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Family and friends of Northern Ireland veteran Dennis Hutchings prepare for his funeral

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The funeral of Northern Ireland veteran Dennis Hutchings will take place tomorrow with bikers joining the cortege and his coffin carried by serving British Army soldiers.

Mr Hutchings died in Belfast aged 80 after contracting Covid-19 while he was due to face trial in the city over a fatal shooting incident in County Tyrone in 1974.

The veteran passed away alone in hospital on October 18, leading unionist politicians to raise concerns that the legal case against him had been allowed to proceed.

The funeral for the former member of the Life Guards Regiment from Cornwall will take place tomorrow from 1pm at St Andrew’s Church in Plymouth, Devon.

Bikers are expected to join the cortege on its journey to Plymouth, with the meeting point at Marsh Mills, east of the port city on the A38, at 12pm.

Dennis Hutchings waves as he arrives at Laganside Court in Belfast on October 4 this year

Dennis Hutchings waves as he arrives at Laganside Court in Belfast on October 4 this year

Mr Hutchings (pictured in 1978) said he was determined to clear his name over the incident

Mr Hutchings (pictured in 1978) said he was determined to clear his name over the incident

The riders are being organised by Rolling Thunder UK – and flags are permitted but the family have requested no political slogans, speeches, or banners on the day.

The service will be broadcast on screens outside the church on Royal Parade on what is Remembrance Day, as well as live online for those who cannot attend.

How Dennis Hutchings would have told trial that he fired ‘air shots’

Dennis Hutchings was due to face trial in Belfast over a fatal shooting incident in County Tyrone in 1974.

The former member of the Life Guards Regiment from Cornwall had pleaded not guilty to the attempted murder of 27-year-old John Pat Cunningham.

Mr Cunningham was shot dead as he ran away from an Army patrol across a field near Benburb in 1974.

People who knew him said he had the mental age of a child and was known to have a deep fear of soldiers.

Mr Hutchings’s case had become the focus of attention in recent years as a number of other prosecutions were announced against veterans over deaths which took place during Northern Ireland’s Troubles.

Mr Hutchings had been suffering from kidney disease and the court had been sitting only three days a week to enable him to undergo dialysis treatment between hearings.

His solicitor Philip Barden said that had Mr Hutchings given evidence at his trial, he would have said that he did not shoot Mr Cunningham, but that he had fired ‘air shots’.

Mr Hutchings was in the British Army for 26 years. He served five tours of Northern Ireland when the Troubles were at their worst.

The former corporal major was cleared twice over the events which took place in the mid-1970s. Despite no fresh evidence, no witnesses and no new forensic leads, the retired soldier was accused again of attempted murder.

He died at the Mater Hospital while in Belfast for the trial. Hours earlier, the case had been adjourned for three weeks in light of his health. 

After the service, some of Mr Hutchings’s family will be heading for a drink locally, before returning to a private event in the Cornish village of Cawsand.

The death of Mr Hutchings, who was from Cawsand, prompted questions by unionist politicians over the decision to prosecute him almost 50 years later.

He had pleaded not guilty to the attempted murder of 27-year-old John Pat Cunningham.

Mr Hutchings had been suffering from kidney disease and the court had been sitting only three days a week to enable him to undergo dialysis treatment between hearings.

His case had become the focus of attention in recent years as a number of other prosecutions were announced against veterans over deaths which took place during Northern Ireland’s Troubles.

His solicitor Philip Barden, from law firm Devonshires, said he had wanted to clear his name.

Mr Barden also called for the Government to enact a statute of limitations on Troubles prosecutions in Northern Ireland, and said this should be known as ‘Dennis’s Law’.

Mr Barden said that had Mr Hutchings given evidence at his trial, he would have said that he did not shoot Mr Cunningham, but that he had fired ‘air shots’.

Mr Hutchings died at the Mater Hospital while in Belfast for the trial. Hours earlier, the case had been adjourned for three weeks in light of his health.

At the funeral, there were originally no plans for regimental pallbearers because the MoD does not provide them for retired service personnel unless there is a formal request.

But veterans are entitled to a regimental trumpeter – and his relatives lodged a formal request for members of his former regiment, the Life Guards, to attend.

An Army spokesman said on Wednesday of last week: ‘Mr Hutchings served for many years with great dignity, diligence and courage. 

‘His passing is a personal tragedy for his family, regimental family and his friends, and we extend our sincere condolences to all that knew and cared for him.

‘The Army was formally approached to provide a bearer party for the funeral on Friday (October 29); this request was actioned in line with policy.

Mr Hutchings is pictured attending Royal Ascot with his partner of 25 years, Kim Devonshire

Mr Hutchings is pictured attending Royal Ascot with his partner of 25 years, Kim Devonshire

Mr Hutchings's supporters stand with a banner outside Belfast Crown Court on October 18

Mr Hutchings’s supporters stand with a banner outside Belfast Crown Court on October 18

‘As a mark of respect to Mr Hutchings his service and his family, the decision was made today (November 3) by the Army to support the request. His former regiment will provide a bearer party and trumpeter at his funeral.’

Solicitor calls for ‘Dennis’s Law’ to halt historical prosecution of veterans

The solicitor for Army veteran Dennis Hutchings called on the Government to halt the historical prosecution of veterans following his client’s death while on trial for attempted murder.

Mr Hutchings’s solicitor Philip Barden said he hopes the Government will now enact a statute of limitations on Troubles prosecutions in Northern Ireland, and said this should be known as ‘Dennis’ Law’.

Mr Barden, from law firm Devonshires, added: ‘I had the honour to look after Dennis Hutchings for 10 years. I was with him on Monday shortly before he passed away. What follows is what he wanted me to say on his behalf.

‘I hope that the Government will now enact a statute of limitation that will end the shameful pursuit of Army veterans in Northern Ireland. This should be known as Dennis’ Law as it is the cause that he fought and died for.’

In July, the Government announced plans for a statute of limitations that would end all prosecutions for Troubles incidents up to April 1998. 

The family have said all are welcome to attend the church service but have requested that there is no political messaging.

They said in a statement on October 27: ‘The family are aware of the great deal of interest from those who supported Dennis in attending his funeral.

‘The family are grateful for all the incredible support over many years and are looking forward to welcoming as many people as can make it to Plymouth on November 11.

‘All are welcome. Flags are permitted, banners are not. The family have specifically requested no political slogans, speeches or banners on the day.’

On October 19, Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service defended the decision to prosecute Mr Hutchings over the shooting.

It came as Democratic Unionist Party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson challenged the prosecution service over what new and compelling evidence led to the trial.

But deputy director of public prosecutions Michael Agnew said: ‘The PPS decision to prosecute Mr Hutchings for attempted murder was taken after an impartial and independent application of the test for prosecution.

‘The test for prosecution requires a consideration of whether the available evidence provides a reasonable prospect of conviction and, if it does, whether prosecution is in the public interest.

‘Whilst a review of a previous no prosecution decision does not require the existence of new evidence, the police investigation in this case resulted in a file being submitted to the PPS which included certain evidence not previously available.

‘In the course of the proceedings there were rulings by High Court judges that the evidence was sufficient to put Mr Hutchings on trial and also that the proceedings were not an abuse of process.’

The funeral will take place tomorrow from 1pm at St Andrew's Church in Plymouth, Devon

The funeral will take place tomorrow from 1pm at St Andrew’s Church in Plymouth, Devon

British Army veteran Dennis Hutchings is pictured far right in this photo in Germany in 1960

British Army veteran Dennis Hutchings is pictured far right in this photo in Germany in 1960

Mr Agnew said the PPS recognised the ‘concerns in some quarters’ in relation to the decision to bring the prosecution.

Military funeral granted for Troubles veteran Dennis Hutchings 

The Ministry of Defence U-turned last week on its refusal to let serving soldiers carry the coffin of Troubles veteran Dennis Hutchings.

Supporters of Mr Hutchings, who died last month aged 80 while on trial in Belfast over a fatal 1974 shooting, had called for members of his former Army regiment, the Life Guards, to act as pallbearers at his funeral on Remembrance Day.

And on November 1, the MoD caved into pressure and agreed to provide military pallbearers, saying Mr Hutchings had served ‘with great dignity, diligence and courage’.

Officials had originally denied a request made through the regiment by a former major who served in Northern Ireland alongside Mr Hutchings.

However, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who served in the Scots Guards, vowed to ‘find out who stopped’ the plans.

Johnny Mercer, the Conservative MP who accompanied Mr Hutchings from his home in Cornwall to his trial in Belfast, told The Daily Telegraph: ‘I am pleased for the family that the MoD will honour Dennis Hutchings in death as they failed to in life.

‘He was a good man who served his country proudly in Northern Ireland.’

Mr Hutchings’s son John, 48, said: ‘I am absolutely over the moon and delighted that the Life Guards are providing these pallbearers.’

He added: ‘We would like to offer our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of Mr Hutchings, and acknowledge their painful loss.

‘However, where a charge is as serious as attempted murder, it will generally be in the public interest to prosecute.’

‘Our thoughts are also with the family of John Pat Cunningham who have waited for many decades in the hope of seeing due process take its course.’

Mr Cunningham was shot dead as he ran away from an Army patrol across a field near Benburb in Co Tyrone in 1974.

People who knew him said he had the mental age of a child and was known to have a deep fear of soldiers.

His family responded to the death of Mr Hutchings saying they wished to acknowledge that this is a difficult time for the family, adding that they should be given time to grieve.

‘When the time is judged appropriate, the family will respond in more detail to the issues surrounding the prosecution of Dennis Hutchings,’ they said.

Former veterans minister Johnny Mercer tweeted last month that he was ‘devastated by the death of my dear friend’.

Mr Mercer, who accompanied Mr Hutchings to court on several days of the trial, said he ‘remains fiercely proud of him’.

Downing Street said the ‘tragic’ case illustrated the problems of pursuing historical allegations through the courts.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: ‘Our sincere condolences go to the family, friends and loved ones of Dennis Hutchings.

‘The Ministry of Defence supported Mr Hutchings throughout his trial with legal representation and pastoral care, and that will continue to be offered to his family.’

The spokesman said ‘it’s not for me to comment on the court proceedings’, but added: ‘This tragic case highlights that the criminal justice approach broadly is no longer working and that is why we are committed to introducing new legislation to bring greater certainty for all communities, including the veterans and families of victims.’

In July, the Government announced plans for a statute of limitations that would end all prosecutions for Troubles incidents up to April 1998.

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