Negative message to innocent victim's family

It is accepted that everyone has a right to commemorate their dead but it also needs to be stressed that the circumstances in which they do so should always be carefully considered.

There will be particular concern over the decision by the UK’s ministry of defence (MoD) to allow the placing of a memorial stone to the former British soldier Dennis Hutchings at Palace Barracks in Holywood, Co Down.

Mr Hutchings (80) died late last year after contracting covid during a high profile case at Belfast crown court where he was charged with the attempted murder of and causing grievous bodily harm to John Pat Cunningham in Benburb, Co Tyrone, in 1974.

Mr Cunningham (27) was shot three times and fatally wounded as he ran away from a British Army patrol, with his family pointing out that he was a vulnerable person who posed no threat, and, because of his learning difficulties, would have been instinctively afraid of authority figures.

Mr Hutchings, a member of the Life Guards regiment, maintained his innocence from the outset, but was eventually prosecuted decades later with the trial ultimately left unresolved due to his death.

An inscribed stone which was unveiled during a ceremony in Palace Barracks at the weekend said he was a veteran soldier, who had `served with courage’ but made no reference to Mr Cunningham.

There can only be surprise that the permanent monument was erected on MoD property in Co Down even though Mr Hutchings, who lived in Cornwall, had long since left the British Army and died of natural causes.

The MoD has subsequently said that the Palace Barracks garden is not an officially recognised memorial location, and stones there are requested, erected and maintained at private expense.

However, as Palace Barracks is a secure military facility which does not have public access, it is clear that the MoD facilitated the tribute to Mr Hutchings.

The relatives of Mr Cunningham were fully entitled, in a statement issued through the Pat Finucane Centre, to ask what efforts, if any, were made to consult them over the placing of the monument to Mr Hutchings, and if there were plans to honour other soldiers who pass away while there are unresolved legal actions against them.

It will be widely concluded that the weekend ceremony sent out a deeply negative message to the loved ones of an entirely innocent victim.