James Bell

James Bell was shot dead by the British army in 1980

The family of an unarmed Catholic man shot dead by the British army have voiced their disappointment after a decision was taken not to prosecute the British soldier who fired the shots that killed him.

James Bell was killed outside the Greenvale Hotel in Cookstown, Co Tyrone, in the early hours of August 14 1980.

The father-of-four, who was not involved in politics, had just carried out a burglary at the well-known hotel when he was shot six times.

It is believed a total of 95 rounds were fired by five soldiers attached to the Royal Highland Fusiliers during the ambush.

Although he was shot at around 3.15am, the victim’s body was not found for a further two hours during which time no medical aid was provided.

Mr Bell’s brother Michael, known to his family as Tony, escaped injury but was later prosecuted for burglary.

Despite British army claims one of the men was armed no weapons or explosives were ever found.

The victim’s family was recently told that the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) has now decided not to prosecute the soldiers involved.

The PPS had considered the offences of murder, attempted murder and manslaughter.

Relatives of the dead man were told that the “evidence available is insufficient to afford a reasonable prospect of obtaining a conviction”.

The killing of Mr Bell had a devastating impact on his family and four young children.

In the years after his death three of his children were taken into full-time care, while a fourth went to live in England with relatives.

The three siblings who remained in Ireland were all brought up together by loving foster parents in Stewartstown, Co Tyrone.

The two boys and a girl only found out they had a brother when their sister turned 18.

Aged just two-and-a-half when her father was killed, Dolores Devlin has no memory of him.

She believes the British soldiers who shot him intended to engage with what they believed was an IRA unit.

“They were expecting to deal with the IRA and they sat back,” she said.

“They wanted to let them go ahead and do what they were going to do.

“They wanted to engage with them… they thought they were IRA personnel.”

In 2016 the then Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) referred the case to the PSNI, which was then re-investigated by the Legacy Investigation Branch (LIB).

It has now emerged that when the suspects were interviewed by the LIB they declined to answer any questions put to them.

Ms Devlin said the renewed police investigation had given the family hope.

“When the LIB handed that on to the prosecution the family was confident we were going to get some sort of closure,” she said.

“Justice is what the family deserve after waiting so long.”

Ms Devlin’s brother Mark Bell was just three-months-old when his father was killed.

He described the PPS decision as “very upsetting”.

He is also haunted by how his father was treated after he was shot.

“There was a witness who said somebody was calling out for help and was in pain,” he said.

“They are still unsure until this day what he died of, did he bleed out?

“He was not identified until 5.30am, when he was found.

“It was the RUC and they identified him straight away and they said this man was not a terrorist.”

Mr Bell’s children believe that pending British government legacy legislation, which is designed to stop prosecutions, inquests and civil cases, will end their chance of obtaining justice.

The PPS has confirmed to the victim’s family that a DPP file relating to the case was returned to the then chief constable in 1980 “with a request that the matter be properly investigated”.

A decision was later taken not to prosecute.

It is now known that troops had been involved in an ongoing covert surveillance operation at the hotel in response to information that a paramilitary group intended to plant incendiary devices there.

PPS papers confirm that the Bell brothers were observed as they broke into the hotel while they were confronted and ordered to halt as they emerged from the building.

It was later claimed one of the men raised what looked like a handgun before a soldier started shooting.

Prosecutors say one soldier opened fire with a submachine gun and discharged 30 rounds, which if fired in automatic mode, took just 3.3 seconds.

The PPS has confirmed that at the time the soldiers involved provided witness statements and “there is a strong argument that there was, by the time they were interviewed by police, a clear basis to suspect them of having fired unlawfully”.

Prosecutors say that rules in place at the time required that when someone was suspected of an offence by police they were required to caution them and give them an opportunity to consult with a solicitor, however, this did not happen.

They believe that the failure by the RUC to comply with the rules is likely to result in a court finding “it would be unfair for the prosecution to rely upon the accounts” of the five soldiers.

Fearghál Shiels of Madden and Finucane solicitors said: “Notwithstanding that soldiers deployed manifestly excessive force at two unarmed men, the RUC inexplicably did not treat those soldiers as suspects in any criminal investigation.

“Their woefully inadequate investigation in 1980 and afterwards has rendered any prospect of a prosecution now hopeless.”

The solicitor added that “the circumstances of James Bell’s death remain a disgrace and cry out for an explanation”.

Mr Shiels said “former police officers and HET personnel did not assist the recent criminal investigation”.

“The only forum which now offers the Bell family any opportunity to achieve the truth into how their father was killed is an inquest at which all of those state actors who have failed the Bell family since 1980 are compellable witnesses where their actions can be subject to rigorous examination and public scrutiny,” he said.

Mike Ritchie of Relatives for Justice, who has worked with the family, said: “It is hard to think of a clearer case than this where completely disproportionate force has been used by British soldiers.

“109 bullets were fired during the Bloody Sunday (killings).

In this case 95 bullets were fired by the five soldiers. It is incredible that they are not to be held to account before the courts.”

PPS Assistant Director, Martin Hardy said “there were a number of important evidential weaknesses in the case which included the fact that the soldiers were not investigated as suspects at the time”.

“It is clear that in this tragic case there was no objective justification for the shots fired, as James Bell and his brother Michael were not terrorists and the evidence indicates that they did not in fact pose a threat to the soldiers,” he added.

He added there was a body of evidence to “support the proposition” that the soldiers mistakenly believed the victim and his brother were planting fire bombs and that one of them was armed.

Irish News