A fresh inquiry is being launched into how to protect soldiers from “the spectre of investigation and re-investigation” into alleged Troubles crimes.
It will be conducted by the MPs on Westminster’s defence committee, and has been spurred on by the government shying away from the idea of creating a de facto amnesty for former military personnel.
Announcing the new inquiry the committee’s chairman, Tory MP Julian Lewis, today repeated the call for such a statute of limitations to be considered by the government.
Among the things the fresh inquiry will investigate will be if and how such a statute of limitations can be made consistent with “the UK’s international legal obligations”.
The announcement has been made while the government is in the midst of a consultation on how to deal with the legacy of the Troubles.
Written submissions can be made to the defence committee’s inquiry from now until July 24, and the committee intends to take oral evidence when Parliament reconvenes in September after the summer recess.
It is thought the inquiry could go on until at least the early New Year of 2019.
As well as the Troubles, it will also explore the idea of a statute of limitations in general, covering other conflicts.
The committee is made up of three Tories (not including the chairman), five Labour MPs, one from the SNP, and the DUP’s Gavin Robinson.
Last year it had carried out an inqury called ‘Investigations into fatalities in Northern Ireland involving British military personnel’.
This concluded last April, and found that the instability of bodies set up to police Northern Ireland’s past, their lack of manpower, and questions about their independence all mean it “is clear that the status quo is not sustainable”.
It recommended “the enactment of a statute of limitations, covering all Troubles-related incidents, up to the signing of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, which involved former members of the Armed Forces” – with a further recommendation that this also be extended to cover the RUC too.
This would effectively be a criminal amnesty, but would be accompanied by a “truth recovery mechanism” so bereaved families could find out more about why and how their loved ones died.
Dr Lewis said the call for a statute of limitations had been “unanimous” among committee members.
In a letter to Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley today, Dr Lewis declared that its report from last year was being entered as its formal response to the current public consultation on legacy, which began on May 11 and ends on September 10.
In response to the committee’s findings last April, the government had said that it “intends to include” what it called “alternative ways forward” for dealing with the past as part of that consultation.
However, Dr Lewis has written to Mrs Bradley to say the committee is “particularly disappointed and frankly surprised” that the consultation which was put before the public “contains no such section”.
It continues: “Indeed, our concerns are such that we intend to return to the subject of statute of limitations... The government has a moral duty to defend those who served in the defence of our country, whether that was in Northern Ireland, Iraq or Afghanistan.”
WHAT IS IT GOING TO LOOK AT?
The committee said that the following questions will be paramount.
What are the reasons for investigations into former service personnel?
Following Iraq and Northern Ireland, which previous campaigns are likely to be the next target of investigations?
What are the steps that the Government should take to protect service personnel from investigations and prosecution for historic allegations?
What difficulties do the UK’s international legal obligations pose for any attempt at protecting service personnel?
Can a Statute of Limitations, extended to all previous conflicts, be designed in such a way as to be consistent with these obligations?
What should be the cut-off date for the Statute of Limitations?