John Patrick Cunningham

19 March 2013

Thank you all for coming. You should all have a briefing note giving full details about the killing of John Patrick Cunningham who was shot by two British soldiers in the Life Guard Regiment near his home at Benburb, County Armagh, on Saturday 15 June 1974 at approx. 11.50 am. Our concern is not only that a civilian was shot as he ran away from the soldiers, in apparent contravention of the “Yellow Card” rules, but also the failure of the police and Ministry of Defence to hold those responsible to account. The two soldiers responsible have had no fewer than four opportunities to explain their actions. They have refused to do so.  Neither has ever been subject to disciplinary procedures.  The family has had an apology from the Ministry of Defence and John Pat’s nephew, Charlie Agnew, will respond to that later.

Who was John Pat Cunningham? He was aged 27 and would be described today as a vulnerable adult. He had a mental age of between 6 and 10. Due to numerous previous incidents, he had a great fear of men in uniforms. 

A year before the shooting, his GP came upon John Pat taking refuge in a ditch from British soldiers who were poised to arrest him. The GP made representations to the British Army and the RUC locally at the time about John Pat’s fear of men in uniforms.

On the morning of 15 June 1974, he was returning from helping out at Benburb Priory along a country lane. There are no independent witnesses to what happened next.

According to statements made by some of the British soldiers involved, they noticed John Pat standing in the roadway looking towards a hedge. The soldiers got out of their vehicles.

John Pat then ran across the road and into a field, pursued by soldiers A, B and E. 

Soldiers A and E jumped over a gate and ran into the field, while soldier B took up a position at a second gateway into the same field. All three soldiers claim they shouted at John Pat to stop and then opened fire.

Soldier A fired 3 shots from 100 yards and soldier B fired 2 shots (there is no record in the RUC file as to the distance from which B fired at John Pat but it must have been less than 100 yards).

John Pat, who posed no threat and who was running away, was hit and killed.

No firearms were found with John Pat or in the area.

Three days after the shooting, and one must ask why it took three days to begin questioning them, Soldiers A and B were questioned under caution by two RUC men.

Soldier A said he had taken legal advice and was advised not to make a statement. He was asked six questions and declined to answer any of them except to say he was in charge of the patrol and that he had called on John Pat to stop.

Soldier B also said he had taken legal advice and did not wish to make a statement. He was asked a further four questions and declined to answer them. The interview lasted five minutes.

These two interviews are the only known accounts that soldiers A and B have ever given about John Pat’s death. In total they cannot have lasted more than 10 minutes.

Three months later (September 1974) the RUC submitted a report to the DPP who decided not to bring criminal charges against the soldiers involved.

As soldiers A and B have never given an account of their actions the HET traced them and wrote to them requesting that they assist their review.

Soldier B did not respond to the HET requests.

Soldier A sought legal advice and declined to be interviewed on a voluntary basis or to provide a voluntary statement. Solicitors acting for him also advised that if he was questioned under caution he would refuse to answer any questions or provide any form of written prepared statement.

The HET report into John Pat’s death said that it cannot establish whether the RUC investigation was independent, because of an absence of original case papers.

But, it adds, “by not obtaining the soldiers accounts of what happened more vigorously, the investigation was not as thorough or effective as it could have been.”

“John Pat’s death”, says the HET, “was an absolute tragedy that should not have happened. He was a vulnerable adult who was unarmed and shot as he was running away from soldiers.”

“There is no evidence that he posed a threat to the soldiers or anyone else.”

The HET does not criticise the soldiers for exercising their legal rights but, it says, “the consequence of their decisions has resulted in the full facts of the case about John Pat’s death never being established.”

The questions arising now are for the RUC and the Ministry of Defence.

The RUC Detective Inspector in charge of the case must have had a reasonable suspicion that soldiers A and B had committed a criminal offence because he interviewed the soldiers under caution.

Why did the RUC fail to question the soldiers in a more in-depth way?

This failure ensured there was never going to be sufficient evidence to prosecute.

As for the Ministry of Defence, papers dated January 1976 and discovered by the PFC at the National Archive in Kew show that it accepted full legal liability, even at that early stage, stipulating (and I quote) “there should be no attempt to allege any fault on the part of the deceased”.

The MoD then authorised the Crown Solicitors’ office to attempt to negotiate an out of court settlement. That out-of-court settlement in response to its accepted responsibility for taking a man’s life amounted to £750 for – as the MoD put it, “loss of expectation of life and funeral expenses.”

On 17 January this year, the MoD finally apologised to the Cunningham family. The Minister of State for the Armed Forces wrote:

“The HET report makes it clear that John was blameless and, accordingly, I believe it is right and proper to make an apology to you on behalf of the Government. … I do not believe that anything I can say will ease the sorrow you feel for the death of a much-loved relative, but I hope that the findings of the Historical Enquiries Team and our full and sincere apology will be of value by setting the record straight on these tragic events.”

While the apology has been welcomed by John Pat’s family, they point out that:

+ Those who are currently blocking the full truth emerging are solicitors acting for the same MoD.

+ Those solicitors are still advising Soldier A (B is refusing to engage) not to answer the HET’s questions.

Finally, we have a question for the current Chief Constable of the PSNI:

Will he now question the soldiers along the lines that, according to the HET, the RUC should have done at the time of the original investigation?