Statements from two former paratroopers accused of murdering an Official IRA leader in 1972 cannot be used as evidence in their trial, destroying the controversial case levelled against them.
The court heard that the prosecution accepted that if they were excluded the charges against the defendants must fail, but have until 2pm on Tuesday to consider an appeal.
Mr Justice O’Hara described as ‘remarkable’ the fact the ex-soldiers had been prosecuted for 24-year-old Joe McCann’s murder on the basis of a report by a police legacy unit, the Historical Enquiries Team (HET), and not as a result of a follow-up criminal investigation by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).
This was despite the HET telling the court this week – which is sitting without a jury over tamper fears – it did not think there was any evidence to reopen the case.
Proceedings against the paras – who are both in their 70s and of which one cannot remember the shooting after suffering a stroke – had been described as a political witch hunt by critics.
Joe McCann, pictured above, 24, was shot dead by soldiers in the Markets area of Belfast in 1972 while dressed in disguise as he attempted to evade arrest at the hands of Royal Ulster Constabulary officers
Photograph said to show Joe McCann with an American M1 carbine during a gun battle for Inglis Bakery in Eliza Street in The Markets area of Belfast in 1972
Veterans and supporters pictured outside court as the trial began of two former British paratroopers charged with the murder of Mr McCann at Belfast Laganside Courts on April 26
Mr Justice O’ Hara said during a discrete hearing on the admissibility issue: ‘One of the remarkable features of the case is after the HET interviews they weren’t interviewed by the PSNI, they weren’t arrested, but they are in court on trial for murder.’
Today he ruled: ‘What was required in this case, and what never took place was that the PSNI should have interviewed the defendant under specific caution to suspect a crime of murder.
‘If that had been done, and if admissions had been made, then prosecutions would have been possible.’
He said it was not legitimate to put the 1972 evidence before the court ‘dressed up and freshened up with a new 2010 cover’.
IRA terrorist suspects are rounded up by British soldiers on Bloody Sunday in Londonderry
The Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) detonated two 6-pound gelignite bombs at two pubs in Guildford, England. Police escort members of one of the families from the Old Bailey.
The relatives of Mr McCann and his widow Anne (front centre) arrive with solicitor Niall Murphy at Belfast Crown Court in Northern Ireland on April 26
Joe McCann’s long IRA career in full over just seven years of attacks
1965 – Joins the IRA at the age of 17
Dec 3, 1965 – Convicted of possessing Army bayonets and being an IRA member and was sentenced to a year in prison.
July 29, 1969 – Fined for assaulting a police officer.
March 9, 1971 – Reports he was involved in the murder of Provisional IRA member Charlie Hughes.
May 22, 1971 – Believed to have been part of the murders or two soldiers.
June 28, 1971 – Convicted of breach of the peace at an IRA funeral and is sentenced to six months, but absconds on bail.
August 10, 1971 – Involved in a bakery siege and subsequent firefight.
September 21, 1971 – He is implicated in the attempted murder of four police officers.
February 22, 1972 – Took part in the bombing of Parachute Regiment headquarters in Hampshire that killed seven civilians.
February 25, 1972 – Implicated in the attempted assassination of home affairs minister Lord Kilcooney.
April 15, 1972 – He is shot dead in the Markets area of Belfast. The Official IRA say he was responsible for killing 15 British soldiers.
He said the prosecution had come ‘nowhere near’ proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the statements were not so obtained.
Mr McCann was shot dead as he ran away from police and Army on Joy Street in Belfast in April 1972.
The prosecution was taken following the Northern Ireland’s Attorney General referral of the case to the Director of Public Prosecutions in 2014 after receiving the findings of the HET re-examination of the case.
During yesterday’s hearing in Belfast Crown Court, it emerged that the prosecution had conceded that witness statements made by the accused veterans to the Royal Military Police in the immediate aftermath of the fatal shooting would be inadmissible as evidence if considered in isolation.
That is due to a series of deficiencies in how the 1972 statements were taken, including the fact the soldiers were ordered to make them, they were not conducted under caution, there was no access to legal representation and the Army policy of not asking soldiers to provide an explanation or rationale for their actions.
The focus of the legal wrangle over admissibility centres on statements and interviews the soldiers gave to the HET 38 years later.
In their engagements with the HET in 2010 both soldiers accepted that they made the 1972 statements.
Lawyers for the soldiers expressed concern that the prosecution was trying to ‘launder’ the inadmissible 1972 statements and get the evidence contained in them before the trial using the ‘backdoor’ of the 2010 statements and interviews.
They also highlighted flaws in the HET process.
They said the soldiers’ lawyers were not told that the 1972 statements were inadmissible and the veterans were under the impression they were participating in a fact-finding exercise to benefit the McCann family, rather than a criminal probe.
A plaque on the spot where Mr McCann was shot dead on Joy Street in Belfast. The image of it is based on a photograph of Mr McCann said to be taken in August 1971
MP Johnny Mercer seen arriving at Laganside Courts in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on April 26
Why is this a No Jury Trial? Northern Ireland and the reason for NJTs
Unusually the case is being heard by a judge with no jury.
It came after the Director of Public Prosecutions issued a certificate for a non-jury trial.
Trials by judges alone are only usually held when there is a fear that a jury could be tampered with in cases concerning paramilitary organisations.
In this case, the two defendants had begun processes to challenge the decision, but abandoned the procedure.
Their lawyers had originally claimed the no-jury decision was wrongly based on the 2007 Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Act.
Previous to 2007 the ‘Diplock system’ let NJTs carry on because the terrorist intimidation of jurors in Northern Ireland was an obstacle to dealing effectively with terrorist crime in the courts.
Now the Act gives statutory provisions that allow no jury if is is ‘deemed necessary for a small number of exceptional cases’ where the jurors could impair justice.
The most recent figures on record show during 2019, 14 non-jury trials took place in Northern Ireland.
Mr Justice O’Hara questioned why when the veterans were cautioned prior to their HET interviews they were not informed what offence they were suspected of committing, namely murder.
Prosecution barrister Louis Mably conceded the soldiers should have been told.
‘There were plainly deficiencies in the approach adopted by the HET,’ he said.
Mr Mably insisted there was no set legal rule that evidence obtained as a consequence of the 1972 inadmissible statements was itself inadmissible as a consequence.
He said it depended on the circumstances of the case.
He said Soldier A ‘voluntarily’ relied on the 1972 statement in his 2010 engagement with the HET and he said Soldier C went further, offering new ‘incriminating’ evidence of his involvement in the shooting during interview.
The Crown lawyer acknowledged that the various statements from the soldiers were the only evidence available to court capable of proving that they fired shots at Mr McCann on the day.
In response, the judge asked: ‘So without the interviews the case must inevitably fail?’ Mr Mably replied: ‘On that basis my lord, yes.’
Speaking outside Laganside Court in Belfast afterwards, solicitor for the McCann family Niall Murphy said they had ‘very strongly held views’ about the ruling.
He added: ‘They are mindful that the matter is live before the court and looking forward to the exhaustion of an appeal.
‘To that end, we will reserve comment until next Tuesday.
‘They very much look forward to an appeal being launched.
‘That’s under consideration at present.
‘We will know the position more clearly on Tuesday morning.
‘There are very strongly held opinions in respect of what has transpired in this case.
‘We will make those public at the appropriate time.’
What is the timeline of the Northern Ireland troubles and peace process?
British Government first send troops into Northern Ireland after three days of rioting in Catholic Londonderry
30 January 1972:
On ‘Bloody Sunday’ 13 civilians are shot dead by the British Army during a civil rights march in Londonderry
The Stormont Government is dissolved and direct rule imposed by London
The IRA begin its bloody campaign of bombings and assassinations in Britain
Bobby Sands, a republicans on hunger strike in the Maze prison, is elected to Parliament. He dies a month later
An IRA bomb explodes at the Grand Hotel in Brighton, where Margaret Thatcher is staying during the Tory Party conference
Margaret Thatcher and then Sir John Major set up a secret back channel with the IRA to start peace talks. The communications was so secret most ministers did not know about it.
Tony Blair helps to broker the Good Friday Agreement, which is hailed as the end of the Troubles.
It establishes the Northern Ireland Assembly with David Trimble as its first minister.
With some exceptions the peace process holds and republican and loyalist paramilitaries decommission their weapons
The Queen and Prince Philip make a state visit to Ireland, the first since the 1911 tour by George V.
In a hugely symbolic moment, the Queen is pictured shaking hands with Martin McGuinness – a former IRA leader.