Aidan McAnespie killing: Ex-UK soldier David Holden avoids jail

David Holden handed three-year suspended sentence for manslaughter for the 1988 shooting of Aidan McAnespie in Northern Ireland.

Britain's former soldier David Holden leaves at the Belfast Laganside court, in Belfast
Holden is the first British veteran to be convicted of an offence related to Northern Ireland's decades of sectarian violence that ended with the signing of a 1998 peace accord [Paul Faith/AFP]

A former British soldier has been given a suspended sentence for killing an unnamed man at a military checkpoint in Northern Ireland 35 years ago.

David Holden, 53, was found guilty of manslaughter in November 2022 and given a three-year suspended sentence by Belfast Crown Court during his sentencing hearing on Thursday.

He is the first veteran to be convicted of an offence related to Northern Ireland’s decades of sectarian violence – commonly known as “The Troubles” – since the fighting effectively came to an end with the signing of the landmark Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Holden’s conviction came as the UK government sought to push ahead with controversial legislation to introduce a partial amnesty for former soldiers and individuals involved in the violence between mostly Roman Catholic nationalists supportive of a united Ireland and mostly pro-UK Protestant unionists, or loyalists, who wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom.

The Republic of Ireland’s government, victims’ rights groups and all of Northern Ireland’s political parties are opposed to the plans.

‘Dishonest explanation’ of events

Holden, who was 18 at the time of his offence, had admitted to firing the shot that killed 23-year-old Aidan McAnespie on February 21, 1988.

He argued, however, he had done so unintentionally after his finger slipped on the trigger when McAnespie passed a checkpoint in County Tyrone on his way to a Gaelic football match.

Holden said his hands were wet at the time. Three shots were fired in total.

In this Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019 file photo showing a Loyalist mural painted on a wall in east Belfast
Northern Ireland’s sectarian violence lasted about 30 years, from the late 1960s until the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 [File: Peter Morrison/AP]

Speaking during the sentencing hearing on Thursday, the court’s judge said Holden had given a “dishonest explanation” of the events to the police and then again in court.

“In his evidence during the trial, the defendant did not take the opportunity to express remorse,” the judge said.

“He could have done so, even in the context of contesting the case. That would have been helpful.”

‘An important part of the healing process’

During the trial, Holden had told the court McAnespie was allegedly known to security forces as a “person of interest” as he was suspected of being a member of the Irish Republican Army, or IRA, a paramilitary group pushing for a united Ireland.

Relatives of the victim said they would have preferred a custodial sentence, but added that they were comforted by the guilty verdict and the fact the killing had been given due legal process.

“The opportunity to have a court case where evidence is shared in open court – people can argue about it – that is an important part of the healing process,” said Holden’s cousin, Brian Gormley.

“That has given us some solace,” he said. “All families should have access to that.”

Overall, more than 3,600 people were killed and some 30,000 wounded before the 1998 agreement, which involved the governments of both the UK and Ireland and led to a power-sharing arrangement in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk said earlier this month that the UK government’s draft amnesty legislation appears to be incompatible with its international human rights obligations.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies