Troubles legacy: Government accused of ‘rancid backstairs deal’ with Sinn Fein

Mark Francois, pictured in 2014 when he was an armed forces minister, said Parliament should not allow veterans to be scapegoated 'to pander to terrorists'
Mark Francois, pictured in 2014 when he was an armed forces minister, said Parliament should not allow veterans to be scapegoated 'to pander to terrorists'

Angry Tory MPs have hit out at the government following reports that plans to protect armed forces veterans from prosecution will not apply to Northern Ireland.

The government faced accusations of making a “rancid backstairs deal” with Sinn Fein, as MPs lined up to call for better protection for ex-servicemen and women from “vexatious attacks” and being pursued through the courts.

Following an announcement from Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt that British veterans would have greater protection against prosecution for actions on the battlefield, there were calls to extend the protection to service personnel who served in Northern Ireland.

Speaking in the House of Commons, Tory MP Mark Francois (Rayleigh and Wickford) dubbed proposals to reinvestigate every fatality during the Troubles from the late 1960s onwards as “IHAT mark two”, after the controversial Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) investigation, which was shut down over fraudulent claims of criminality by soldiers.

Granted an Urgent Question in the Commons, he said: “After the appalling, tragic events in Londonderry, we all want to see the Northern Ireland Executive re-established but that cannot be at the price of some rancid backstairs deal between the Northern Ireland Office and Sinn Fein IRA to ... establish the Executive.”

Mr Francois said Parliament should “not allow the scapegoating of our veterans to pander to terrorists”.

In response, Northern Ireland minister John Penrose said: “We will have no rancid political deals under my watch.”

He added that the idea of one was “not acceptable”.

Former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith called for a change in the law to improve the situation.

Mr Duncan Smith said: “I don’t know how I can honestly, with a clean heart, say that my government represents the best interests of ex-servicemen and women who have served their country.

“When natural justice collides with the law, we change the law.”

Mr Penrose responded, saying that the government was talking about bringing forward a bill in order to change the law to “put this right”.

Tory MP Bob Stewart (Beckenham) said: “I completed seven tours in Northern Ireland, all with the infantry or associated units. I lost many men, and I was involved in fatality shootings. I was investigated along with others. The investigations were thorough, aggressive, and bloody awful to go through.”

Mr Stewart said soldiers who had been to court and been proved innocent should not be asked to go through that again.

He added: “How the hell can our government allow such people to be possibly investigated again?”

Mr Penrose said there needed to be a situation where “unless there is some brand new piece of evidence that changes the situation”, people should not be pursued further through the courts.

Attacking the plans to set up a commission going back over every fatality in Northern Ireland since 1968/69, Mr Francois said – due to so-called “letters of comfort” given to suspected IRA killers – armed service personnel would be investigated but “the alleged terrorists will not”.

“So this entire process would be utterly one-sided because service personnel and members of the RUC GC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) would be liable for prosecution, those with letters of comfort are scot-free,” he added.

Mr Penrose said the “letters of comfort” were not “an amnesty from prosecution” and in future would not be “a body armour against prosecution” for suspected terrorists.

Mr Penrose also denied that any commission to reinvestigate British soldiers had been “demanded as a price in the talks” by Sinn Fein on bringing back the Stormont assembly.

Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Tony Lloyd said soldiers should be protected from “vexatious attacks”, but said no-one should be immune if they “wilfully” broke the law.