The surprise sacking of the UK’s defence secretary means Northern Ireland has lost a powerful figure who was “very supportive” of protecting soldiers from prosecution.
That is the view from Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who said the DUP must now seek to build relationships afresh with his replacement Penny Mordaunt.
Mr Williamson was axed by Theresa May after No 10 embarked on a hunt to find the source of leaked information about discussions last week in the government’s National Security Council.
Mr Williamson had allegedly told The Telegraph Theresa May intends to dismiss spying concerns and let Huawei – a Chinese-run telecoms firm – build parts of the UK’s new mobile phone network (though Mr Williamson denies being the source of this leak).
Mr Williamson was chief Tory whip in the Commons in June 2017 when the DUP signed its confidence-and-supply deal with the Conservatives. Five months later he was made defence secretary.
Sir Jeffrey, an ex-UDR corporal and the DUP’s chief whip in Westminster, in charge of ensuring party discipline and loyalty, said: “I was sorry to hear Gavin Williamson had been sacked from the government – although we fully understand the reasons for that.”
Mr Williamson is “very fond of Northern Ireland and has been working closely with us” on things such as the military covenant and maintaining troops in the Province, adding the sacked defence secretary was in favour of “a strong presence of the Armed Forces in Northern Ireland”.
“Therefore his departure means we’ll have to build a relationship with the new Secretary of State for Defence Penny Mordaunt to ensure her support for those defence-related projects,” said Sir Jeffrey.
He further added: “Gavin Williamson was very supportive of the need to provide greater legal protection for veterans who face the prospect of prosecution in Northern Ireland and who served here during Operation Banner, and we’ll be picking up on this work with Penny Mordaunt, and I’m hopeful she too will recognise the need to provide adequate legal support and protection for veterans.”
When news broke last month that a soldier was facing a double murder charge in relation to Bloody Sunday, Mr Williamson issued a statement which read: “The MoD is working across government to drive through a new package of safeguards to ensure our armed forces are not unfairly treated... Our serving and former personnel cannot live in constant fear of prosecution.”
It is not clear exactly what this “package of measures” involves; when asked about this by the News Letter, and about whether the change of defence secretary will impact it, the MoD said only: “Work is still ongoing in this space, so there’s no update yet.”
The government dashed hopes of some veterans last year when it produced a consultation paper on plans to address Northern Ireland’s past, which did not contain a much-mooted proposal on a statute of limitations for veterans.
Further examination of Mr Williamson’s record shows that since becoming defence secretary he mentioned Northern Ireland four times in the House of Commons.
One was a tangential reference to NI businesses, another two offered general praise to NI’s contribution to the Armed Forces, but the most notable mention, in July last year, saw him confirm that soldiers convicted of Troubles crimes would serve a maximum of only two years in jail.
He said at the time: “We are keen to find a long-term solution to help all service personnel, from conflicts not only in Northern Ireland but in Afghanistan and Iraq, to ensure that vexatious claims are eliminated.”