Bloody Sunday: Ex-Para’s legal challenge underway in London

Marchers on January 30th, 1972, the day that would become known as Bloody Sunday.
Marchers on January 30th, 1972, the day that would become known as Bloody Sunday.

Legal arguments in a case lodged by seven ex-Paratroopers, who were present in Derry on Bloody Sunday, are being heard by judges in London.

The seven former soldiers had asked the High Court to make an order preventing them from being taken to Northern Ireland to be interviwed by the PSNI as part of their ongoing murder investigation into the events in Derry on January 30, 1972. Thirteen people were shot dead by members of the Parachute Regiment-with a fourteenth later dying from his injuries.

The ex-Paratroopers lodged their case via their legal counsel following the arrest earlier this month of ‘Lance Corporal J’ in County Antrim. The 66-year-old was questioned at a police station in Belfast and later released on police bail, pending further enquiries. It is understood he was questioned in relation to the killings of Michael McDaid, John Young and William Nash and also in connection to the wounding of Alexander Nash.

Lawyers for the soldiers contended that the motivation behind the arrest of ‘Lance Corporal J’ was “politically motivated” and also followed on from the realisation that if they are charged their anonymity could be put aside. It is also possible that if charged and subsequently convicted that they may not quality for early release under the Good Friday Agreement as it falls outside the timeframe agreed for non-qualification agreed in the 1998 accord.

The seven soldiers also lodged objections to not being given at least 24 hours notice of arrest, whereby they could arrange to present themselves to local police stations for questioning. They have also objected to being transferred to Northern Ireland for police questioning citing they were at risk of attack from republican elements.

James Lewis, QC for the seven soldiers, understood to be soldiers B, N, O, Q, R, U and V-the anonymous names applied to the ex-soldiers during the 12 year Saville Inquiry, told Lord Justice Thomas and two other judges today that the men were willing to give an “undertaking” to the court to “voluntarily attend for interview under caution” in England and Wales in relation to events on Bloody Sunday.

It has also understood that the Chief Constable of the PSNI has agreed not to order any further arrests until the conclusion of this case. And, the Ministry of Defence also recently issued a statement saying that it will foot the legal bill for the former soldiers. In September, the PSNI told bereaved families they intended to interview a number of former soldiers about their involvement on the day.

Today is the first public hearing of the judicial review action brought by the ex-soldiers against the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) - a case described by Lord Thomas as being one of “considerable interest” to the public.

James Lewis QC, for the men, told the judges: “At the heart of the application before the court today is that the defendant wishes to interview the claimants. We have no issue with that.

“He is entitled to do so, and we accept that. However, the defendant seeks to exercise his power of arrest in order to interview the claimants under caution in Northern Ireland.”

Mr Lewis added: “He has already made a decision to arrest all the claimants, but he has undertaken not to put that into effect pending the challenge before this court. It is his decision to arrest for that purpose that we challenge.”

Referring to the fact that the former paratroopers would co-operate by attending interviews held in England and Wales, Mr Lewis said: “Consequential upon that undertaking we would seek an order from this court prohibiting the defendant from arresting the claimants in order to interview them under caution in Northern Ireland.”

Northern Ireland police launched the murder investigation in 2012. It was initiated after a Government-commissioned inquiry, undertaken by Lord Saville, found that none of the victims was posing a threat to soldiers when they were shot.

Following the publication of the Saville report in 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron apologised for the Army’s actions, branding them “unjustified and unjustifiable”.

Lord Thomas described the case as “one of the most extraordinary cases in the annals of the common law”.

Mr Lewis argued the intention to arrest, detain and transport the ex-soldiers to Northern Ireland when the interviews could be achieved voluntarily in England was “unlawful, irrational and disproportionate”.

It exposed the men “to a real risk of danger to life”, he added.

Mr Lewis argued it was unreasonable to arrest them “for what can only be described as administrative convenience”.

The officer who ordered the arrests did not appear to have properly considered the proportionality of the move.

The QC highlighted the case on one of the ex-soldiers, referred to as “Soldier O”, whose solicitors had provided evidence he had suffered a number of strokes which had left him paralysed down his right side so that he could only walk short distances with a walking stick and required a wheelchair for longer journeys.

Mr Lewis argued his circumstances had not been properly considered and it appeared the police had “an obsessive, mean-spirited intention to arrest at all costs”.

Jonathan Hall QC, appearing for the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland, told the court “that criminal investigations are unpleasant and unwelcome to those caught up in them but are necessary for the rule of law”.