The sacrifice of those who served in the armed forces during the Troubles was remembered by the DUP conference.
Jeffrey Donaldson gave a speech in which he praised the “brave souls put their lives on the line for our safety and our security, and many of them paid the ultimate sacrifice”.
Sir Jeffrey said: “It saddens me at times conference to witness on our television screens and to listen to the debates on our radio, when that sacrifice is sullied by those who really ought to know better, when they are denigrated, when they are misrepresented”.
To applause, he asked how it can be right that “the men and women who put on uniforms to protect our entire community from the evils of terrorism are now being targeted for prosecution whilst the cowards, the cowards who caused so much loss and destruction, of this United Kingdom walk the streets free”.
The Lagan Valley MP said that the previous day he had been “proud to stand outside the Houses of Parliament, alongside veterans of Operation Banner, the longest running military operation in the history of the British army”.
The veterans were “calling on the government to act. To act to end this disgraceful witchhunt against them and their comrades”.
Sir Jeffrey said: “Yesterday I talked with Dennis Hutchings, a 77-year-old veteran, suffering from a terminal illness, who in his retirement has been dragged from his home, away from his family, and must now stand trial for the shooting of a civilian, some 44 years ago, in County Tyrone. No letter of comfort, or royal prerogative of mercy for Dennis Hutchings.”
To cries of ‘shame from delegates, Sir Jeffrey continued: “This aged and unwell man must now face the full rigours of a trial whilst the faceless sectarian murderers of Kingsmill, La Mon and Darkley and countless other atrocities walk the streets as free men.”
He said “Today we stand with Dennis Hutchings and we stand with those veterans outside the Houses of Parliament and wherever else the raise the voice of protest to safe to our government, this is wrong and it must stop.
“And we, this party, must use every influence that we have to stand up for those who made the ultimate sacrifice, for those who gave their service to this country and to those who need our voice now more than ever.”
Sir Jeffrey did not mention the legacy consultation, which is based on the Stormont House Agreement that the party agreed with Sinn Fein and other parties. Critics, many of them writing in this newspaper’s legacy scandal series, say the proposed bodies are weighted against state forces, particularly the RUC.
Sir Jeffrey mentioned that force by name for praise, as well as other organisations such as the RUC in which he served.
He said that he was giving “notice to the government that we will not rest until the armed forces covenant is fully implemented in Northern Ireland and our veterans have the recognition that they need and deserve”.
And he praised the reserve forces.