Army veteran, 80, with months to live stands trial today over fatal shooting of 27-year-old in Northern Ireland 47 years ago
The trial of a seriously ill Army veteran on charges related to a fatal shooting during the Northern Ireland Troubles is set to begin.
Dennis Hutchings, 80, a former member of the Life Guards regiment, has pleaded not guilty to the attempted murder of John Pat Cunningham in Co Tyrone in 1974. He also denies a count of attempted grievous bodily harm with intent.
Mr Cunningham, a 27-year-old man with learning difficulties, was shot dead as he ran away from an Army patrol near Benburb.
Hutchings, from Cawsand in Cornwall, is a high profile campaigner against the prosecution of military veterans who served in Northern Ireland during the conflict.
The pensioner is suffering from kidney disease and the trial at Belfast Crown Court will only sit three days a week to enable him to undergo dialysis treatment between hearings.
In 2019, Hutchings lost a Supreme Court bid to have the trial heard by a jury.
Dennis Hutchings, 80, a former member of the Life Guards regiment on attempted murder trial
Dennis Hutchings seen in his dress uniform in 1968 (left) and 1978 (right) is on trail today
The trial is over the attempted murder of John Pat Cunningham in Co Tyrone in 1974
The non-jury trial in Belfast will be presided over by Mr Justice O’Hara.
It had originally been scheduled to commence in March 2020 but was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The trial is taking place amid ongoing political controversy over UK Government plans to end any future prosecutions related to the Troubles.
Just yesterday it committed to delivering on its controversial proposals to tackle legacy issues in Northern Ireland.
Secretary of State Brandon Lewis said that the Government still intended to legislate this year on plans for a statute of limitations which would end all prosecutions for Troubles incidents up to April 1998 – and would apply to military veterans as well as ex-paramilitaries.
However, he indicated that he was also willing to listen to the widespread concerns raised about the plans from Northern Irish political parties and victims’ groups.
Mr Lewis told the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme: ‘We are committed to legislating this autumn.
Secretary of State Brandon Lewis said that the Government still intended to legislate this year on plans for a statute of limitations which would end all Troubles prosecutions
The move will also give an effective amnesty to IRA terrorists who murdered and maimed thousands during the period. Pictured: The Omagh Bombing in 1998
Veterans who served in Northern Ireland are finally set to be freed from the threat of prosecution. Pictured: British soldiers in Belfast in 1976
‘We were very clear when we published the command paper, as I said at the time, we were talking to not just the political parties but civic society, victims’ groups, other interested parties, including the Irish government, around ideas of how we take the next big bold step to move things forward for Northern Ireland.’
He said that the Government had spent the summer engaging with all ‘interested parties’.
‘We will be coming to some conclusions about how we respond to that, how we take on board what people have said before we legislate,’ he said.
Mr Lewis also claimed that no-one else had put forward any alternatives for dealing with legacy issues in Northern Ireland.
He said: ‘I’m determined that families who want information about what happened get that in a better way that gives them knowledge and information.
‘They shouldn’t have to wait 50 years.’
Asked if the Government’s primary concern was protecting former soldiers from prosecution, Mr Lewis said: ‘We said we would deliver on that for those who served and let’s remember people were serving to protect their communities and people’s lives and did so with great honour.
‘There were some exceptions,’ he said, referencing the Ballymurphy massacre.
However, he said that the Government’s proposals would still help deliver ‘truth’ about events during the Troubles.
Sinn Fein Finance Minister Conor Murphy, speaking on the same programme, said he was not ‘optimistic’ that the UK Government would change its approach to legacy.
He called Mr Lewis’s comments ‘completely disingenuous’.
He said: ‘This is all about protecting their own state forces and those they used as proxies to deliver their war in Ireland.
‘This is about closing down access to justice.’