Veterans Commissioner: The demonisation of the security forces is the most painful issue for former soldiers
The Troubles conflict of the past continues to be as raw for many veterans today as when they served.
The lack of action over legacy issues has let down our veterans and society as a whole. We must not pass on the unresolved weight of the past to future generations.
Since my appointment as Veterans Commissioner, I have travelled throughout Northern Ireland listening to veterans and hearing first-hand what they experienced during military service.
Most of them are content with their lives and are extremely proud of their service. However the most painful issue for many, is the demonisation shown for all they did to protect society.
Death threats and intimidation are still prevalent for some, and as such the demonisation needs to cease, and together we all need to ensure it stops.
Finding a way to conclude legacy issues is absolutely key to allowing veterans to hold their heads high and go about their daily lives.
During the course of the Troubles some 3,500 people lost their lives. Of that 52% were civilians, 32% service personnel (1,100 deaths) and 16% were terrorists/paramilitaries. It is well documented that 90% of these deaths were caused by the actions of terrorists, with 60% caused by republicans and 30% by loyalists.
Of these documented deaths 360 cases of veterans actions are currently being investigated while we have little sight of any of the 650 unresolved terrorist murders in the PSNI’s Legacy Investigations Branch (LIB) caseload.
In terms of advocacy there are strong legal teams constantly chasing up cases against state forces and yet we have no similar body doing the same for veterans. This sense of imbalance and unfairness is rightly a concern for our veterans.
It has been intimated that very few cases will reach prosecution. Coupled with this assessment, the current PSNI Chief Constable has stated that to go through the LIB caseload would take at least 20 years using current resources.
The recent command paper, presented by the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, in addressing the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past, states that the Historical Enquiries Team had an annual budget of £30 million and 100 staff — after 10 years work, just three of the 1,615 cases it reviewed resulted in successful convictions of murder.
Additionally, the decommissioning of terrorist weapons has excluded evidence gathering capability against those who committed acts of terror.
The 1992 IRA bombing of the forensic laboratories has created further barriers to the effective investigation of those involved in terrorist acts.
This has added an additional level of imbalance against those who can be prosecuted for acts of active terrorism and to some extent left veterans as a soft target for investigation for doing their duty under extremely difficult circumstances.
For veterans the lack of balance is further amplified when we consider the 365 royal pardons (source: B. Telegraph, May 2 2014) and over 300 letters of comfort (source: PSNI LIB) given to known terrorists and the hundreds of convicted terrorists released under the Belfast Agreement.
Add the fact that veterans are 54 times more likely to face prosecution in Northern Ireland than Republican terrorists, (source: Matthew Jury, McCue & Partners LLP, News Letter, 5th May 2021) — the feeling amongst veterans is a distinct legal unfairness and bias.
There are many veterans who want justice for all the harm that has been done to them and their families, and when you consider the scale of horror and depravity of these attacks, you can fully understand their position.
Many veterans continue to bear the scars of service, often carrying lifelong physical and psychological health problems.
Of the many veterans with whom I have spoken, none of them wish for amnesty for carrying out their unformed duty under the most stressful of circumstances. Nor do they wish to ever be considered equivalent to those who carried out acts of premeditated murder and terror.
I want to see veterans treated with the respect they deserve as they stood against terrorism and all its horrors, and did so on behalf of all society in Northern Ireland.
The Stormont House Agreement of December 2014 does not command the support of all the political parties in Northern Ireland.
One aspect of the Stormont House Agreement was information retrieval and we know from the work Jon Boutcher and his team is doing as part of Operation Kenova (investigating the alleged activities of the person known as Stakeknife) there is a greater focus on families of those affected, with the overriding priority to discover the circumstances of how and why people died.
This type of process ensures families are kept to the fore in any investigations.
Over 300,000 service personnel from the mainland served in Northern Ireland during Op Banner, and they and their families need to be listened to and have a voice as well.
The UK government made a commitment to deliver legislation that would bring an end to repeat investigations of veterans who have already been investigated and exonerated.
The publication of the UK government’s Command paper sets out a range of proposals on how future legislation might be shaped and there is now a period of time for engagement and I will continue to talk and listen to veterans to ensure their views are represented in shaping any future legislation.
The Irish government also has a responsibility to fully engage, including with veterans, and ensure it meets its requirements on dealing with the legacy of the past.
Other important issues that veterans, and indeed, innocent victims have pressed upon me, is the need for an acknowledgement, from those paramilitary groups (both republican and loyalist) involved in the conflict that their actions were wrong and totally unjustifiable.
There is also a view that the continued glorification and commemoration of terrorism and individual terrorists only compounds the suffering of victims and does nothing to help in the healing process — I call upon Sinn Fein and others to reflect on this and stop retraumatising victims and survivors by supporting/organising such events.
Further, changing the 2006 definition of a victim within any proposed legislation, to exclude perpetrators, would sit well with innocent victims of terror and would finally right that wrong.
In conclusion, the system that is currently in place is unsustainable, imbalanced and does not serve the families of victims, survivors and veterans well or fairly.
Now is a time of opportunity where all interested parties can work together to find the best possible solution, so that the legacy of the past doesn’t continue to be the legacy of future generations.
This will take courage, understanding, clarification and indeed realism, but it needs to happen.
• Danny Kinahan, a former army officer, Stormont MLA and Westminster MP, is Northern Ireland Veterans Commissioner
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