A British Army veteran who served in NI during the Troubles is 54x more likely to be prosecuted?

CLAIM: A British Army veteran who served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles is 54 times more likely than a Republican or Loyalist paramilitary to be prosecuted for alleged offences pre-dating the 1998 Belfast Agreement.

CONCLUSION: INACCURATE. Prosecutions to date suggest that ex-British Army personnel have been the subject of cases five times more than Republican and Loyalist suspects. The cited ratio of 54 times “more likely” was based on a snapshot of live prosecutions and takes no account of previous cases.

Who said what?

The News Letter reported that the trial of British Army veteran Dennis Hutchings is due to start in October 2021. He is being prosecuted for shooting a civilian in disputed circumstances in Co. Tyrone in 1974.

The legal firm representing Mr Hutchings, McCue and Partners, was reported in the Telegraph in February 2020 to claim: “A former soldier is 54 times more likely to be prosecuted than a republican or loyalist terrorist”. This claim was repeated in the News Letter article.

How was the “54 times” figure calculated?

According to McCue and Partners, back in April 2020 there were six ex-British Army soldiers and one “terrorist” (Republican) facing prosecution in Northern Ireland.

They compared the ratio of current prosecutions to deaths caused by the British Forces (police and army) and terrorist organisations.

Citing the source of their figures for deaths as the book, Lost Lives, by David McKittrick, et al, the legal firm used a figure of 3,264 for “deaths caused by terrorists” and 361 by “British military personnel”.

FactCheckNI has written previously about the numbers of killings during the Troubles (1969–2001). The Sutton Index of Deaths attributes 2,057 killings to Republican paramilitary groups and 1,027 killings attributed to Loyalist paramilitary groups (a total of 3,084 by paramilitary groups); 363 to British Forces (including the British Army (297), RUC (55), and others); 5 to Irish Forces; and 80 where Sutton was “unable or impossible to identify killing group”. The legal firm’s figures thus seem to include police as well as “British military personnel”.

The legal firm’s calculation (6/361 vs 1/3,264) gave the figure of 54, suggesting an estimated ratio of ex-British Army soldiers being prosecuted 54 times more than those associated with Republican and Loyalist paramilitary groups.

This figure only included current prosecutions and took no account of previous cases.

How many legacy cases?

“Legacy cases” refer to offences that took place prior to the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. Note that one case can involve more than one suspect, and one suspect could be involved in more than one case.

Back in 2019, the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) stated that it had identified 26 legacy cases on which it has taken prosecutorial decisions since 2011. The PPS supplied more up-to-date information to FactCheckNI on 11 June 2021, and on 15 July 2021 in response to a Freedom of Information request.

Group Unique suspects Cases where decision to prosecute pending Cases where decision to prosecute made Decided to prosecute (cases) Active prosecution (cases) Concluded cases
Republican 30 3 20 9 2 3 convictions
2 discontinued
2 acquittals
Loyalist 20 0 8 4 2 2 convictions
Paramilitaries (republican or loyalist) 50 3 28 13 4 5 convictions

2 discontinued

2 acquittals

Military 22 3 5 5 4 1 acquittal
Police 20 1 5 0 0 0
State forces (military or police) 42 4 10 5 4 1 acquittal
Total 92 7 38 18 8 10

Statistically, since 2011, the PPS has decided to prosecute legacy cases involving former soldiers twice as often as legacy cases involving paramilitaries (Republican or Loyalist) (5/5 vs 13/28); the rate is almost equal if you include legacy cases involving police officers (5/10 vs 13/28).

Individuals versus cases

The above table also shows unique suspects, representing the fact that a suspect may appear in more than one case. To address this claim, it is important to not double-count suspects.

The information provided by the PPS indicates that there have been the following numbers of unique suspects, by grouping: 30 Republican, 20 Loyalist, 22 Military, and 20 Police.

These figures suggest that, since 2011, military personnel have been the subject of PPS prosecutions (whether they proceed to trial or not) nearly five times more than paramilitaries (Republican or Loyalist) (22/297 vs 50/3,084). If police personnel are included, then the ratio increases to seven times more (42/363 vs 50/3,084).