UK

Official IRA leader’s daughter refutes claims he murdered 15 soldiers

The BBC was criticised today for allowing the daughter of an Official IRA leader to refute claims that he murdered 15 soldiers during an interview on Radio 4.

Aíne McCann, 52, was three when her father Joe McCann was shot dead aged 24 in Belfast in 1972 in disputed circumstances, allegedly by a group of three soldiers.

At the time a police investigation failed to result in a prosecution, and nearly 50 years on the ‘witch-hunt’ trial of two former soldiers collapsed yesterday.

But Ms McCann told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning that her father had been ‘defamed’ during the court case and faced ‘ridiculous accusations’.

This included doubts over whether he killed 15 soldiers – a claim which was not challenged during the interview, despite it being in agreed evidence in the case.

It comes after two former paratroopers accused of the murder of Mr McCann were formally acquitted after prosecutors offered no further evidence at their trial.

Joe McCann’s family (left to right) daughter Nuala, widow Anne, daughter Aine, and son Fergal, are pictured during a press conference outside Laganside Court in Belfast yesterday

The veterans’ trial at Belfast Crown Court collapsed after the Public Prosecution Service confirmed it would not appeal against a decision by Mr Justice O’Hara to exclude statements given by the ex-soldiers about the shooting of Mr McCann.

Today, the Radio 4 presenter told Ms McCann it was accepted in court that her father was a commander in the Official IRA and was thought to have been involved in the deaths of 15 soldiers.

But Ms McCann said: ‘Well, I can tell you that you can get away with defaming people in a court of law, and not be held to account for it, and when the family had to sit there and listen to those ridiculous accusations, and that’s all I can say that they are.’

The presenter then pointed out that Mr McCann was in the Official IRA, and that her mother Anne had spoken about that at the time, specifically about her pride in it.

Ms McCann responded: ‘Absolutely, yes absolutely. But to say that he went riot and he shot 15 soldiers, he must have been all over the place, do you know what I mean? 

‘Because no British soldiers were actually shot in the North of Ireland until 1971. And between that time, 1971, and then until the death of my father, a total of 30 soldiers were shot in Belfast, so according to them… I’ll tell you what way it was.

Official IRA leader Joe McCann, 24, was shot dead by paratroopers as he attempted to evade arrest by a plain clothed police officer in the Markets Area of Belfast in April 1972

Official IRA leader Joe McCann, 24, was shot dead by paratroopers as he attempted to evade arrest by a plain clothed police officer in the Markets Area of Belfast in April 1972

‘First of all it started out with one soldier, then it started out with a possible assassination on a politician, then all of a sudden, you know, there’s 15, there’s 11, there’s 15, there’s 19 – I don’t know, where’s the evidence for this? Nowhere.’

Full transcript of Aíne McCann’s interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today

PRESENTER: ‘Joe McCann was 24 when was shot dead in Belfast in 1972, allegedly by a group of three soldiers. At the time a police investigation failed to result in a prosecution, and nearly 50 years on the trial of two former soldiers collapsed yesterday, sparking starkly different reactions across Northern Ireland’s political divide. Joe McCann’s daughter Aíne was three when he was killed, and she joins us now. Good morning.’

AINE MCCANN: ‘Good morning.’

‘What do you remember of that time and the death of your father? ‘

‘Well, surprisingly, given my age, I remember actually quite a lot. I remember his body lying in the coffin in the living room.

‘Lots of people in the house, family sitting around in the living room, I remember trying to give him some sweets, a bag of sweets. I remember my aunt lifting me up to the coffin, I caught him by the nose and I said ‘wake up daddy, wake up’, because as far as I was concerned he was asleep, and as the mind of a three-year-old goes, it’s not strange or bizarre that he was lying asleep in a wooden box in the middle of the room surrounded by his family or a lot of other people. And I remember my great-grandmother remarking to other people ‘God help her, she doesn’t know what’s going on.’

‘We didn’t attend my father’s funeral because we were taken away, myself and my sister, to stay with our pre-school teachers, and I remember all of that, getting put to bed at night, that night in their house, and getting up and coming down the stairs, and saying to herself and her husband: ‘I want to go home to my mummy and daddy, where’s my mummy and daddy?’ And then I was put back up into bed. So people often think that, you know, it’s often been remarked, actually you were very young at that time and you wouldn’t really remember it, you know, but…’

‘But you do.’

‘Absolutely.’

‘Can you accept nearly 50 years on that when it came to this trial there were deficiencies? There was no new evidence, and there was a lack of interviewing under caution.’

‘Absolutely, the cards were stacked against this case from the very beginning when there was an illegal arrangement between the Attorney General and the General Officer commanding the British Army at the time to deliberately not prosecute in these cases and to make sure that the initial investigations were carried out, that you would have included that they were brought to the RUC and questioned under caution by the RUC.

‘That didn’t happen, it was described as a tea and sandwiches affair, so it meant that the RMP, the Royal Military Police, instead carried out that investigation. So when that illegal arrangement was lifted, the case still was not reinvestigated after that, and it should have been after then in 1974, so we have a litany of deliberate oversight, professional malpractice, corruption and collusion at all levels of the British Government, right from that time and right up to and including the disgraced and defunct Historical Enquiries Team who were disbanded by the Police Constable here, Chief Constable.’

‘But the circumstances at the time, and the personal circumstances of your father – it was accepted in court that he was a commander in the Official IRA and it was also said in court that he was thought to have been involved in the deaths of 15 soldiers.’

‘Well, I can tell you that you can get away with defaming people in a court of law, and not be held to account for it, and when the family had to sit there and listen to those ridiculous accusations, and that’s all I can say that they are…’

‘But he was in the Official IRA? Your mother spoke about that at the time, of her pride in that.’

‘Absolutely, yes absolutely. But to say that he went riot and he shot 15 soldiers, he must have been all over the place, do you know what I mean? Because there was… no British soldiers were actually shot in the North of Ireland until 1971. And between that time, 1971, and then until the death of my father, a total of 30 soldiers were shot in Belfast, so according to them… I’ll tell you what way it was, first of all it started out with one soldier, then it started out with a possible assassination on a politician, then all of a sudden, you know, there’s 15, there’s 11, there’s 15, there’s 19 – I don’t know, where’s the evidence for this? Nowhere.’

‘So where does this leave you, Aíne? Do you think that… are there other options that you can pursue?’

‘Absolutely, and we are going to have a take at those options now, and that includes going for… an inquest.’

‘OK. Aíne McCann, thank you very much for talking to us.’

Ms McCann was also asked what she recalled of the time around the death of her father in 1972, and she said: ‘Well, surprisingly, given my age, I remember actually quite a lot. I remember his body lying in the coffin in the living room.

‘Lots of people in the house, family sitting around in the living room, I remember trying to give him some sweets, a bag of sweets. I remember my aunt lifting me up to the coffin.

‘I caught him by the nose and I said ‘wake up daddy, wake up’, because as far as I was concerned he was asleep, and as the mind of a three-year-old goes, it’s not strange or bizarre that he was lying asleep in a wooden box in the middle of the room surrounded by his family or a lot of other people. 

‘And I remember my great-grandmother remarking to other people ‘God help her, she doesn’t know what’s going on.’

‘We didn’t attend my father’s funeral because we were taken away, myself and my sister, to stay with our pre-school teachers, and I remember all of that, getting put to bed at night, that night in their house, and getting up and coming down the stairs, and saying to herself and her husband: ‘I want to go home to my mummy and daddy, where’s my mummy and daddy?’ And then I was put back up into bed.’ 

Ms McCann was also asked if she could accept nearly 50 years on that when it came to the trial there were ‘deficiencies’, with no new evidence and a lack of interviewing under caution.

And she replied: ‘Absolutely, the cards were stacked against this case from the very beginning when there was an illegal arrangement between the Attorney General and the General Officer commanding the British Army at the time to deliberately not prosecute in these cases and to make sure that the initial investigations were carried out, that you would have included that they were brought to the RUC and questioned under caution by the RUC.

‘That didn’t happen, it was described as a tea and sandwiches affair, so it meant that the RMP, the Royal Military Police, instead carried out that investigation. So when that illegal arrangement was lifted, the case still was not reinvestigated after that, and it should have been after then in 1974, so we have a litany of deliberate oversight, professional malpractice, corruption and collusion at all levels of the British Government, right from that time and right up to and including the disgraced and defunct Historical Enquiries Team who were disbanded by the Police Constable here, Chief Constable.’ 

Directly after the interview, the programme also heard from Danny Kinahan, Veterans’ Commissioner for Northern Ireland.

He said: ‘I want to just correct one thing that she was saying – it was actual in the agreed evidence between the prosecution and the defence that Joe McCann had shot 15 soldiers, so it was agreed – and we never got into that because of the technicalities of the case.’ 

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald was also interviewed on the programme earlier this morning. 

A BBC spokesperson told MailOnline: ‘Our presenter pointed out during the interview that it was accepted in court at the time that Ms McCann’s father was a commander in the Official IRA. 

‘A subsequent guest on the programme, the Veterans’ Commissioner for Northern Ireland, also pointed out on air that it was agreed in court that Joe McCann had shot 15 soldiers.’ 

The Office of the Attorney General for Northern Ireland would not confirm today whether an inquest will be launched into the death of Mr McCann. 

Reacting to the interview,  Conservative campaigner Ben Obese-Jecty tweeted: ‘Rather than speak to the daughter of Joe McCann, an Official IRA commander, perhaps @BBCr4today should interview the parents, widows and children of the 722 British servicemen murdered by the IRA, or the 15 murders McCann was believed to have personally been involved in. #r4today’

Another Twitter user, solicitor Rosina Carley said: I find myself very cross at the interview with Joe McCann’s daughter on @BBCr4today programme. She suggested that he could not have killed any British soldiers. Can anyone confirm the facts to me please?’

A third, called ‘Somerset Veteran’, tweeted: ‘It was a disgusting interview. I was shouting at the radio. Odious woman and the reason why there will always be tensions on the island of Ireland.’

The latest case was the first trial in several years that involved charges against former military personnel who served in the Northern Ireland conflict.

Decisions to prosecute have been taken in four other cases involving veterans, while decisions are pending in three others.

The PPS has defended its decision to take the prosecution against soldiers A and C, but has said it will assess whether the judge’s ruling will have an impact on the other military cases before the courts.

Mr McCann, 24, was shot dead by paratroopers as he attempted to evade arrest by a plain clothed police officer in the Markets Area of Belfast in April 1972.

The trial opened last Monday and heard a full day of evidence.

It then moved into a separate voir dire hearing to determine whether statements and interviews given by the ex-soldiers, who are now in their 70s, would be admissible as evidence.

On Friday, Mr Justice O’Hara ruled that the soldiers’ evidence could not be admitted.

With the PPS having conceded the material was the only evidence before the court that could be used to prove the soldiers fired at Mr McCann, its decision not to appeal against the judge’s ruling means the case could not proceed.

After the prosecution confirmed it would be presenting no further evidence in the case, judge Mr Justice O’Hara told the defendants: ‘In the circumstances Mr A and C I formally find you not guilty of the charge of murder.’

Prosecutors to review evidence in seven other veteran cases after trial collapse

Prosecutors are to examine the evidence in seven other cases involving veterans in Northern Ireland following the collapse of the Joe McCann murder trial.

Senior lawyers in the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) are awaiting Mr Justice O’Hara’s written ruling on the inadmissibility of evidence before conducting the exercise.

In four of the cases, including Bloody Sunday, a decision to prosecute has already been taken. In the three other cases involving former military personnel a decision is still pending.

The examination will establish whether evidence in the cases involves material obtained through the now defunct police legacy unit – Historical Enquiries Team (HET).

In the cases that do involve HET evidence, prosecutors will consider that material in light of the ruling by the trial judge.

Mr Justice O’Hara ruled interviews and statements provided by soldiers A and C to the HET in 2010 as inadmissible, raising various concerns in relation to the process through which the evidence was obtained.

Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions Michael Agnew said: ‘When the full written judgment becomes available, the PPS will carefully consider whether it has the potential to impact upon any other cases that are currently before the courts.’

Mr Agnew also defended the decision to take the prosecution, insisting it involved a ‘very thorough and careful examination’ of the evidence by a team of experienced lawyers, including senior counsel.

‘Despite today’s outcome, the PPS remains satisfied that this case was properly brought before the courts,’ he said.

‘The case overcame a number of legal challenges before reaching trial.’

One of the challenges Mr Agnew was referring to was a defence abuse of process application that was rejected by a high court judge before the case got to trial.

That application did not focus on the admissibility issue, rather whether a prosecution was fair so long removed from the event and in light of a no prosecution decision in 1972.

However, in his ruling Mr Justice Maguire did make clear that risk of criminal prosecution was an inherent feature of the HET process.

That point became the subject of contention during the trial, with the defence insisting that the soldiers believed they were participating in a fact-finding exercise to benefit the family.

The PPS contention that HET material could be relied on in a criminal trial was undermined by evidence given by a HET investigator during the trial.

The investigator claimed that he did not believe he had secured any evidence of an offence having been committed and expressed surprise that the resultant HET report had resulted in a prosecution.

The admissibility of that evidence was only going to be properly tested at the trial stage.

‘The complex and wide-ranging challenges of prosecuting legacy cases are well recognised,’ said Mr Agnew.

‘Where such cases fall to be considered for potential prosecution the PPS will continue to impartially apply the Test for Prosecution, without fear or favour, as it does in all other cases.’

Questions have been asked why the PPS did not appeal against Mr Justice O’Hara’s decision on admissibility.

Prosecutors concluded they did not have any grounds to appeal against it.

In order to do so, they would have had to argue that the decision was unreasonable on the basis of the evidence presented or that the trial judge had made a legal error in coming to his ruling.

Moments later the two accused, dressed in suits and ties, walked from the court.

After yesterday’s short hearing, lawyers for the soldiers demanded an ‘urgent independent review’ of the PPS’s handling of the case.

Philip Barden, the senior partner at Devonshires solicitors who represented soldiers A and C, said the firm made legal submissions back in 2016 making clear that the evidence from their clients would not be admissible.

‘The stress of these proceedings on the soldiers and their families cannot be underestimated,’ he said.

‘This is a prosecution that should never have got off the ground. Before initiating the prosecution, the PPS had all the relevant information to conclude that the evidence was clearly inadmissible. Despite this, the prosecution proceeded.’

He added: ‘I call for an inquiry by a senior judge to investigate the decision-making process and to ensure that the decision to prosecute these veterans was not political.’

The family of Mr McCann are to apply to the Attorney General to open an inquest into his killing.

Speaking outside the court yesterday, solicitor for the family Niall Murphy said: ‘This ruling does not acquit the State of murder.

‘This ruling does not mean that Joe McCann was not murdered by the British Army.

‘He was shot in the back whilst unarmed, from a distance of 40 metres, posing no threat. It was easier to arrest him than to murder him.’

He added: ‘Today is not the end of the McCanns’ journey for justice.

‘They will now apply to the current Attorney General to open the inquest at which Soldiers A and C will be compelled to appear and give evidence and be cross examined.’ 

The voir dire heard that the evidence implicating the defendants, known in court as soldiers A and C, came from two sources.

The first was statements they made to the Royal Military Police in 1972, the second source was statements and interview answers they gave to a police legacy unit, the Historical Enquiries Team (HET), in 2010.

The PPS accepted that the 1972 statements would be inadmissible in isolation.

That was due to a series of deficiencies in how they 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.

However, prosecutors argued that the information in the 1972 statements became admissible because they were adopted and accepted by the defendants during their engagement with the HET in March 2010.

In his ruling last Friday, Mr Justice O’Hara agreed with the defence contention that none of the evidence should be admitted to the trial.

He said it was not legitimate to put the 1972 evidence before the court ‘dressed up and freshened up with a new 2010 cover’.

The judge questioned why the re-examination of the case by the HET did not prompt a fresh investigation by the Police Service of Northern Ireland, with the veterans interviewed under caution for the specific offence of murder.

He suggested that course of action might have made a prosecution more sustainable.

The prosecution was taken after Northern Ireland’s Attorney General referred the case to the Director of Public Prosecutions in 2014 after receiving the findings of the HET report.

Former defence minister Johnny Mercer has called on the Government to include veterans who served in Northern Ireland in a new Bill to protect soldiers from prosecutions.

Mr Mercer left the Government in April after it emerged the Overseas Operations Bill would not include soldiers who served in Northern Ireland.

Speaking after the verdict, he said: ‘I’m delighted for the soldiers who can now hopefully go and live the rest of their lives in peace.

‘But the Government has made very clear promises, and the Prime Minister has made very clear promises, on legislation to end the relentless pursuit of those who served their country in Northern Ireland. It is time to deliver on that.’

A photograph which is 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

A photograph which is 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

Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions at the PPS Michael Agnew said the decision to prosecute was taken after a ‘very thorough and careful examination’.

‘Despite today’s outcome, the PPS remains satisfied that this case was properly brought before the courts,’ he said.

Mr Agnew added: ‘When the full written judgment becomes available, the PPS will carefully consider whether it has the potential to impact upon any other cases that are currently before the courts.’

General Sir Peter Wall, who served as Army chief under David Cameron, told the Daily Telegraph the trial was a ‘politically motivated witch-hunt’.

General Sir Richard Dannatt, head of the Army from 2006 to 2009, said: ‘Boris Johnson promised he would stop these prosecutions, but they are still going on.’


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