British government promises to offer protection to Troubles veterans

Leo Docherty announces U-turn on Overseas Operations Bill

Former UK veterans minister Johnny Mercer. File photograph: Kirsty O’Connor/ PA

Former UK veterans minister Johnny Mercer. File photograph: Kirsty O’Connor/ PA

 

The British government has promised to bring forward a Bill soon to offer protection to former service personnel who served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.

Veterans affairs minister Leo Docherty made the announcement in the House of Commons amid disquiet among Conservative MPs that a Bill to limit the prosecution of soldiers for offences overseas would not apply to service in Northern Ireland.

“I would like to confirm to the House that 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,” he said.

Conservative backbenchers and DUP MPs welcomed the minister’s promise but Labour’s shadow defence secretary, John Healey, warned that any new Bill would have to respect the agreements governing legacy issues in the North.

“I am glad to have heard the new minister say today that the government promise legislation on Northern Ireland shortly. We will look hard at that, but when it comes to dealing with the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland, we remain committed to the only way forward, which must be based on the Good Friday agreement and, in particular, on the broad consensus reached at Stormont House with victims at its heart,” he said.

Mr Docherty announced a government U-turn on the Overseas Operations Bill, which would prevent prosecutions of soldiers for offence committed on overseas deployments after five years.

He agreed the statute of limitations would not apply to crimes against humanity, genocide, torture and war crimes.

“Although we can be absolutely reassured that our armed forces would never resort to acts of genocide or crimes against humanity, and that it would be extremely unlikely for individual members of the services to be charged with such offences, not explicitly excluding these offences from the Bill is clearly an omission that must be rectified, and I am therefore happy to propose that now,” he said.

Resignation

Mr Docherty was speaking on his first day as Veterans’ Affairs minister after his predecessor, Johnny Mercer, threatened to resign over changes to the Bill but instead was sacked by text message. Mr Mercer on Wednesday accused the government of betraying former soldiers who served in Northern Ireland.

“The reality is that for these people, their experiences after having served this nation, 50 years later, they are constantly being dragged over to Northern Ireland, and asked to relive their experiences,” he told Times Radio.

“People are drinking themselves to death. It is breaking up families, it is ruining our finest people. And all they did was serve at the behest of this government at the behest of the House of Commons, to uphold the rule of law and the peace in Northern Ireland. And yet now we’re happy to cut them off to people who want to rewrite history. And that is all that’s going on, you know that nothing’s changed here. But the politics, and for me, it’s a gross betrayal of people who signed up to serve in the military.”