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Frail British Army veteran, 80, dies after catching Covid during trial

‘He was hounded to his grave’: Anger as frail British Army veteran, 80, dies after catching Covid while struggling into trial accusing him of Troubles killing 50 years ago despite suffering terminal kidney failure and heart disease

  • Army veteran Dennis Hutchings, 80, died after catching Covid midway through trial for Troubles shooting
  • Hutchings was suffering from terminal kidney failure and heart disease when he flew to Belfast this month 
  • His case was one of two ongoing prosecutions of Northern Ireland veterans who served during the Troubles 
  • Over the weekend, he contracted Covid and was rushed to hospital in an ambulance last night and died
  • The spectacle of a dying veteran sitting in a dock in Belfast was already embarrassing for Boris Johnson
  • But his death sparked a further slew of criticism as to why the trial was allowed to take place at all 

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

There was a wave of anger today after a frail British Army veteran contracted Covid at a trial accusing him of fatally shooting a man during the Troubles almost 50 years ago, with allies saying he was ‘hounded to his grave’. 

Dennis Hutchings, 80, was already struggling to breathe and suffering from terminal kidney failure and heart disease when he flew to Belfast to be tried over the alleged attempted murder of John Pat Cunningham in County Tyrone in 1974. 

The former Life Guard said he was determined to be in court to clear his name despite his obvious ill health, but his death has sparked a further slew of criticism as to why the trial was allowed to take place at all.  

Paul Young, of the Justice for Northern Ireland Veterans group, said: ‘This has been an absolute disgrace. This frail, old, sick man hounded to his grave without being able to clear his name. 

‘He was absolutely determined to be in court. The justice system was insatiable and wanted his scalp but he died a lonely old man on his own in a Covid ward.’  

Philip Barden, Mr Hutchings’s solicitor, said the rigour of forcing the army veteran to stand trial had ‘killed him’. 

Tory MP Johnny Mercer said: ‘Dennis was taken to hospital last week; he has now subsequently also contracted COVID. His trial has been suspended for three weeks.

‘A grotesque experience for him only worsens. MoD has an enduring duty of care to him that they must honour, even more-so now.’ 

Meanwhile, Democratic Unionist Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson argued the trial was not in the public interest: ‘He was an 80-year-old veteran, in ill-health on dialysis and there was a lack of compelling new evidence.

‘There now stands serious questions around those who made the decision that Dennis should stand trial once more. He was honourable. He wanted to clear his name again but was dragged to a court and hounded until his death.’ 

Three days before the trial began, Mr Hutchings was struggling to breathe but told The Times that he wanted to clear his name. Asked if he was well enough to fly, he said: ‘I don’t know until I can get on the plane.’  

The spectacle of a dying veteran sitting in a dock in Belfast wearing his service medals was already hugely embarrassing for Boris Johnson and his government, which had previously vowed to end repeated investigations into those who served in Northern Ireland.

His case was one of two ongoing prosecutions of Northern Ireland veterans who served during the Troubles despite government plans announced in the summer to end all criminal and civil cases relating to deaths during the 30-year conflict. The proposals are yet to be implemented and were met with fierce backlash on both sides of Northern Ireland’s political divide.  

The veteran sat in the dock in Belfast on alternate days so he could receive gruelling kidney dialysis treatment. Over the weekend, he contracted Covid, and the trial had been adjourned for three weeks. However, last night he was rushed to hospital in an ambulance after complaining that he was struggling to breathe. His condition deteriorated and he later died. 

Mr Hutchings had been cleared twice over the shooting and was told he would not be prosecuted in the months after Mr Cunningham’s death following an initial investigation, and again in 2011 when the case was reviewed. However, it was reopened by the Legacy Investigation Branch of the Police Service of Northern Ireland in 2015 and he was arrested and taken from his home in Cornwall to Northern Ireland for questioning. 

Prosecutors previously told Belfast Crown Court that they had no direct evidence to prove whether the fatal shot was fired by Mr Hutchings or another soldier. Mr Hutchings, a great grandfather, also denied a count of attempted grievous bodily harm with intent.

Hutchings greeted by a supporter as he arrives to the Belfast Crown court in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on October 4, 2021


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

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

Dennis Hutchings: Army veteran pursued over historic Northern Ireland allegations… for which there was no proof

The veteran (pictured when younger) was facing trial over the attempted murder of John Pat Cunningham in 1974

Mr Hutchings was facing trial over the attempted murder of John Pat Cunningham.

He was shot running from a British Army patrol in Benburb, Co Tyrone, back in June 1974.

Mr Hutchings, who required kidney dialysis twice a week and has heart problems, was in the British Army for 26 years. He served five tours of Northern Ireland when the Troubles were at their worst.

The former corporal major was cleared twice over the events which took place in the mid-1970s.

Despite no fresh evidence, no witnesses and no new forensic leads, the retired soldier was accused again of attempted murder.

At a hearing in March last year his legal team argued that the trial should be held in England because of concerns for his health and the threat of Covid. Mr Hutchings had appealed to the courts to bring the case forward because he had been warned he could have a heart attack at any moment.  

He eventually flew to Belfast on October 3 for the trial, supported by former Veterans Minister Johnny Mercer. 

Mr Mercer, himself a former soldier, urged the Ministry of Defence to fly the 80-year-old back to England so he could be near his family until the trial resumed. He had said the MoD had a duty of care, adding: ‘I cannot believe we are putting a dying man through this grotesque process.’ 

Defence barrister James Lewis QC had informed Belfast Crown Court of the development as proceedings in the non-jury trial were due to begin on Monday.

He told judge Mr Justice O’Hara that Hutchings’ condition had been confirmed by a PCR test on Saturday.

‘I regret Mr Hutchings is not well with regard, as one would expect, with his other comorbidities of renal failure and cardiac malfunction. And we are unable to presently take instructions as he is currently in isolation in his hotel room.’

Hutchings had been suffering from kidney disease and the court had been sitting only three days a week to enable him to undergo dialysis treatment between hearings.

He was charged with the attempted murder of John Pat Cunningham in Co Tyrone in 1974.

The former member of the Life Guards regiment, from Cawsand in Cornwall, had denied a count of attempted grievous bodily harm with intent.

Mr Cunningham, 27, was shot dead as he ran away from an Army patrol across a field near Benburb. People who knew him said he had the mental age of a child and was known to have a deep fear of soldiers.

Democratic Unionist Party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said it was ‘desperately sad news’.

On Twitter, he said: ‘Our thoughts and prayers are with the Hutchings family. We have said all along that Dennis should never have been brought to trial again, not least because of his health but also a lack of compelling new evidence.

‘There are serious questions to answer here.’

In a statement, Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader Jim Allister said: ‘The needless dragging of an 80-year-old soldier, Dennis Hutchings, through the courts has had a very sad end with the passing of Mr Hutchings this evening.

‘The strain on this man was cruel, with him requiring regular dialysis, while being brought to Belfast to face a trial of dubious provenance.

‘My thoughts and prayers tonight are with his family and friends who may understandably feel that what he was put through contributed to his decline.’ 

Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie called for a ‘full and thorough’ review into the decision-making of the Public Prosecution Service.

‘I would like to convey my sincere condolences to Mr Hutchings’ family and friends,’ Mr Beattie said.

‘The decision by the Public Prosecution Service to proceed with a trial given his ill-health demands a full and thorough independent review. The questions must be asked, did this trial hasten Mr Hutchings’ death and did it meet the evidential and public interest tests?’

Danny Kinahan, the Veterans Commissioner for Northern Ireland, said that the news was ‘incredibly sad’.

On Twitter, he wrote: ‘I got to know Dennis over recent years. An elderly man, in poor health, he was determined to clear his name once and for all. Deepest condolences & sympathies to his wife and family at this difficult time.’

DUP MP Carla Lockhart also described the news as ‘awful’. 

Sitting in a crown court dock in Belfast this month, service medals pinned to his chest, Mr Hutchings somehow maintained his dignified stoicism

John Pat Cunningham, a 27-year-old with learning difficulties, was shot dead during an Army operation near the village of Benburb on June 15, 1974. Mr Hutchings maintained he only fired aimed warning shots into the air

She tweeted: ‘Such sad news that he never got to live out his last days in peace. Awful. Spent last months of his life being hounded by a political show trial.’

Critics of the plans to prosecute Northern Ireland veterans have cited the alleged hounding of soldiers who served in the province, while IRA terrorists were released early from prison or told they would not be prosecuted for Troubles-related offences following the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Great-grandfather Mr Hutchings was supported in court by his partner of 25 years, Kim, last week, and son John, however the pair returned to England when his trial was postponed following his Covid diagnosis. 

Mr Cunningham, a 27-year-old with learning difficulties, was shot dead during an Army operation near the village of Benburb on June 15, 1974. Mr Hutchings maintained he only fired aimed warning shots into the air.  

The trial heard that prosecutors were unable to prove whether Mr Hutchings or another soldier, now dead, fired the fatal shots, as no forensic evidence was collected. 

Mr Hutchings, who was in the Life Guards, had pleaded not guilty to the attempted murder. He also denied a count of attempted grievous bodily harm with intent.

What is the timeline of the Northern Ireland troubles and peace process? 

Police officers and firefighters inspecting the damage caused by a bomb explosion in Market Street, Omagh, 1998

August 1969

British Government first send troops into Northern Ireland after three days of rioting in Catholic Londonderry.

30 January 1972

On ‘Bloody Sunday’  13 civilians are shot dead by the British Army during a civil rights march in Londonderry.

March 1972

The Stormont Government is dissolved and direct rule imposed by London. 

1970s

The IRA begin its bloody campaign of bombings and assassinations in Britain. 

April 1981

Bobby Sands, a republicans on hunger strike in the Maze prison, is elected to Parliament. He dies a month later.

October 1984

An IRA bomb explodes at the Grand Hotel in Brighton, where Margaret Thatcher is staying during the Tory Party. conference

Early 1990s

Margaret Thatcher and then Sir John Major set up a secret back channel with the IRA to start peace talks. The communications was so secret most ministers did not know about it. 

April 1998

Tony Blair helps to broker the Good Friday Agreement, which is hailed as the end of the Troubles. 

It establishes the Northern Ireland Assembly with David Trimble as its first minister.

2000s

With some exceptions the peace process holds and republican and loyalist paramilitaries decommission their weapons.

May 2011

The Queen and Prince Philip make a state visit to Ireland, the first since the 1911 tour by George V. 

In a hugely symbolic moment, the Queen is pictured shaking hands with Martin McGuinness – a former IRA leader.

 

RESOLUTE TO THE END, DENNIS HUTCHINGS BATTLED TO CLEAR HIS NAME 

By GLEN KEOGH for the Daily Mail 

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.

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, 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.

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’.

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

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.

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.’

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.

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