Protection from prosecution for soldiers in North sought by Tory MPs

Backbenchers want army in NI to have same legal protection as for Iraq and Afghanistan

UK defence secretary Penny Mordaunt: on Tuesday will outline a proposal for a presumption against prosecution of former service personnel for alleged offences during campaigns overseas more than 10 years ago. Photograph: EPA

UK defence secretary Penny Mordaunt: on Tuesday will outline a proposal for a presumption against prosecution of former service personnel for alleged offences during campaigns overseas more than 10 years ago. Photograph: EPA

 

The British government is under growing pressure from Conservative MPs to extend new protections against prosecution for solders who served in foreign wars to those who served in Northern Ireland.

Defence secretary Penny Mordaunt will on Tuesday outline a proposal for a presumption against prosecution of former service personnel for alleged offences during campaigns overseas more than 10 years ago.

Downing Street said the government would propose a separate system for Northern Ireland after it published the results of a consultation on historical prosecutions.

“Under international law, any amnesty would need to apply to everyone and we will not countenance a proposal where amnesties would be provided to terrorists,” prime minister Theresa May’s official spokesman said. “Our position is also consistent with the Stormont House Agreement which says the approach for dealing with the past is to uphold the rule of law, be balanced and be fair.”

During a three-hour debate on Monday, Conservative backbenchers demanded that soldiers who served in Northern Ireland should be given the same protection as those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

‘Out to kill’

Bob Stewart was one of a number of MPs who had served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles who denounced the government’s approach.

“How can soldiers and policemen and members of the UDR be considered in the same light as terrorists? These guys went out to kill. We went out to save lives. There’s a difference in intention,” he said.

Johnny Mercer, who is rebelling against the Conservative whip in protest over the issue, accused Mrs May of cowardice in allowing a “basic injustice” to endure.

“When the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement went through and the settlements were reached, it was deemed that it was more politically tolerable for soldiers, servicemen and policemen to take the hit rather than other sides. And that is why we are where we are now,” he said.

“There has been a clear moral failure by this prime minister, by the NIO to deal with this situation. And I’m afraid it simply cannot go on.”

The DUP’s Jim Shannon broke down as he recalled the murder of his cousin, a member of the Ulster Defence Regiment, along with a Roman Catholic colleague, at the hands of the IRA. He said none of those who were responsible had ever been held to account.

‘IRA bomb’

“One of them blew himself up in an IRA bomb, he’s in hell today and deserved what he got. The second person died of cancer and there’s one person left. None of those three were ever made accountable,” he said.

The Scottish National Party’s Carol Monaghan said it was not true to say soldiers were being prosecuted while terrorist got off scot free. And Labour’s shadow Northern Ireland minister, Stephen Pound, said the debate required balance and candour and should not forget the victims of alleged crimes by soldiers.

“Are we seriously saying that at no stage at any time in the 30 years of Operation Banner, no person in British army uniform committed murder? I think that we all know that there were instances” he said. “Don’t forget that there were four soldiers convicted of murder during that period. One, the case was in fact downgraded to manslaughter. All four of them were sentenced to life imprisonment. All four of them were then released by royal prerogative after less than five years. And all four of them rejoined the British army.”