Andrew McQuillan

Dennis Hutchings and the problem with a Troubles amnesty

Dennis Hutchings (photo: Getty)

The death of the former solider Dennis Hutchings from Covid-19 during his trial for attempted murder is yet another example of the complex legacy problem which besets Northern Ireland. Hutchings, who was 80 years old, was accused of killing John Pat Cunningham, 27, in County Tyrone in 1974.

Hutchings’ supporters – which includes a broad swathe of unionist politicians, the Tory MP Johnny Mercer and the wider veteran community – regarded his prosecution as a disgrace. The 80-year-old, kept alive by dialysis, was dragged to Belfast from Cornwall for the non-jury trial.

After his death, Hutchings’ lawyer argued he would still be alive had he not been compelled to go to court, and many are questioning the wisdom of the Northern Irish Public Prosecution Service in pursuing the case.

The fallout from the case will be grist to the mill of those who wish to test the limits of selective justice in Northern Ireland to destruction

Equally, the Cunningham family have been denied the chance to finally receive justice. They will never find out who did shoot their vulnerable brother, who was assessed as having a mental age of seven. Cunningham was known to be afraid of people in uniform and ran when he encountered the army patrol which included Mr Hutchings; he was shot in the back. The whole tale is testament to the staggering horror of the Troubles.

The unionists and loyalists who supported Hutchings and the other Operation Banner veterans facing legal cases contend that while British soldiers are liable to end up in the courts, many members of republican terrorist gangs are safe from the law. A mix of royal pardons and comfort letters make their prosecution highly unlikely. Others claim that accommodation with the terrorists was necessary to end the violence of the Troubles.

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