Northern Ireland news

Veteran soldier avoids jail for 1988 Troubles killing

Aidan McAnespie was shot in 1988 (Family handout/PA)
Jonathan McCambridge, PA

A former soldier has been given a suspended sentence for killing a man at an Army checkpoint in Northern Ireland more than 30 years ago.

David Jonathan Holden, 53, was sentenced to three years at Belfast Crown Court, but judge Mr Justice O'Hara suspended the term for three years.

Holden was convicted last year at Belfast Crown Court of the manslaughter of Aidan McAnespie in February 1988, the first veteran to be convicted of a historical offence in Northern Ireland since the peace agreement.

Mr McAnespie, 23, was killed in Aughnacloy, Co Tyrone, moments after walking through a border security checkpoint.

He was on his way to a Gaelic Athletic Association club when he was shot in the back.

The McAnespie family said they were disappointed at the sentence, but stressed they did not want a “pound of flesh”.

Holden had admitted firing the shot which killed Mr McAnespie, but had said he had fired the weapon by accident because his hands were wet.

But Justice O'Hara said last year he was satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that Holden was guilty of manslaughter by gross negligence.

In court on Thursday, the judge highlighted five points about the case – Holden was 18 when the killing occurred, he had been convicted of manslaughter and did not intend to kill, he was grossly negligent in wrongly assuming the gun was not cocked, the fact that the gun was cocked and ready to fire was the fault of others and he could not know from looking at the gun if it was cocked.

Justice O'Hara said: “In his evidence during the trial, the defendant did not take the opportunity to express remorse. He could have done so, even in the context contesting the case.

“That would have been helpful.”

The judge added: “The defendant gave a dishonest explanation to the police and then to the court, to some limited degree that is an aggravating feature.”

The judge drew attention to victim impact statements given by Mr McAnespie's family to the court.

He said: “Aidan was the youngest of the six McAnespie children.

“The statements described the devastating impact the killings had on the whole extended family, how it changed their lives and how hugely challenging it has been over decades.

“I have no doubt this was made worse by the family's sense of injustice that Mr Holden was not brought to trial at the time.

“This is something the family shares with far too many other families in our society who have not seen anyone held to account for all manner of killings, bombings and shootings.

“Included in the statements is a haunting description of Mrs McAnespie walking from her home every night past the Army checkpoint to the point where her son was killed in tears saying the rosary.”

He said: “When I consider the sentence I bear in mind everything which is put before me by counsel and the McAnespie family.”

Holden is a former Grenadier Guardsman from England, whose address in court documents was given as c/o Chancery House, Victoria Street, Belfast.

The case was heard in a Diplock format without a jury sitting.

Supporters of Holden gathered outside the court each day the trial sat.

Members of Mr McAnespie's family were in court for the sentencing hearing.

Aidan's brother, Sean McAnespie, said: “The most important point is that David Holden was found guilty of the unlawful killing of our brother Aidan.

“We are glad we had our day in court. David Holden could have given an honest account of what happened that day but didn't. The judge was clear he had given a deliberately false version of events.

“Not a day passes when we don't miss Aidan.”

A representative of a veterans' organisation described the sentence handed down to Holden as “extremely harsh”.

Paul Young, from the Northern Ireland Veterans Movement, which campaigns against the prosecution of soldiers who served in the region, said: “We believe that the sentence today was extremely harsh, considering the passage of time and what David Holden has had to go through over the last number of years.

“When you compare this to the Good Friday Agreement and the deals that were struck about terrorists, that they would never serve more than two years if they were convicted of any legacy offence.

“Now we have David Holden convicted for a manslaughter through gross negligence so there is clearly a disparity between terrorists and the security forces that served in Northern Ireland.

“It is a disgrace and should never have happened.”

The trial proceeded amid continuing controversy over Government plans to deal with Northern Ireland's troubled past.

The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill proposals provide an effective amnesty for those suspected of killings during the conflict, if they agree to co-operate with a new body, known as the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery.

The Bill would also prohibit future civil cases and inquests related to Troubles' crimes.

The Holden case is one of a series of high-profile prosecutions of veterans that have been pursued in Northern Ireland in recent years.

Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International UK's deputy director in Northern Ireland, said the sentencing showed that accountability before the law “is still possible and must continue”.

She added: “It is vital the UK Government shelves its Troubles Bill so other families can also get justice.

“Justice delayed does not need to be justice denied, but that's what many victims will face if the Government continues with its gross betrayal by closing down all paths to justice.

“The Government's claim that the Bill is about delivering for victims is completely disingenuous. Recent proposed amendments pretend to answer people's concerns but, as the overwhelming opposition demonstrates, no one is buying it.

“It is not too late to put victims at the centre of legacy processes and vindicate their rights.”