By Anne Cadwallader
The father of a Catholic teenager killed by a British soldier left his retrial last week to embrace the family of another victim of the British Army.
The encounter came at the retrial of Paratrooper Lee Clegg, convicted of the 1990 murder of Karen Reilly, as it was being picketed by the mother of Peter McBride, who had been killed by two British soldiers in a separate incident.
Clegg had been promoted within the British Army on his release, after serving just two years of a life sentence, and is protesting his innocence.
Picketing the court was Jean McBride, whose 18-year-old son, Peter, was shot dead in 1992 and who was protesting the British Army’s decision not to expel the two soldiers responsible.
Sean Reilly, Karen’s stepfather, came out of court and embraced McBride, with whom he shares the experience of losing a child and seeing those responsible back in uniform after a short prison sentence.
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The Clegg retrial came within days of news that two British soldiers convicted of murdering McBride are to remain members of the Scots Guards regiment.
James Fisher and Mark Wright lost their appeal to the House of Lords, but were freed earlier this year by special prerogative of the British Northern Ireland secretary of state, Mo Mowlam, who also made clear her view that they should be expelled from the British Army.
The British Army Board, however, which includes the minister for defense, ruled they should not be expelled. The SDLP justice spokesman, Alex Attwood, called the decision a disgrace.
Philip McGarry, the chairman of the Alliance Party, also asked what a British soldier had to do to be deemed unfit for public service. Anger at the move was widespread in Northern Ireland, not least with the dead boy’s family, who said they had been told just how much a Catholic life means to the British government.
Peter McBride was on his way to his mother’s house in North Belfast carrying a T-shirt and loaf of bread for breakfast in September 1992 when he was stopped and body searched. He was given the all clear and jogged off down the road.
An eyewitness then heard the words "shoot the bastard" and McBride was shot twice in the back from a distance of 70 yards. The stricken man staggered on before collapsing and bleeding to death behind his sister’s house.
The soldiers were taken away to their barracks and the RUC was unable to question them for 10 hours. Judges at three court hearings ruled the soldiers could not have believed McBride was armed and that the shooting was premeditated murder.
They also concluded the soldiers had repeatedly lied about the circumstances of the shooting to try to exonerate themselves. Despite that, a high-profile campaign was waged by leading members of their regiment, along with BBC former war correspondent, Martin Bell, now an independent MP.
Much of the campaign was focused on the alleged fear the two soldiers had that they were in fear of imminent IRA attack when they fired the fatal bullets. In fact, the two soldiers knew that McBride had just been searched and posed no threat.
Meanwhile, Paratrooper Clegg won his retrial after new ballistic evidence was produced by his legal team, who say it shows he did not fire the bullet that killed Karen Reilly. He was released after only two years in jail of his life sentence.
Reilly was a passenger in a stolen car that was fired on by members of the Parachute Regiment in West Belfast in September 1990. The driver of the car, Martin Peake, was also killed.
The soldiers had left their barracks after reports of a joyriding car in the area and were lining both sides of the Glen Road in West Belfast when the car approached. They opened fire as it passed them.
Clegg was convicted of murder after an RUC man told the court that members of Clegg’s patrol had later deliberately injured themselves, by kicking each other, to give the impression they had been hit by a car busting through a roadblock.
After a campaign by former officers of the Parachute Regiment and right-wing sections of the British press, Clegg was freed after just two years, causing widespread rioting throughout the North.