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Dying Army veteran facing 'final years of total hell' as trial over Troubles killing 45 years ago looms

Dennis Hutchings
Dennis Hutchings, 78, on kidney dialysis Credit: Geoff Pugh

Dennis Hutchings is dying; his heart is failing and now his kidneys have packed up. Since last week, he has been on kidney dialysis, travelling an hour to hospital to spend the next five hours having his blood cleaned, wired up to a machine that is keeping him alive. Just.

But with his health failing, Mr Hutchings, a 78-year-old Army veteran, is also facing trial for attempted murder over the death of a man shot during the Troubles 45 years ago.

Mr Hutchings, a former staff sergeant in the Life Guards Regiment, is now facing the prospect of a trial held in Northern Ireland, interrupted every two days for him to attend hospital to be hooked up to a dialysis machine. 

The disclosure that a former soldier is still being dragged through the courts, despite his serious illness, will cause further outrage at a time when the Government is under pressure to drop the so-called ‘witch hunt’ of troops who served in Northern Ireland.

In an interview with the Telegraph Mr Hutchings, who lives in Cawsand, Cornwall, said: “It’s a bloody, utter disgrace they are still pursuing me. It’s disgusting. This is making my final years a total hell.

Dennis Hutchings at a protest in parliament against the treatment of Northern Ireland veterans Credit: Paul Grover

“The doctors say my life expectancy isn’t good. My consultant thinks I should be dead anyway by now.”

Mr Hutchings, who served 26 years with the British Army, had delayed dialysis, hoping to put off the medical intervention until he could clear his name at a trial.  But he can no longer wait after doctors concluded he had “progressed to end stage renal failure requiring dialysis”. 

He invited the Telegraph into his hospital room in Plymouth to highlight his serious illness. Mr Hutchings requires dialysis three times a week. The ex-soldier was the first veteran to be charged over deaths in Northern Ireland since police began looking at ‘legacy’ cases.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court denied him the right to a trial by jury, deciding his case will be heard by a judge alone - under rules introduced during the Troubles to deal with paramilitary and terrorist offences.

Mr Hutchings said: “I haven’t got very good life chances going forward because of all my health problems with my kidneys and my heart.

“I will have to go to trial in Northern Ireland and every other day go to hospital for dialysis. The dialysis lasts five hours, plus 20 minutes at the beginning to connect me up and 20 minutes  to disconnect. 

“They plug you up to a machine that takes the blood out of your body, cleans it and puts it back. It’s the job your kidneys would normally do but of course mine are just about finished. The dialysis also takes out excess fluids which is also what the kidneys used to do. If I don’t have the dialysis the fluid builds up and ends up in the lungs.”

He says that by being deprived of a jury trial, he is being treated ‘like a terrorist’.

Mr Hutchings was on patrol in County Armagh in June 1974 when John Patrick Cunningham, who was 27 and had learning difficulties, was shot and killed as he ran away. Mr Hutchings insists he fired in the air to try to get Cunningham to stop.

Prosecutors have admitted it is ‘equally possible’ a second soldier, referred to as Soldier B and who has since died, had fired the fatal shot. 

Mr Hutchings said: “There is no forensic evidence to show what killed John Pat Cunningham. Otherwise I would be charged with murder.”

He added: “I didn’t have any intention of killing Cunningham. I just wanted to get him to stop. I fired air shots. All I wanted to do was stop him and ask him why he was running. Our job was to protect people.”

Mr Hutchings had faced inquiries in the aftermath of the shooting in 1974, cleared of any wrongdoing at the time and told he would face no further action. 

But he was arrested in 2015 and taken to a police station in County Antrim for three days of questioning. It is not clear when a trial, due to be held in Belfast, will take place. Mr Cunningham’s family have welcomed the Supreme Court decision.

Lawyers representing the family have said: “This will be a fair trial before a judge and will be about justice not retribution.”

A 45-year saga 

June 15, 1974 John Patrick Cunningham, a 27-year-old man with a mental age of between six and 10, is shot as he runs away from an Army patrol near his home in Benburgh, County Armagh

September 1974 After a three-month police inquiry, Dennis Hutchings, who led the patrol, and two other soldiers are told they will not face criminal charges

March 2013 The Government apologises to Cunningham’s family but the Historical Enquiries Team, which was investigating all murders during the troubles, concludes there are “no new lines of enquiry to progress the investigation”

April 25, 2015 Hutchings, now aged 73, is charged with attempted murder and appears at Omagh magistrates court, having been arrested at his home in Cornwall four days earlier

June 6, 2019 On the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the Supreme Court denies Hutchings the right to trial by jury in a judge-only court introduced for paramilitary suspects during the Troubles

June 2019 Hutchings, now aged 78, begins kidney dialysis treatment and tells the Telegraph it’s a ‘bloody, utter disgrace they are still pursuing me”.