Eddie Copeland asks for new inquest into death of his dad in 1971

By Vincent Kearney
BBC News NI Home Affairs Correspondent

  • Published
John Copeland and Carol Copeland on their wedding dayImage source, Copeland family
Image caption,
John Copeland and Carol Copeland on their wedding day

Senior republican Eddie Copeland has asked Northern Ireland's Attorney General to order a new inquest into the death of his father.

John Copeland was shot by a soldier during rioting in Ardoyne in north Belfast in 1971.

At the time, the soldier claimed Mr Copeland was armed and had opened fire on an army patrol.

But a draft report by the Historical Enquiries Team obtained by his family questions that version of events.

The report also criticises the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) for failing to properly investigate the killing.

The Historical Enquiries Team (HET) was told the soldier who fired the shots could be interviewed because he is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Died two days after shooting

Mr Copeland was shot close to his home in Strathroy Park, Ardoyne, on 28 October, 1971, by a member of the Green Howards regiment.

The 23-year-old died from his injuries two days two days later.

He was the sixth civilian to be killed by soldiers from the Green Howards in the Ardoyne area that year.

Image caption,
Eddie Copeland is a high-profile republican from Belfast

Five members of the regiment had been shot dead in the area during that period.

An inquest into the killing in 1972 returned an open verdict.

The draft HET report says police failed to interview three civilian eyewitness who told the inquest that Mr Copeland was not carrying a gun when he was shot.

His name is not listed on the Irish Republican Army's (IRA) so-called roll of honour and he did not receive a paramilitary funeral.

Police also failed to interview the soldier who shot him and two of his colleagues who claimed to have seen what happened.

That was because of an agreement between the Army and the RUC at the time that only the Royal Military Police would interview soldiers involved in fatal shootings.

'Major failings' in investigation

The RUC was supposed to conduct all other aspects of the investigation, including interviews with civilian witnesses.

"What could have been done, and what should have been done, at the very least, was to have the soldiers re-interviewed as soon as it became apparent to the investigating officer that there was conflict between the accounts given by civilian witnesses and those given by the soldiers," says the HET report.

It says the agreement between the Army and police "brought about major failings in the investigative process, to such an extent that it rendered it ineffective".

The report also says there is no evidence of any scientific tests for firearms residue to establish whether Mr Copeland had fired a gun.

The soldier who fired the fatal shot, referred to in the report as Soldier A, is still alive and was traced by HET investigators who wanted to interview him under caution.

Image caption,
Carol Copeland says she does not believe Soldier A will face prosecution

Solicitors representing him said he was diagnosed with PTSD in 1982 and was unfit for interview.

However, the report adds that "when initially seen by HET in February 2011 the soldier did not inform them of this condition".

The report contains extracts from a book written by Soldier A, using the pseudonym Nicky Curtis, entitled Faith and Duty, which chronicles his time in the Army, and in particular his tours of duty in the Ardoyne area.

In it, he says the Army's rules of engagement outlining when soldiers could open fire "seemed increasingly like a joke to me".

The report has been welcomed by John Copeland's widow, Carol, who spoke to him while he was in hospital after being shot.

"He told me he was shot in the back, he said he seen (sic) the soldier and he turned, and your man shot him, he said he was shot in the back," she said.

"He had nothing in his hand and he wasn't a gunman, to me they were shooting anybody that night."

'Allowed to fester'

Lawyers acting for Carol Copeland and the couple's son, Eddie, have written to NI's attorney general asking him to order a fresh inquest to establish what happened.

Eddie Copeland, who was 11 months old when his father was killed, was himself seriously injured when shot twice by a British soldier in the Ardoyne area in 1993.

A well-known, high profile republican, in 1994 former Ulster Unionist leader and First Minister David Trimble used parliamentary privilege in the House of Commons to accuse him of being an "IRA godfather". It is a claim he has denied.

Image caption,
The t-shirt John Copeland was wearing at the time of the shooting in 1971

The Police Ombudsman met the family last week and is considering a complaint about the RUC investigation into the killing.

A previous application from the family for a new inquest in 2013 was refused.

But in their application to the attorney general, lawyers representing Mr Copeland's family say they believe the draft HET report provides new evidence to merit a new inquest.

The application was submitted in September and is currently under consideration.

'Allowed to fester'

The attorney general also has the power to refer the case to the director of public prosecutions or the PSNI Chief Constable if he believes there are grounds for a fresh criminal investigation.

Mrs Copeland says she does not believe Soldier A will face prosecution.

"I don't think I'll ever live to see it, but I would love to see it, and I would love the soldier that done it to be brought to justice because he took the life of a young man, that's all I would like," she said.

The campaign group, Relatives for Justice, which has worked with the Copeland family, has called for a police investigation.

The group's case work director Mike Ritchie says "it is extraordinary that such a grave injustice has been allowed to fester for so long".

"We want to see a proper independent police investigation and the soldiers responsible must be made accountable," he added.