29/06/2004 - 07:19:10

Army chiefs were wrong to allow two soldiers convicted of murdering a Belfast teenager back into the ranks, an independent watchdog said today.

Jim McDonald, assessor of military complaints procedures in the North, insisted that the decision to let Scots Guardsmen Mark Wright and James Fisher back in dealt a major blow to the forces’ reputation.

He said: “When the army are dismissing young men for smoking pot, the fact that it has failed to do anything with these two guys undermines its credibility. They should not have been reinstated.”

Wright and Fisher were found guilty of killing 18-year-old Peter McBride.

The Catholic father of two was shot as he ran away from a military checkpoint in the New Lodge district of north Belfast in 1992.

Claims by the soldiers that they opened fire because of suspicions that Mr McBride was carrying a coffee jar bomb was rejected and they were sentenced to life imprisonment for murder.

After they served three years behind bars, they were released and allowed to return to the army.

Amid nationalist fury at the decision, Mr McBride’s family has mounted a tireless campaign to have the pair thrown out.

Their case was aided by a Court of Appeal ruling that an Army Board which brought Wright and Fisher back in had not produced the exceptional circumstances needed to justify the soldiers’ retention.

But with no judicial order for the Ministry of Defence to act against them, the British government has resisted all demands for the authorities to intervene.

In his latest annual report, Mr McDonald said the row has attracted adverse publicity across the political divide “and thus undermines the credibility of Army employment policy”.

“I realise that the longer this case goes on, the more difficult its resolution would appear to be, but a resolution remains necessary in the interest of justice.”

A retired high court judge could head up an outside tribunal to deal with such sensitive issues, he suggested.

Appointed by the British government under the terms of the Terrorism Act, Mr McDonald’s report also slates military authorities for unacceptable delays in sorting out public grievances.

Overall complaints, such as low-flying helicopters and road-checks, rose slightly from 534 to 551 in 2003.

But while the overwhelming majority settled informally, none of the eight cases involving formal proceedings were resolved within the four-week target.

He said: “I am concerned that the military may not be giving quite the priority to replying to these complaints which such matters deserve.”

Blaming staff changes at Army headquarters in Northern Ireland, Mr McDonald added: “There’s no excuse for this.

“Eight cases is the smallest number we have had for a long time. If there had been 108 it could have been understood.

“But I know it will be put right in the current year because I have already had words with those people in administration at HQNI.”

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