Former members of the British Army are set to face criminal charges for the murder of Official IRA member Joe McCann in April 1972. It’s the first time that British soldiers have ever had charges brought against them for their roles during the Troubles.

24 year old McCann was one of the Official IRA’s most prominent casualties during the Troubles and is venerated in republican circles as a hero. He was a commander of its Third Belfast Battalion and known within the organization as a hardline advocate of its armed struggle

A spokesperson for the province’s Public Prosecution Service told reporters, “Following a careful consideration of all the available evidence it has been decided to prosecute two men for the offence of murder.

“The two defendants in the case are surviving members of the army patrol which shot Mr McCann. A third member of the patrol who also fired at Mr McCann died in the intervening years. At present these individuals are not being named and are identified as soldier A and soldier C.”

Inquiries into McCann’s death by the Royal Ulster Constabulary at the time did not lead to charges; however the Historical Enquiries Team reviewed the case in 2012 and concluded,“ The HET considers that Joe's actions did not amount to the level of specific threat which could have justified the soldiers opening fire in accordance with the Army Rules of Engagement or their standard operating procedures."

A file was subsequently sent to the Attorney General who passed in onto the Director of Public Prosecutions who formally reviewed the police’s decision not to press charges.

The charges will not be without controversy in Northern Ireland where prosecutions for crimes committed during the Troubles are now rare. One MP, Johnny Mercer, has already branded the decision to investigate killings by the Army during the Troubles a “witch hunt” and he is likely to have support from many of his Conservative colleagues in the British Parliament.

But the decision will be welcomed by many in Northern Ireland’s nationalist and republican community, a number of whom commemorate McCann’s death annually on the spot he was shot on Joy Street, Belfast.

His death led to five days of rioting in Belfast and his funeral was attended by thousands. Despite his reputation as a republican hardliner, the occasion saw tributes from an unlikely quarter with loyalist paramilitary leader Gusty Spence praising him in a letter of condolence to his widow,” He was a soldier of the Republic and I a Volunteer of Ulster and we made no apology for being what we were or are… Joe once did me a good turn indirectly and I never forgot him for his humanity".