The pair, identified only as Soldiers A and C, were charged with shooting Official IRA leader Joe McCann, 24, as he ran away from police and the Army in Belfast. The prosecution relied on statements given by the pair in 1972 and 2010. But Mr Justice O’Hara ruled that could not be used, effectively ending the trial. Lawyers for the prosecution, who accepted the case must fail if the evidence was excluded, might appeal.
That means the case, thought to have cost taxpayers at least £1million, could still drag on for the ex-Paras who are in their seventies.Former soldier Johnny Mercer – sacked as a defence minister last week after railing at a failure to protect Northern Ireland veterans – attended the Belfast hearing.
He called it “an appalling spectacle. The judge could not have been clearer in court, but this process will never end for our men and women until the UK Government legislates to protect them from these persistent efforts to rewrite history”.
Mr Mercer urged veterans to “demand change. We will keep doing it until legislation is brought forward to end the current pursuit”.
While Richard Tice, leader of Reform UK, said he was “delighted this unjustified trial against two British soldiers has collapsed”.
Chelsea Pensioner David Griffin, 80, who is waiting to hear if he will be charged eight years after being questioned about a Belfast operation in 1972, said: “If this has happened with the first legacy case, the others should be axed.” The ex-Marine added: “It is like hitting a bruise with a hammer.”
The failure of the trial underlines the task of having reliable evidence decades later. Other veterans still face trial while hundreds fear reinvestigation and potential charges.
The Daily Express campaign Betrayal of Our Veterans demands justice for Northern Ireland servicemen and contrast their plight with terrorists’ “pardons”.
Under Tony Blair’s 1998 Good Friday Agreement, about 500 including IRA men were freed from jail early. Up to 300 suspected terrorists were given guarantees they would not face prosecution.
Republican paramilitaries were responsible for around 60 per cent of the 3,500 deaths during the Troubles; security forces accounted for about 10 per cent.
One of the men still facing trial, Dennis Hutchings, 79, wants to take his case to the European Court of Human Rights, saying it is “discriminatory”. Mr Hutchings, from Cornwall, denies attempted murder and attempted grievous bodily harm with intent over a shooting in 1974.
He said yesterday: “I am so pleased for these two lads. This ruling has got to cast doubt on all the legacy trials and whether you can get a fair trial. We should have a tribunal of three judges independent of Northern Ireland to look at the evidence in these cases before they go to court.
“Soldiers A and C should not have been put through this. Soldiers being dragged through the courts are caught up in political mayhem.”
Col Richard Kemp, a Northern Ireland veteran and ex-commander of forces in Afghanistan, called the prosecutions “deeply unjust because each of these cases was investigated at the time.
“What is happening is unnecessary harassment of old men. It is Sinn Fein rewriting history so their men appear as freedom fighters and British soldiers as imperialist oppressors. The reality is that the terrorists set out to kill innocent people…British soldiers and police tried to stop them.”
Belfast Crown Court heard the only evidence implicating Soldiers A and C was statements they gave to the Royal Military Police in 1972 plus answers they volunteered to the Historical Enquiries Team of the Police Service of Northern Ireland in 2010.
Defence lawyers said it was inadmissible as the 1989 Police and Criminal Evidence Northern Ireland Order can bar evidence which would damage a fair trial.
The prosecution agreed the 1972 statements were not admissible as the Paras were ordered to make them, they were not under caution and lacked legal representation.
After Joe McCann died, the Official IRA said he was responsible for the deaths of 15 British soldiers.Apart from Mr Hutchings, three more ex-soldiers face trial over “legacy” killings: Soldier F – the only one charged over Bloody Sunday in 1972, he is accused of two murders and four attempts;
Soldier B – accused of murdering a boy aged 15, also in 1972, and
David Holden – ex-Guardsman charged with gross negligence manslaughter at a checkpoint in 1988.