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How proud but frail British army veteran, 80, battled to clear his name in court

Dennis Hutchings was a proud man. Proud of his 26 years served with distinction in the Army. Proud of his 22 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

A soldier, then company director, then retired family man. Not bad for a boy who grew up squatting with his family in an abandoned Army barracks in Blyth, Northumberland, before becoming a miner at 15.

Sitting in a crown court dock in Belfast this month, service medals pinned to his chest, Mr Hutchings somehow maintained his dignified stoicism even as he listened to prosecutors outline his alleged role in a fatal shooting at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland almost 50 years ago.

Army veteran Dennis Hutchings, 80, died last night after catching Covid-19 midway through his controversial trial for a fatal Troubles shooting almost 50 years ago

Over the weekend, Mr Hutchings contracted Covid and was rushed to hospital in an ambulance last night after complaining that he was struggling to breathe. Right: Hutchings in dress uniform at Knightsbridge Barracks, 1978

Prior to his trial, Mr Hutchings' regular consultant at the hospital near his bungalow in Cornwall warned him that travel to the province for his long-awaited hearing was not advised owing to his rapidly deteriorating health.

His kidneys – which required three rounds of gruelling dialysis each week – no longer worked. An emergency appointment just days before his flight found fluid on his lungs.

He was given six months to live. He lasted less than one.

Mr Hutchings became the reluctant figurehead of the Northern Ireland veterans' movement, representing around 200,000 ex-servicemen campaigning for an end to the prosecutions of those who served during the conflict.

To the end, he remained resolute over his innocence.

He could have taken a medical note from his doctor and had the trial postponed indefinitely.

But, six years on from his initial arrest, his arms black and blue from the regular needles required to keep him alive, Mr Hutchings vowed to let a judge – sitting without a jury in a procedure previously reserved for terrorists – decide his guilt.

Dennis Hutchings (pictured on the far right in this photo) in Germany, 1960

That this all played out during the Conservative Party conference served only to highlight the Government's failure to keep to its promise of ending repeated investigations into those who served in Northern Ireland.

Last night, Paul Young, of the Justice for Northern Ireland veterans group, said Mr Hutchings had been 'hounded to his grave without being able to clear his name'.

The former staff sergeant in the Life Guards was accused of the attempted murder of John Pat Cunningham in a field near the village of Benburb, County Tyrone, on June 15, 1974.

Just 36 hours earlier, a patrol led by Mr Hutchings had arrested four IRA suspects in the village but they knew a number had escaped.

He was later mentioned in dispatches for his efforts in apprehending the men without bloodshed.

On the fateful day in question, Mr Hutchings, then aged 33, was leading an Army patrol of two Land Rovers in the area when they came across 27-year-old Mr Cunningham near some bushes.

Mr Cunningham, who was described as 'startled', failed to respond to calls to 'halt' and 'stop' and fled across the field. Mr Hutchings and another member of the patrol, known as Soldier B, gave chase.

Mr Hutchings and Britain's former veterans minister Johnny Mercer are greeted outside court in Belfast 

Five shots were fired in total. Three from Mr Hutchings' weapon and two from the rifle of Soldier B, who has since died.

Little did they know, that a year before, Mr Cunningham was apprehended by another patrol when he was found in a similar area 'acting suspiciously'.

He was only released when a passing doctor intervened and explained that he was his patient – and suffered from learning difficulties which left him terrified of soldiers.

It transpired that Mr Cunningham had the mental age of a child. Rather than having any connection to paramilitaries, locals said they were unable to even have coherent conversations with him. He was known to wear bailer twine as a belt or a clothes peg instead of a button.

The fatal shot hit Mr Cunningham in the back. Mr Hutchings applied a field dressing to his wound and called for an Army helicopter but he died at the scene.

As Mr Hutchings readily acknowledged, John Pat Cunningham should never have died that day. The soldiers were unaware of his difficulties and he became an innocent casualty of what those who fought for the UK state and those who fought for a united Ireland described as a 'war.'

Many of Mr Hutchings's supporters came out to offer their mental strength during the trial

The veteran always maintained he fired only aimed warning shots into the air in attempts to get Mr Cunningham to stop running and Soldier B fired the shots which killed him, one striking him in the back.

'The soldier made his decision on what he saw,' Mr Hutchings said. 'It was just one of those things that happens in war.'

Of the 3,250 people who lost their lives during the Troubles, only 301 – around ten per cent – were killed by the British military. Half of these were civilians tragically caught up in crossfire.

Paramilitary groups including the Provisional IRA were responsible for the remaining 90 per cent, including 722 soldiers.

A total of 1,441 military personnel died as a result of operations in Northern Ireland.

That soldiers are still being hauled to court over alleged offences committed during the Troubles while IRA terrorists were effectively given get-out-of-jail cards as a result of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement is a disparity that many veterans cannot comprehend.