The new head of the armed forces has spoken out about Northern Ireland veterans being “chased by people making vexatious claims” of wrongdoing, vowing: “That will not happen on my watch.”
Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir Nick Carter praised the “remarkable job” done by the British Army in Northern Ireland and said groundless allegations against soldiers risked undermining the army’s fighting spirit.
And he promised that soldiers facing any investigation would be looked after “to the best of our ability”.
His comments come amid the prosecution of a number of former soldiers, including Dennis Hutchings, 77, from Cornwall, who is awaiting trial in relation to the fatal shooting of an unarmed man in Co Armagh in 1974.
Speaking at a media briefing at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire, Sir Nick said: “It is right and proper that if our soldiers have done something wrong then they should clearly be investigated.
“But only if they have done something wrong.
“We need to have standards, we need to have values that people are held against otherwise we will lose the moral high-ground.
“What is fundamentally wrong though is if they’re chased by people who are making vexatious claims – and that will not happen on my watch. Absolutely not.”
He added: “If you end up with a clutch of vexatious claims then that undermines morale and has the risk of undermining our combat ethos and our fighting spirit.
“I would absolutely stamp on any of that sort of activity.”
His comments came after his predecessor said he was “deeply uncomfortable” at the prospect of veterans facing investigation for actions which occurred during the Troubles.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, who stepped down as chief of the defence staff in June, said it was a political decision as to whether there should be a statute of limitations on inquiries into past events.
But he made clear that he was concerned at the way such investigations could play out.
Defence minister Tobias Ellwood broke ranks with the official government position when he backed calls for a time limit for investigations.
A consultation document issued by Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley on dealing with the legacy of the Troubles does not include provision for a statute of limitations, to the anger of many Conservative MPs.
But Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has pledged to look at “all options” to protect veterans from legacy investigations amid fears Second World War campaign survivors could be targeted.
Sir Nick said: “What we must try and remind ourselves about this whole Northern Ireland issue is actually what an extraordinarily amazing task the British Army did through 30 years in Northern Ireland.
“And we wouldn’t be in a position which we now are in if the British Army hadn’t done a remarkable job in getting us to that position – and I really hope that’s not forgotten in all of this.”
Sir Nick said service personnel facing investigation would receive as much help as they needed.
He continued: “The point I’d make is that we as an institution... are absolutely going to look after those people who are being investigated this way, to the best of our ability.
“A lot of people have got a lot of opinions about that and that’s part of the consultation - and I think it would be wrong for me to prejudge which direction it went in.
“I think it is sad this is happening.
“I think that of course there is a process of consultation going on at the moment and I don’t really want to prejudge where that consultation goes.”