Johnny Mercer (Plymouth, Moor View) (Con)
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I take your words of caution seriously. I have worked hard with the Clerks to make sure that what I say falls within those boundaries. I thank you for granting this debate this afternoon.
This is an incredibly important subject. I have long been an opponent of the treatment of elderly veterans who served in Northern Ireland during the period known as the troubles. I have always thought that if people were actually aware of what we did to these veterans, they would be outraged, and so it has proved. I do not intend to spend time on their experiences in this debate. I have tried to be their voice at every opportunity, and I will continue to do so. I am so proud of them—we are so proud of them—and this weird shame, fuelled by those trying to rewrite this country’s history during that period at that generation of security force personnel who sacrificed so much to keep us safe, must end.
Today, though, I want instead to speak about why we are here and how we got here, and I must do it here. Every comment on any inference of unfairness in the justice system in Northern Ireland is often met by aggressive and threatening behaviour from those who have built themselves a very comfortable life off the public purse by prolonging awful experiences for the families of those who suffered during the troubles and veterans who were caught up in the diabolical blood-letting that occurred during that time in Northern Ireland.
I want to be clear about the context of my remarks. I know that different groups will take whatever they want from what I say today, and that is fine, but I want to be crystal clear at the outset: I have never campaigned for anything other than fairness in how we deal with legacy in Northern Ireland. I accept I come from the position of defending the majority of veterans who served their country with great distinction and upon whom the majority of the unfairness in recent years has fallen. I have been repeatedly clear to all on all sides on the need to prosecute and hold to account those who, with our flag on their arm, chose to step outside the professional boundaries all operators know and understand and could not adhere to the standards and values on which the British armed forces are built.
I have been equally clear, whether it has been in my dissemination of the Iraq or Afghanistan legacy systems, or that of Northern Ireland, too, that I have huge sympathy for the victims of those conflicts who lost loved ones and seek redress—particularly those who lost loved ones as a result of state actions. It is inhuman to think otherwise. I always approach these things as if it were my son or daughter, my mother or father who had lost their life. The state’s intervention in these things must always adhere to the highest standards, whether in the use of force or in investigations.
While I will always be in awe of the stunning bravery and humanity of the vast and totally overwhelming majority of those who served the state in Northern Ireland, it is clear that not every action met those standards. If we are to progress, we must accept that, for it is an undeniable truth, and to deny it prolongs the pain of those who were affected.
However, we must be equally honest about how difficult it is satisfactorily to redress these issues through the courts today in the 2020s—so difficult, it is impossible in the overwhelmingly vast majority of cases. The standard of investigations into many of the cases were unacceptably poor. We must deal with the world not as we want it to be, but as we find it. Those deficiencies have been exploited by a small but very vociferous and very aggressive group in Northern Ireland who operate predominantly but not exclusively in the legal and political systems. They place the interests of both groups of protagonists, both victims and veterans, far below their own interests, be they financial or electoral, and have built a grievance industry on these issues, which serves no one but themselves.
It is inevitable, given the studious record keeping of the state in Northern Ireland when contrasted with the murderous chaos conducted by the terrorists, that this pursuit of political and financial gain was inevitably going to be conducted only one way: against those who strived night and day to prevent civil war in Northern Ireland, and not against those who woke up in the morning and made deliberate and conscious choices to go and kill women and children in pursuit of their aims. There will never be any moral equivalence between the two. The people of these islands will never accept any moral equivalence and those who push that narrative are doing the terrorists’ work for them.
It is also a fact that when the Good Friday agreement was entered into, it was decided that the price worth paying for peace in Northern Ireland was to permit those who had previously led and directed that terrorist activity to enter Government. This applied equally across the board. Thus the leaders of the IRA and loyalist groups entered politics, exercising control over the Executive and, crucially, permitting these extremists and their associates to use the powers of the state to prolong their grievances—and while doing that, of course, concealing their own murderous behaviour. They seek to prosecute the very security forces that fought them and thereby won the peace. All this is very predictable and very inevitable.
Where is the evidence? Well let me give the House a couple of examples. I will stick to what you said earlier, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will stick to facts that are in the public domain and only comment on public officials. I am determined not to rely on the parliamentary privilege you have granted today and I will be very careful.
It is a fact that when the five cases—none of which have resulted in a conviction—that came before the courts this year were decided on, the Director of Public Prosecutions in Northern Ireland was an individual named Barra McGrory. I make no assertions on his motives at all, but it is a fact that Barra McGrory was, previous to his appointment, a long-term solicitor in Northern Ireland for the republican cause. His family members were present at the peace talks in Northern Ireland at the behest of the IRA. He represented Martin McGuinness at the Bloody Sunday inquiry and he represented Gerry Adams over many years.
It was Barra McGrory who decided to prosecute soldiers A and C in April this year, the trial that precipitated my leaving Government. It was the same Barra McGrory who asserted soldiers A and C had murdered a friend of Gerry Adams, the murderer and terrorist Joe McCann. I say murderer and terrorist, because it was accepted in court that Joe McCann had shot 15 soldiers. It is clear to any straightforward individual that Barra McGrory should have never been involved in this case in any way. Indeed, soldiers A and C were duly acquitted earlier this year because there was no admissible evidence against them. The judge said he was “surprised” this had not been realised before trial, clearly referring to the prosecution.
The problem with evidence was again raised in the recent trial of my friend Dennis Hutchings, when Barra McGrory, in almost total isolation and against advice, decided to prosecute Dennis. I say in isolation, because since Dennis has died the senior police officer charged with reviewing the evidence in that case has come forward and confirmed that he was very clear that this case should not be pursued, only to be overruled personally by Barra McGrory in his role as Director of Public Prosecutions. This happens everywhere in Northern Ireland. The Police Service of Northern Ireland, one of the most stretched and tested police forces in this nation, is overseen by the Northern Ireland Policing Board. Sitting on that board, holding the PSNI to account, is Gerry Kelly, who in a previous life shot a prison officer in the head and was convicted of causing a series of explosions in London.
I could go on about the total infiltration of the justice and political systems in Northern Ireland by those who, given their convictions, in any other country would be prevented from going anywhere near elected office or public service and handed the levers of state to re-write history in their image. It is madness. It destroys lives and it is preventing Northern Ireland from really coming to terms with its past and moving on to the bright future that almost everyone I have met there over the last year is eager to embark on.