RARELY has brutal opportunism been so obvious in the politics of this benighted corner of the island.
The death this week of former Life Guards soldier Dennis Hutchings from Covid as he was being tried for the attempted murder of John Pat Cunningham in Benburb in 1974 has developed into a tawdry unionist attempt to direct the debate on legacy in the direction that they want it to go. That is to say, in the direction of stopping the ‘witch-hunt’ of ‘our boys’.
The latest public figure to become collateral damage in this desperate rearguard action to absolve the British state and its servants from the consequences of murder is the Director of Public Prosecution, whose future unionist leaders have called into question because of his decision to press ahead with the prosecution of Mr Hutchings. Calling for resignations is no longer a matter of ethics or right and wrong, it’s merely a ploy.
Not content with relying on the poor health defence of the former soldier, senior unionist figures have been claiming that no further substantive evidence against Mr Hutchings has been forthcoming, this despite the fact that the DPP has said that is simply not true.
But it is in the callous disregard for the family of the 27-year-old victim, a young man with the mental age of a seven-year-old, that unionism has most vividly displayed its cynicism. In reacting to the death of Mr Hutchings, and in extending condolences to his family and friends, the unionist parties quite deliberately omitted any mention of the man shot in the back by a soldier or soldiers to whom he posed no threat and of whom he was terribly afraid. The conclusion can only be that this was a deliberate attempt to turn this simmering pot of tension on to full boil in an attempt to energise a demoralised and disillusioned unionist electorate.
Amidst this deeply unedifying spectacle, the family of John Pat Cunningham have conducted themselves with exemplary dignity and restraint. The statement they issued yesterday on the matter, outlining in cold, hard fact the truth of the case, should be required reading for all of those sounding off so loudly and ignorantly about this case; but it won’t be, because to acknowledge the reality about what was done in that field in County Tyrone all those years ago to a terrified young man, and to acknowledge the ordeal that his family have been put through in the years since, would involve senior unionists coming clean about their behaviour and their motives.
The family statement adds: “Many people will have noted that much of the negative reaction to this case within unionism and in sections of the British press has been determined by the fact that John Pat Cunningham, who posed no threat whatsoever, was an Irish Catholic.
 “It is the status of the victim that has framed the reaction, not the detail of the case. Shame on them.”
Much has changed here since 1974, but too much has remained the same.