Two former British paratroopers, known only as Soldiers A and C, have been formally found not guilty of the murder of Joe McCann in Belfast in April 1972 just over a week after their trial began.

The case against the two British veterans collapsed when Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service (PPS) opted to not appeal presiding Justice O’Hara’s decision last week to make statements and interviews given by the British soldiers inadmissible as evidence.

The PPS said that there were "no grounds to appeal a recent ruling by the trial judge that statements made by the two defendants to the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) in 2010 were not admissible and therefore could not be used by the prosecution at trial.

“After the loss of this evidence which was the central basis of the prosecution case, a decision was taken to offer no further evidence against the defendants, leading to their acquittal.” 

On Tuesday, Justice O’Hara told the defendants that “in the circumstances, Mr. A and C, I formally find you not guilty of the charge of murder."

McCann’s family was disappointed with the acquittal. A statement issued on behalf of the McCann family via KRW Law in Belfast said: “This ruling does not acquit the State of murder.

“This ruling does not mean that Joe McCann was not murdered by the British Army.

“This trial has heard very clear evidence that Joe McCann was murdered by the British Army.

“He was shot in the back whilst unarmed, from a distance of 40 metres, posing no threat. It was easier to arrest him rather to murder him.

“He was murdered because the British Army operated with impunity for their crimes.”

The statement continued: “Today is not the end of the McCann’s journey for justice. They will now apply to the current Attorney General to open the inquest at which Soldiers A and C will be compelled to appear and give evidence and be cross-examined.”

Philip Barden, who represented Soldiers A and C, said after the acquittal: “The stress of these proceedings on the soldiers and their families cannot be underestimated. 

“This is a prosecution that should never have got off the ground. Before initiating the prosecution, the PPS had all the relevant information to conclude that the evidence was clearly inadmissible. Despite this, the prosecution proceeded.

He added: “I call for an inquiry by a senior judge to investigate the decision-making process and to ensure that the decision to prosecute these veterans was not political.”

Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions Michael Agnew said on Tuesday: “Despite today’s outcome, the PPS remains satisfied that this case was properly brought before the Courts. The case overcame a number of legal challenges before reaching trial.  

He added: “When the full written judgment becomes available, the PPS will carefully consider whether it has the potential to impact upon any other cases that are currently before the courts.”

The death of Joe McCann

Official IRA Commander Joe McCann, a 24-year-old father of four, was shot by British soldiers as he fled a checkpoint after a scuffle with a Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) police officer in the nationalist Markets area of Belfast on April 15, 1972. 

The Belfast court heard earlier in the short trial that as he lay dying on the street, McCann, who at the time of his death was on the RUC's most wanted list, told the soldiers: “You got me cold, I’ve no weapon.”

McCann’s death triggered days of riots in Belfast, and his funeral was attended by thousands of people.