MPs and former soldiers reacted with fury yesterday to Boris Johnson's failure to bring in laws to protect Northern Ireland veterans from decades-old probes into the Troubles.
Back in January, the Prime Minister promised to deal with 'legacy issues' within 100 days – but the Mail can reveal that plans for a new Bill have stalled.
Critics believe the veterans are the pawns in a bigger game to keep Sinn Fein bound into the peace process, with one accusing ministers of 'bending over backwards' to appease republicans.
Another ex-soldier said the delays to the legislation meant veterans feared 'going to our graves waiting for a knock on the door'.
The Mail revealed yesterday how a new witness had come forward to back Dennis Hutchings, 79, who is facing trial in Belfast next year for the attempted murder of farmhand John Pat Cunningham, 27.
The new evidence corroborates Mr Hutchings' testimony that he fired only warning shots, and that another soldier, now deceased, must have shot Mr Cunningham.
MPs and former soldiers reacted with fury yesterday to Boris Johnson's failure to bring in laws to protect Northern Ireland veterans from decades-old probes into the Troubles. Pictured is Dennis Hutchings who is one of six veterans of the Troubles facing charges arising from deaths more than 40 years ago
Mr Hutchings, soon to be a great-great grandfather, was twice cleared over the killing of Mr Cunningham, in Co Tyrone in 1974, but was charged five years ago.
Mr Hutchings is one of six veterans of the Troubles facing charges arising from deaths more than 40 years ago.
Mr Johnson first pledged to 'protect people against unfair prosecutions' in July last year during his battle to become Prime Minister – and repeated the promise in January.
But there is no agreement on the details of legislation and no date for it to go before Parliament.
Tory MP Bob Stewart, who served in Northern Ireland, said: 'We want a Bill to stop servicemen who were investigated properly at the time being repeatedly harassed.' Former defence secretary Michael Fallon said: 'It has dragged on for too long.'
Labour MP Kevan Jones, who sits on the defence committee, said the Government had 'failed' on its commitment.
John Ross, a former Paratrooper who served 11 tours of Northern Ireland, said: 'The difficulties for the Government are the Northern Ireland office trying to keep Sinn Fein in the political system.
'That was done, they have appeasement through the Good Friday Agreement and the soldiers are the scapegoats.'
The Overseas Operations Bill passing through Parliament offers protection to veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, setting a five-year-limit to prosecutions. Campaigners want similar protection for service personnel who served in the Troubles.
Mr Hutchings, soon to be a great-great grandfather, was twice cleared over the killing of Mr Cunningham, in Co Tyrone in 1974, but was charged five years ago. Pictured in 1960
While ministers have promised to end vexatious prosecutions of Northern Ireland veterans in proposed legislation, they are still committed as part of the political process to deal with incidents dating back almost half a century.
A new Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) is planned as part of the Bill to look at unsolved killings on all sides during the Troubles. The vast majority of Army killings would swiftly be thrown out. But that could still leave many veterans in their 70s and 80s in limbo, waiting for the new body to be set up, to investigate and then rule if there is new evidence.
Veteran Andrew Sayers, 65, now an activist helping veterans facing prosecution, said: 'Lives have been put on hold – it adds to the continual stress.
'It is still hanging over us after all these years and you don't know if something is going to happen or not going to happen.'
Veterans feared the police turning up in the early hours of the morning and being 'dragged away to Belfast', he added. 'Our expectation is they are going to treat us as if we were the Kray brothers.'
Dennis Hutchings is facing trial in Belfast next year for the attempted murder of farmhand John Pat Cunningham, 27 (pictured)
MP Julian Lewis, a former chairman of the defence committee, recommended a 'truth recovery process' – a public inquiry without the threat of prosecution to allow the families of those killed to find out what happened. He said: 'If a person has been exonerated in the past, unless there is compelling new evidence, it shouldn't happen again.'
A Whitehall source said Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis 'remains committed to bringing forward a Bill in Parliament to address the legacy of Northern Ireland's past'.
The source added: 'This is an incredibly sensitive and emotive subject and it is right that we take the time necessary to develop our approach and engage across all communities and with all relevant stakeholders – civic and political – as we continue to progress this work. Dealing with the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland is one of the most complicated challenges this Government faces.'
A government spokesman said: 'The Government has been clear that it will bring forward legislation to address the legacy of the Troubles which focuses on reconciliation, delivers for victims, and ends the cycle of investigations that has failed victims and veterans alike. We are committed to making progress on this as quickly as possible.'
Let me get on with my life, pleads ex-Marine
A Chelsea Pensioner quizzed over a shooting during the Troubles is demanding his case be investigated now – so it can then be thrown out.
Former Royal Marine David Griffin was told several months ago that Northern Ireland detectives are still 'committed to reviewing' the incident in July 1972.
A detective inspector told him in a letter that he was 'unable to provide you with a timescale for this' despite the probe being in its eighth year.
Mr Griffin, 79, speaking from the Royal Hospital Chelsea, said: 'I want the file lifted out and investigated. I want a letter of exoneration – eight years after having been promised one by the investigations team.'
Former Royal Marine David Griffin was told several months ago that Northern Ireland detectives are still 'committed to reviewing' the incident in July 1972. Pictured in 1970
Mr Griffin was quizzed in 2012 by detectives working for the Historical Enquiries Team (HET). He was told he would hear back from them six months later but he never did.
The case was then passed on to the Legacy Investigations Branch, fully integrated into the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
Now it appears his case is awaiting further direction, with the Government proposing yet another body to deal with legacy issues – the independent Historical Investigations Unit (HIU).
Mr Griffin said: 'They pass things on and it's absolutely ridiculous. You're dealing with one and then another [body] contacts you and says, 'we have all the files'. It all starts again – this has been going on since 1972, when I was questioned 12 hours after the incident.'
Before joining the Marines, Mr Griffin served in the Army, allowing him to move into London's Royal Hospital Chelsea.
In 2012, he was quizzed for the second time by police over the death of an IRA terrorist in an ambush in July 1972. Mr Griffin fired his weapon to save his comrades after an intelligence warning that an Army barracks in north Belfast was to come under IRA attack.
A detective inspector told him in a letter that he was 'unable to provide you with a timescale for this' despite the probe being in its eighth year. Pictured is David Griffin
He has no idea whether it was his bullet that led to the man's death.
Mr Griffin said: 'I was in a covert ambush position covering the main gate sentries. True to our intelligence report, after dark the enemy arrived armed with weapons for the purpose of attacking our company position.'
Mr Griffin said shots were fired which 'immediately triggered all hell from all sides'.
The next day he was interviewed by officers from the RUC and did not hear anything again until he was contacted at the Royal Hospital Chelsea decades later.
Mr Griffin said he would have to be arrested before he would go before a non-jury 'Diplock court' in Belfast.
'If they want me to go before a Diplock court, they must come here to the Royal Hospital and take me by force and under arrest. But I'm not escaping anything.
'Take me to the Supreme Court with a jury of my peers with a choice of my lawyer to question me in depth on covert ops during the whole of the 1970s.'
SOLDIERS THROWN TO THE WOLVES TO APPEASE IRA KILLERS
Commentary by Colonel Tim Collins - Northern Ireland Veteran
The hounding of Army veteran Dennis Hutchings, a 79-year-old grandfather and great-grandfather charged with shooting a man in Northern Ireland 46 years ago, is utterly shameful.
In July last year, before he was elected Prime Minister or even Tory leader, Boris Johnson called for an end to these witch-hunts.
'Justice must be served but we should stop any unfair persecutions of people who have served their country loyally when there is no new evidence against them,' he said.
A Bill has been introduced to limit 'vexatious claims' – the Government's words – against veterans. But while it might offer protection for those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, it does not help veterans of the Troubles.
In July last year, before he was elected Prime Minister or even Tory leader, Boris Johnson called for an end to these witch-hunts
So here we have Mr Hutchings, someone with 26 years of military service and now in his eighth decade, in the dock – one of six Northern Ireland veterans charged with crimes over events that happened decades ago.
His case – highlighted by the Mail yesterday after fresh evidence that could end his purgatory came to light – amounts to a scandalous injustice.
And it flies in the face of what Boris Johnson and veterans' minister Johnny Mercer have promised.
I must make clear that I would not favour any move to put servicemen above the law, nor support an amnesty for veterans.
That is what, incidentally, Tony Blair gave IRA terrorists and mass murderers 'on the run', in the form of 'comfort letters' which excused them from prosecution.
Victim's daughter sues for £750k
The daughter of a soldier killed by the IRA in the Hyde Park bomb attack yesterday launched a bid for £750,000 in damages.
Sarah-Jane Young is seeking costs against John Downey, whose criminal trial collapsed in 2014 when he produced a so-called 'On the Run' letter issued as part of the Good Friday Agreement.
In December, a judge ruled that Downey was an 'active participant' in the bombing.
Miss Young's father, Lance Corporal Jeffrey Young, was killed at the age of 19 in the 1982 car bomb in which three other soldiers died during Changing the Guard. Relatives of the other servicemen are supporting her claim.
Anne Studd QC, for Miss Young, told a remote hearing of the High Court that 'substantial damages' should be awarded to 'mark this appalling massacre'. Miss Young is seeking at least £750,000 for psychiatric damage, and 'exemplary damages to... mark society's condemnation of such actions'.
The court heard Downey has declined to participate in proceedings. The hearing continues.
But I am appalled by the use of allegations against the military that are dubious in the first place – a witness has stated that he saw Corporal Hutchings fire into the air and so could not have committed the alleged crime – and by cases that have no chance of a successful prosecution. By pressing on with a case in such circumstances, the British state is in effect colluding with the republican propaganda machine rather than healing the wounds of violence.
Sinn Fein is desperate to portray the security forces as the real architects of the Troubles, claiming they indulged in state-sanctioned murder and bullying. The prosecution of the Paratroopers is vital in this deceitful exercise.
As someone who grew up in Belfast at the peak of the Troubles, and witnessed the carnage inflicted by the paramilitaries, I am repelled by the way we have gone along with it.
I served as an officer in the Royal Irish Rangers, during which I did four tours of duty in Northern Ireland, as well as fighting in Kosovo and both Gulf Wars. The idea that the heroism, self-sacrifice and discipline I saw first-hand should now be denigrated is repugnant.
As is the fact that, while genuine terrorists walk free, those who served their country and sought to defend the public find themselves in court.
The fact is, we are appeasing Sinn Fein. Through our unaccountable legal aid system, we are pouring taxpayers' money into prosecuting military personnel in Northern Ireland – and, by doing so, helping to wash away or dilute the IRA's blood-soaked criminal past.
No matter that an elected Sinn Fein representative, Brian Stanley, sent a tweet on Saturday celebrating two historical IRA attacks on the British Army that murdered 38 soldiers.
Sinn Fein relies on distorted statistics about deaths in the Troubles to help rewrite history – statistics that are all too readily repeated by credulous and ill-informed people as well as sympathetic media outlets.
They claim that, while republicans were responsible for over 60 per cent of the killings, so-called loyalists accounted for around 30 per cent and the state 10 per cent.
Yet the truth is that ALL republican killings were murder, ALL loyalist killings were murder and fewer than 1 per cent of shootings by the security forces fell outside the legal duty of policemen and soldiers to discharge their weapons in self-defence or in defence of those it was their duty to protect.
So why on earth, with more than 99 per cent of murders attributable to paramilitaries, does the Government's focus always seems to be on dubious cases involving the state?
The reason is political. There is an ever-present fear in Westminster – stoked by Sinn Fein – that IRA violence will be turned on again. And the Government will do almost anything – even throw innocent, loyal-serving soldiers to the wolves – to prevent that from happening.
Nor does it help that we now have a complete lack of leadership on this issue from a politically compliant British military.
Meanwhile, Sinn Fein have gained significant political support in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic – roughly 24 per cent in each jurisdiction.
They present themselves as a progressive modern party. The reality is that, according to the police on both sides of the Irish border, they have been an extension of the Provisional IRA Army Council, a vicious sectarian, criminal, enterprise.
This is not and never was about justice. It is part of an obscene political game.
And at the heart of it are people such as Dennis Hutchings, who once served our country – but is now its victim.