A Tory former minister has accused the director of public prosecutions in Northern Ireland of trying to “muzzle” Parliament.
Sir Gerald Howarth used parliamentary privilege to accuse Barra McGrory of “supporting” Sinn Fein.
He suggested a notice issued to the media warning against questioning the impartiality of prosecutors amounted to an attempt to “question the right of this House to support those soldiers who sought to bring about peace in Northern Ireland”.
Speaking during a statement from Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire on the political crisis in the country, Sir Gerald said: “To the extent that you have a locus in this matter, may I make a really fervent plea to you that you should protect the interests of former British soldiers currently being charged by the Sinn Fein-supporting director of public prosecutions in Northern Ireland with murder for an offence which took place over 40 years ago.
“Are you aware that it appears that the director of public prosecutions issued a notice to newsdesks not for publication, we would advise that if you publish an article which alleges lack of impartiality on the part of the director or any other prosecutor that the appropriate legal action would be taken and we will make use of this correspondence in that regard and in relation of claims for aggravated and exemplary damages.
“Is this not an attempt to muzzle Parliament and, indeed, to question the right of this House to support those soldiers who sought to bring about peace in Northern Ireland?”
Mr Brokenshire said: “I will not comment on any individual decisions and, indeed, justice is devolved in Northern Ireland but also it is independent and has its own processes that remain in place in an independent way.
“I hear very clearly the very general and very firm point that you make in relation to balance within the overall system and that is something that I am very keen to address.”
Last December, it was announced two former soldiers are to be prosecuted for allegedly murdering Official IRA commander Joe McCann in Northern Ireland.
The McCann case is thought to be the second military prosecution involving Northern Ireland since the 1990s.
Another former soldier, Dennis Hutchings, who is in his 70s and from Cornwall, was charged with attempted murder in 2015 in connection with the shooting of John-Pat Cunningham, 27, who had learning difficulties, in Co Tyrone in 1974.
Files on the 1972 Bloody Sunday shootings by soldiers in Londonderry are with prosecutors.
A Public Prosecution Service (PPS) spokesperson said this afternoon: “The PPS in Northern Ireland is wholly independent of all political parties and the political system. As such, we would never seek to influence political debate on any subject in any way.
“Equally, we must take all appropriate steps to ensure that our decision-making processes are protected from political influence from any source. This is necessary both to safeguard the integrity of prosecutorial decision making within the wider criminal justice system and to ensure that PPS staff are able to carry out difficult but important functions strictly in accordance with applicable law and the Code for Prosecutors.
“We are aware of Mr Howarth’s political viewpoint in relation to the prosecution of cases involving soldiers, which is not enshrined in law in the UK. The Public Prosecution Service only applies the law as it currently stands in Northern Ireland and does so without fear, favour or prejudice.”