New law protecting Northern Ireland veterans coming soon, ministers insist

A new law to protect veterans who served in Northern Ireland will be brought forward soon, according to ministers.

Wednesday, 21st April 2021, 3:45 pm
Updated Wednesday, 21st April 2021, 3:46 pm
Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, pictured during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons on Wednesday.

Johnny Mercer left the Government due to his frustration at a lack of progress over legislation to protect British veterans who served during the Troubles.

The former defence minister had been leading the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill through the Commons.

The Bill seeks to limit false and historical allegations arising from overseas operations by introducing a statutory presumption against prosecution, making it exceptional for personnel to be prosecuted five years or more after an incident.

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It was developed in response to legal claims made after operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but does not cover incidents in Northern Ireland.

Opening debate on the Bill on Wednesday, new defence minister Leo Docherty told MPs: “A Bill will soon come forward from the Northern Ireland Office that will protect our Northern Ireland veterans of Operation Banner and address the legacy of the Troubles.”

Conservative former army officer Bob Stewart, intervening, said: “That’s very good news.”

Mr Stewart said the current situation meant Northern Ireland veterans were treated as “second class” compared to those who served overseas.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson earlier told MPs that the Government would be “bringing forward further measures in due course” when challenged by the DUP to protect Northern Ireland veterans from “vexatious” prosecutions.

Downing Street later said details of the new legislation would be confirmed in the Queen’s Speech on May 11.

Mr Docherty went on to move a Government amendment to the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill to ensure genocide, crimes against humanity and torture were excluded from future legal safeguards for British troops fighting overseas.

It follows the House of Lords voting for a similar amendment to the Bill earlier this month.

Mr Docherty told MPs: “The United Kingdom does not participate in, solicit, encourage or condone the use of torture for any purpose and we remain committed to maintaining a leading role in the promotion and protection of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.”

He added that the Government had “listened to the very real concerns” expressed by MPs and peers and opted to make its own amendment, explaining: “These concerns are that by not excluding other serious offences, the Bill risks damaging not only the UK’s reputation for upholding international humanitarian and human rights law – including the UN Convention Against Torture – but also the reputation of our armed forces.”

Labour former minister Stephen Timms and Conservative ex-Cabinet minister David Davis questioned why the Government was retaining the presumption against prosecution in the case of war crimes, with both warning it could result in British troops being brought before the International Criminal Court.

Mr Docherty said “nothing in this Bill” would hinder war crimes prosecutions in this country, adding: “Removing any more categories from the Bill would unnecessarily weaken the reassurance to service personnel and veterans and we must remember it’s a high threshold, not a bar.”

For Labour, shadow defence secretary John Healey said Mr Mercer had been “a roadblock to reason” during the passage of the Bill.

Labour former minister Kevan Jones also said of Mr Docherty: “A long overdue promotion, a vast improvement to what went on before.”

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