Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

28 April 2013 Edition

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British GOC lobbied Attorney General not to prosecute army killers

Declassified Ministry of Defence files reveal collaboration behind closed doors between law and military

• Attorney General Sir Peter Rawlinson QC and Lieutenant General Frank King

Attorney General Sir Peter Rawlinson QC was ‘always ready to receive representations’ from British Army officers to prevent soldiers being charged with serious crimes

DECLASSIFIED Ministry of Defence files have exposed secret lobbying of the North’s Attorney General in the 1970s by the most senior military commanders to protect their soldiers from prosecution for a range of offences, including murder.

The British Army’s shooting dead of unarmed ‘Official IRA’ figure Joe McCann in 1972 could be the first of hundreds of cases to be reopened by the North’s Director of Public Prosecutions on the back of the revelations.

Research carried out by the Pat Finucane Centre and published by The Detail news website shows that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) also kept cases out of the criminal courts by paying victims or their families compensation the equivalent of millions of pounds in today’s terms.

Barry McCaffrey of The Detail says that documents uncovered by the Pat Finucane Centre show that:

  • Attorney General Sir Peter Rawlinson QC was “always ready to receive representations” from British Army officers to prevent soldiers being charged with serious crimes.
  •  Fewer than one in ten of all cases submitted to the DPP regarding shootings or assault incidents involving soldiers resulted in prosecutions.
  • By 1976, the British Army had paid out the equivalent of £5.7million in today’s money in more than 400 out-of-court settlements to avoid soldiers being convicted of unlawful shootings and assaults on civilians.
  • The British Army’s most senior soldier warned that any decision to convict in a civil court rather than try soldiers in court martial (if he had to) would force the British Army to review its entire military operation in the North of Ireland.

MoD officials were assured that the Attorney General and DPP were all ex-army and therefore “by no means unsympathetic” to soldiers’ actions and consequences of carrying out Whitehall’s orders.

Sir Peter Rawlinson was Conservative Member of Parliament for Epsom in Surrey for 23 years, from 1955 to 1978, during which time he was Attorney General for the North of Ireland from 1972 to 1974. He was the son of Lieutenant-Colonel AR Rawlinson OBE, “a figure in military intelligence”, and himself a Sandhurst-trained officer in the Irish Guards.


In the papers just uncovered by the Pat Finucane Centre is a letter by the most senior British officer in the North, Lieutenant General Frank King, to Adjutant General Cecil Black in January 1974, saying:

“He [Sir Peter Rawlinson] assured me in the plainest terms that not only he himself but also the DPP and senior members of his staff, having been army officers themselves, having seen active service and knowing at first-hand about the difficulties and dangers faced by soldiers, were by no means unsympathetic or lacking in understanding in their approach to soldier prosecutions in Northern Ireland.”

He said the shooting dead of Joe McCann was cited as an example of a “borderline” case that had benefited from this sympathetic view.

It is this naming of an individual in the files that has led to a request to the current Director of Public Prosecutions, Barra McGrory, to reopen the investigation into the British Army’s shooting dead of Joe McCann. The DPP is considering the request.

As the family prepared to mark the anniversary of his killing, on 15 April 1972 in Belfast, one of Joe McCann’s sons, Feargal, just 4 years old  when his father was killed by the Parachute Regiment, said:

“It is clear now that the British Army was operating with impunity from the get-go.

“The documents show there were hundreds of cases where the Attorney General invited British Army generals to persuade him not to prosecute soldiers for murder and serious assault.

“This is conclusive evidence of collusion at the highest levels and proves that the cover-up that followed my father’s killing stretched from Belfast to London.

“These documents show that the people who were supposed to be upholding the law were in actual fact bending over backwards to allow people, who they knew had killed and maimed, to walk away scot-free.

“I believe that these documents will prove to be just the tip of the iceberg.”

The Pat Finucane Centre has called for the reopening of any case which had been affected by the Attorney General’s decision to allow army officers to lobby for soldiers not to be prosecuted.

“The families of those killed or injured have a right to know if these soldiers were protected from prosecution.”


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