DUP veterans motion prompts strong Commons support

The DUP is demanding measures to ensure British veterans cannot face probes into their actions during conflicts if they have already been investigated.

Thursday, 23rd February 2017, 2:58 pm
Updated Wednesday, 1st March 2017, 8:40 am
April 17, 1972, a British Army armoured vehicle makes its way along a barricade while on patrol in the Lower Falls area of west Belfast. AP Photo/Michel Lipchitz

The party’s proposed statute of limitation would apply to those who served in Northern Ireland, as well as other war zones such as Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The party’s defence spokesman, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, hit out at human rights lawyers for their pursuit of those who served in the armed forces, police and security services.

In an opposition day debate on historical cases in the armed forces, Tory former defence minister Sir Gerald Howarth accused Northern Ireland Director of Public Prosecutions Barra McGrory of issuing “a fatwa” to the media to suppress criticism of his treatment of veterans.

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MPs also accused Sinn Fein of attempting to rewrite the history of the Troubles, turning the focus away from the IRA.

Leading the debate, Sir Jeffrey said the time had come for the Government “to finally do something to protect the men and women who served our country”.

He added: “We believe the Government must give urgent consideration to introducing a statute of limitations for soldiers and police officers who face the prospect of prosecution in cases which have previously been the subject of full police investigations.

“We’re talking about cases that were previously the subject of rigorous police investigations.

“We’re talking about cases relating to killings and deaths that occurred before 1998, and I think the Government needs to look at this.

“It is wrong that our veterans are sitting at home, wondering if perhaps a third or a fourth investigation is now going to take place into their case, simply because some hot, fast-thinking, make-a-quick-buck human rights lawyer in Belfast thinks it’s a good idea to reopen this case.”

He added: “We believe that a statute of limitation should not only apply to Northern Ireland and Operation Banner, but consideration should also be given to other military deployments including Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan.

“This is not an amnesty, as each case will have previously been the subject of a thorough investigation.

“It is an appropriate and necessary measure to protect the men and women of our armed forces from the kind of witch hunts that, years after their retirement, have left many feeling that their service to this country is neither respected nor valued.”

Tory MP Sir Gerald turned his attention to Mr McCrory, who has previously been criticised for his former role as solicitor to a number of high-profile figures, including Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.

Intervening on Sir Jeffrey, Sir Gerald said: “Is he aware that the Director of Public Prosecutions in Northern Ireland has issued effectively a fatwa to news organisations across the United Kingdom that have the temerity to make any criticism of Mr McCrory, that they will be served with legal proceedings?

“Does that not illustrate the attempt that is being made by some in Northern Ireland to ensure that they get a soldier in the dock for something that happened 45 years ago?

“It is completely immoral.”

Sir Jeffrey added: “There are many in Northern Ireland who wonder why the justice system is so focused on what the state did and devotes so little of its energy and time towards what the terrorist did.”

Sir Jeffrey said that 90% of killings during the Troubles in Northern Ireland were carried out by republican and unionist terrorists, yet resources were being focused on investigations into former armed forces personnel and the police.

Former defence and Northern Ireland minister Andrew Murrison added: “Does he agree with me that the end result of all this is that Sinn Fein is winning the war?

“By which I mean it is managing to shift public opinion so somehow the Troubles become an issue to do with the actions of the British state, and not to do with the murderous barbarism of terrorism during that period of time.”

Sir Jeffrey agreed, saying: “Whilst the IRA did not win the war in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein are trying to win the propaganda war and rewrite the history of the Troubles.

“For our part, and let me be absolutely clear, they will not be allowed to rewrite the history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.”

Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire said there is no “moral equivalence” between soldiers who sought to uphold the law in Northern Ireland and “terrorists who sought to destroy it”.

He said: “For us, politically motivated violence in Northern Ireland was never justified, whether it was carried out by republicans or loyalists, and we will not accept any attempts to place the state at the heart of every atrocity, or somehow to displace the responsibility for where actions may lie.”

Mr Brokenshire said it is “appalling” when people try to “make a business by dragging our brave troops through the courts”.

He welcomed the decision earlier this month to strike off the lawyer Phil Shiner, who brought claims of abuse against British troops in Iraq.

He said he recognises concerns that inquiries in Northern Ireland are disproportionately to do with cases allegedly involving the state.

These concerns were echoed by Tory MP Sir Gerald Howarth (Aldershot), who said: “The disparity between the two is overwhelming.

“One were a bunch of terrorists hiding in the shadows dressed not in military uniform, the other trying to enforce the Queen’s peace in Northern Ireland.”

Mr Brokenshire said: “Any approach must be fair, balanced and proportionate. It must have victims and survivors at its heart and it must be consistent with our obligations to those who served, and in too many cases sacrificed so much, to bring about the relative peace and stability that Northern Ireland enjoys today.”

Labour frontbencher Stephen Pound said relevant claims must be fully investigated.

He said: “There cannot be a progress to the future without a complete settlement of the issues of the past.

“There has to be the closure, there has to be the investigation, there has to be the disinfectant of sunlight, to quote the phrase.”

Sir Henry Bellingham, Tory MP for North West Norfolk, claimed the reopening of cases was an attempt at “revisionism”.

“It’s trying to rewrite history,” he said.

“We are trying to look at what happened then through the lens of 2017, where we have a whole new emphasis on human rights and different standards.

“I find this perverse, wrong and completely unacceptable.”

He urged Mr Brokenshire to order all the relevant cases to be closed.

He said: “The only way of moving forward is for ministers to make it absolutely, categorically clear that these cases, these military cases, all of which have been investigated, will now be closed, subject to the arrival or the discovery of brand new compelling evidence.”

Fellow Tory Sir Julian Brazier (Canterbury) agreed: “Unless there has been new evidence uncovered it shouldn’t be possible after all these years to bring fresh cases forward.”

Tory Bob Stewart, a former Army officer who served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, said he feared a promise he gave to men under his command could be broken if cases are reopened.

Intervening, he said: “I am increasingly worried because 38 years ago, I gave my word to two men under my command after they had been involved in a fatality shooting that if they went to court and were charged with manslaughter and they were proved not guilty they would never hear anything again.

“I gave my word and it looks like my word may not be worth a fig if this continues.”