Joe McCann shooting: Ex-paratroopers deny 1972 murder of Official IRA man in Belfast

ITV News Correspondent Dan Rivers reports on the trial and those protesting it

Two former paratroopers deny murdering a man in Northern Ireland almost 50 years ago, a court has heard.

Official IRA member Joe McCann, 24, died after being shot in the Markets area of Belfast in 1972.

The veterans, referred to in court proceedings as Soldiers A and C, entered not guilty pleas at the start of their trial at Belfast Crown Court on Monday.

The two men wore suits and face masks. They will remain anonymous throughout the proceedings.

What was the court told about the shooting?

A prosecution lawyer told the court that Mr McCann was a senior member of the Official IRA who was suspected of involvement in a number of attacks carried out by the republican group.

He said the shooting took place after an RUC Special Branch Officer attempted to arrest him on Joy Street in the Markets area of Belfast. Mr McCann evaded detention and ran away.

The republican was “at the very top of the three-star list of people who were wanted for arrest”, according to the evidence provided at the time of the shooting by the Special Branch officer.

The Crown lawyer said that after Mr McCann ran away, soldiers A and C, and another now deceased paratrooper – solider B – opened fire. They had been manning a checkpoint in the area at the time.

The fatal shot hit him at the bottom of his back.

Belfast Solicitor Niall Murphy (front left) with Joe McCann's daughter Nuala, his widow Ann and son Feargal (front right)

The court heard that as he lay dying on the street, Mr McCann, who was unarmed, told the soldiers: “You got me cold, I’ve no weapon.”

The court was also told that following his death, the Official IRA said Mr McCann had been responsible for the deaths of 15 British soldiers.

Shooting Mr McCann 'not legally justified'

The Crown lawyer said shooting Mr McCann in the back as he ran away was unlawful and not justified.

“On any view of the facts, the level of force used was unreasonable,” he said.

The QC added: “Both soldiers shot Mr McCann in order to stop him from getting away and avoiding being arrested.

“The prosecution case is that in all circumstances that shooting was not legally justified.”

During the opening statement, he said both soldiers believed Mr McCann would have been armed.

They said no weapon was found when they searched him as he lay wounded on the ground.

In legal exchanges over disclosure issues prior to the Crown’s opening statement, a lawyer representing one of the soldiers insisted the force used was reasonable.

She said Mr McCann was suspected of involvement in murders and could have committed more if he had evaded arrest.

The lawyer said soldiers faced a “binary choice” of either firing to effect the arrest or Mr McCann getting away.

First witnesses speak out

The first witness to give evidence to the trial was former delivery driver Alexander Worland, who had given Mr McCann a lift in his van earlier that day.

He had been in a shop in the Markets area and the shop owner pointed out that Mr McCann was in the back kitchen of the property.

The court heard that Mr McCann was in disguise, wearing glasses and dark hair.

Joe McCann pictured clutching a rifle in the same Markets area where he died.

The shop owner asked the driver if he could give a lift to Mr McCann, who exited the shop by going over a wall in the backyard.

The driver said he then picked him up. He said he drove in the direction of the nearby Short Strand area and Mr McCann then asked to be dropped off.

The driver said he then returned to the shop and a short time later he heard shots ring out nearby.

He went to the scene and saw Mr McCann lying fatally wounded on the street.

Asked by a defence lawyer whether he thought Mr McCann was on an operation, given his disguise, the witness said: “I have no idea where he was going or what he was doing.”

On the first day, the court also heard from Sean Bannon, who was on his way to a bar in the area when he witnessed the incident unfold on Joy Street. Joseph Donaldson, who was 10 at the time of the shooting and arrived on the scene in the immediate aftermath, also gave evidence.'Unfair' trial, former veterans minister says

Mr McCann's shooting is one of a number of legacy cases, referring to incidents which took place before the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998, on which Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service has taken decisions.

Former veterans minister Johnny Mercer attended Belfast Crown Court to watch the proceedings.

Ex veterans commissioner Johnny Mercer arrives at Laganside Courts in Belfast Credit: Mark Marlow/PA

The ex-Army officer left his ministerial role last week after expressing frustration at a lack of progress on legislation to protect British veterans who served during the Troubles from prosecution.

The Conservative MP was accompanied in court by Northern Ireland Veterans Commissioner Danny Kinahan.

Mr Mercer said the trial of the two former soldiers is “unfair”.

“I think in any conflict, it is messy, it is unpleasant, it is a horrible process to go through for both sides,” he added.

“What I don’t think is – 50 years later – you get a truly accurate picture of what happened.

“I think it is unfair to try and apply today’s standards of operations and retrospectively apply them to that time and try to get justice.

“I have huge sympathy on all sides but we need to move on in Northern Ireland."

Mr Mercer denied he is “interfering” in the trial, adding he is there to “learn about the process”.

Veterans protest the trial outside the court

A small group of protesters, some dressed in military uniform, were picketing outside the court in Belfast ahead of the trial.

Demonstrators held banners expressing opposition to historical prosecution of former British soldiers.

Where will the case go from here?

The trial will continue on Tuesday when some legal issues are to be addressed by the parties. The trial is expected to last four weeks.