Troubles veteran case a travesty of British justice, says Tory former minister

Denis Hutchings
Denis Hutchings

The case of Northern Ireland Troubles veteran Dennis Hutchings is "a travesty of British justice", a Tory former minister has said, ahead of renewed calls to bring in an amnesty for the armed forces.

Sir Henry Bellingham said the highly publicised case of the 77-year-old former soldier, who faces prosecution over a Troubles shooting, had provoked public outrage and ran contrary to what Prime Minister Theresa May said on the issue a matter of months ago.

The senior MP will use a parliamentary debate to call for a so-called statute of limitations for all veterans wherever they served, to stop prosecutions over historical incidents.

"The case has been fully investigated on a number of occasions, and to drag the great-grandfather into court when two of the other key witnesses in the patrol of four have since died, and where memories have obviously dimmed, is a travesty of British justice," Sir Henry said.

"All of this runs contrary to what the Prime Minister said a few months ago and pledges made by various defence ministers. It also breaches natural justice and represents a tearing up of the military covenant.

"It is absolutely outrageous to try and claim some sort of parity between servants of the crown who behaved in good faith on the one hand, and terrorists and paramilitaries whose sole aim was to kill as many people as possible.

"Any other grown-up country in the world would find a way of moving on, so this Tuesday I will be calling for a statute of limitations for all veterans wherever they served."

Mr Hutchings, a former member of the Life Guards regiment who is now 77 and in ill health, is charged in relation to the fatal shooting of a man with learning difficulties in Co Armagh in 1974.

Mrs May has come under pressure from her own backbenches over the Government's failure to include a statute of limitations on security force prosecutions in proposals to deal with Troubles cases in the future.

Last week, Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley insisted there was "no support" in the region for a "Northern Ireland-only statute of limitations" as she launched a public consultation on other proposals to address unresolved issues from the past, including a new independent investigations unit and a truth recovery body.

Late last year, the Government indicated that a statute of limitations protecting security force members from historic prosecutions may be added to the consultation.

The prospect of such a move was met by a wave of opposition in Northern Ireland.

So while the decision to remove the contentious proposal from the consultation was therefore widely expected in Northern Ireland, it has nonetheless generated opposition both within the Cabinet and on the Conservative backbenches.

Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson is understood to be among ministers unhappy at the prospect of veteran servicemen being prosecuted.

The DUP and some military veterans in Northern Ireland made the point that any such statute would, by law, have to be extended to also cover former paramilitaries - something they branded unacceptable.

Senior DUP figures favour protections for ex-service personnel as part of wider legislation that focuses on all conflicts, including Iraq and Afghanistan.

Conservative MPs Julian Lewis, chairman of the Defence Select Committee, and former soldier Johnny Mercer have called for a statute of limitations that would cover security force members and paramilitaries suspected of involvement in Troubles crimes.