Troubles veterans gather in London to protest Government 'witch-hunt'

Jonathan Mitchell

Thousands of veterans and supporters gathered in London to protest against an alleged "witch-hunt" of soldiers who served during the Troubles.

Ex-servicemen dressed in ceremonial ties and berets from several regiments gathered near Horse Guards Parade, four days after the nineteenth anniversary of the historic Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland.

The event follows simultaneous protests in Glasgow and Belfast, where tensions ran high on Friday morning over counter-protests by hardline republicans.

The demonstration was organised by British military campaign group, Justice For Northern Ireland Veterans (JFNIV), which criticises a series of high-profile prosecutions and investigations into alleged abuses by British soldiers.

The group claims the treatment amounts to an unjust "hounding" of servicemen compared with the British Government's treatment of former IRA members.

Among those who addressed the crowds adjacent to the capital's royal thoroughfare, the Mall, was former soldier Dennis Hutchings, who is facing a charge of attempting to cause grievous bodily harm in relation to a fatal shooting in 1974.

Protesters at the military veterans' rally at Horse Guards Parade (PA)

JFNIV organiser Alan Barry said he was pleased with the show of support from the estimated 3,000 people attending.

Mr Barry, who is a Northern Ireland veteran of the Grenadier Guards, said the group always agreed that genuine crimes should be prosecuted, but said the majority of investigations into alleged abuses were unfounded.

He said: "No soldier ever left barracks with the intention of committing murder.

"When we left barracks, we left barracks on patrol, and if we were fired at, we fired back."

Veterans gathered today on the step of the Horse Guards Parade (PA)

Mr Barry said the group's "next mission" will be to march on Stormont if the Government continued to pursue prosecutions.

After hearing from political activists and former soldiers, the gathered ranks of supporters arranged in a column and marched to the Cenotaph, where a rendition of the Last Post was played against a swell of bank holiday traffic.

Mr Hutchings told the Press Association he was "absolutely gutted" to be facing trial.

The 75-year-old, from Torpoint in Cornwall, said: "Of course I'm feeling nervous about it because you don't know what way it's going to go."