounting to manslaughter on the part of soldier A. There may well be a case of some negligence on his part – but I can only properly be concerned with the question whether this negligence was so reckless as to amount to manslaughter – or putting it another way, that soldier A’s belief that he was in a position of danger by reason of a civilian pointing a rifle at him was formed in a criminally negligent way.

End of story!

It’s important that a letter passed to the Daily Telegraph from 35 former members of 1 Para should receive due prominence although it’s a pity it’s so anonymous. “None of them was involved in the shooting” says the Telegraph report.

“We submit that it was because the hostile firing by elements of the Provisional IRA triggered a sequence of events which ultimately proved tragic.”

But it added: “Those who broke the law and brought disgrace fully deserve to be punished.”

In self-imposed exile in Belgium, Col Wilford refused to comment on any charge the first being that he disobeyed orders in sending his men right into the Bogside.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London