Troubles legacy: MPs and peers demand end to ‘witch-hunt’ of Army veterans

Scores of Tory MPs and prominent peers have demanded that the prime minister put an end to the “legal witch-hunts” of Northern Ireland military veterans.

In a letter handed to Theresa May at Downing Street, 150 Tory MPs and peers from several parties said a new Historical Investigations Unit would put “service and security personnel at an exceptional disadvantage”.

MPs at Downing Street to deliver the petition to Prime Minister Theresa May

MPs at Downing Street to deliver the petition to Prime Minister Theresa May

And they called on the government to put in place “lasting legal protection” for armed services and security personnel “wherever and whenever they serve”.

There has been outrage over potential legal action against soldiers for events linked to the Troubles.

A NI Office consultation paper, Addressing The Legacy Of Northern Ireland’s Past, was launched in May on how a historic investigation could be carried out.

The new unit is designed to take over the work of the Historical Enquiries Team and legacy work of NI’s police ombudsman that remains outstanding.

But the group of influential MPs and peers feel the current process is “completely at odds” with the government’s manifesto commitments to veterans, and they are demanding a “new approach”.

Many of those leading the campaign are former veterans turned MPs, and many senior military figures have also lent their support, including ex-head of the British Army Lord Dannatt, and four former chiefs of defence staff.

Richard Benyon MP, a former minister who served as a platoon commander in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, said he and many of his backbench colleagues are “no longer prepared to tolerate the legal hounding of those who served their country by those who are seeking to exploit them for financial and or political gain”.

He added: “We are calling on the government to halt this process and to come up with a solution as soon as possible. We know the vast number of members of the public are also in support.”

Lord Dannatt, who was a platoon commander in Northern Ireland in 1971, said the present system of historic and current investigations is “demonstrably not balanced fair, equitable and crucially is not proportionate”.

He also called for the government to “stand up” for its security forces and “not allow itself to be sleep-walked in line with the republican agenda”.

The peer added: “The British Army is a national institution which should be regulated under the authority of the Westminster Parliament, not allowed to become victim to the intrigues of Stormont.

“The welfare and duty of care towards servicemen and military veterans should be clearly championed by the secretary of state for defence and not left to the outcome of a consultation by the NI secretary.”

In July, more than 30 Tory MPs supported a backbench proposal for a 20-year time limit on reopening cases involving former members of the armed forces who served in Northern Ireland.

And, earlier this month, a cross-party group of Westminster politicians, including four former Northern Ireland secretaries, urged Karen Bradley to draw a line under the Province’s past.

Lord Hain and seven other signatories advised prioritising compensation for victims over investigation.

The past has been one of the sticking points between the DUP and Sinn Fein through several rounds of failed talks to agree the return of power-sharing at Stormont.

The pursuit of former soldiers has also sparked outrage among veterans, particularly following the arrest of pensioner Dennis Hutchings.

Mr Hutchings, a 77-year-old former member of the Life Guards regiment, is accused in relation to the fatal shooting of a man with learning difficulties in 1974.

The Daily Express reported on Monday that he is refusing treatment for kidney disease for fear it would get his case dismissed on medical grounds.

Mr Hutchings, from Cawsand in Cornwall, is due to stand trial in Belfast charged with attempted murder and attempted grievous bodily harm with intent. He denies the charges.

John Pat Cunningham, 27, was shot in the back in Co Armagh as he ran away from an Army patrol. His family argued that he ran across a field because he feared men in uniform.