I advise Members that under the terms of the House’s long-standing resolution on matters sub judice, they must not refer to specific cases that are currently subject to legal proceedings, including in coroners’ courts. Members may, of course, speak to the general issue.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 243947 relating to immunity for soldiers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I extend my gratitude to Karen Webb-James for starting this e-petition, which has attracted over 146,000 signatures, including 238 from my constituency, and calls on the Government not to
“prosecute the military for its work in Northern Ireland”,
and to prevent
“criminal investigations after a period of time.”
I am pleased to address this topic and the sentiment behind this e-petition. Through the Defence Committee’s 2017 report, “Investigations into fatalities in Northern Ireland involving British military personnel”, and written evidence to the Committee from individuals such as Professor Richard Ekins, we have learned more about the extent of this issue, and we have discovered that there could easily be prosecution of our armed forces personnel who were involved in other, more modern, theatres of conflict. I know that right hon. and hon. Members will want to refer to those instances. I pay tribute to all those who have served in operations, especially those who have died in the service of our country.
Given the nature of the petition, I am concentrating my remarks on the situation in Northern Ireland; I hope hon. Members will see that there is good reason. In recent days, the Government have unintentionally drawn a distinction, when it comes to immunity, between those who have served in Northern Ireland and those who have served in other theatres. I hope to address that lack of parity later.
The Government responded to the e-petition on 1 April, stating:
“This Government is unequivocal in our admiration for the Armed Forces whose sacrifices ensured terrorism would never succeed. However, our approach to the past must be consistent with the rule of law… This Government will always salute the heroism and bravery of the soldiers and police officers who served to protect the people of Northern Ireland, and in too many cases paid the ultimate price. It is only due to the courageous efforts of our security forces that we have the relative peace and stability that Northern Ireland enjoys today. Our security forces ensured that Northern Ireland’s future will only ever be decided by democracy and consent, and never by violence. Over 250,000 people served in Northern Ireland during Operation Banner, the longest continuous military deployment in our country’s history, the vast majority with courage, professionalism and great distinction. This Government will never forget the debt of gratitude we owe them.”
Despite the Government’s unwavering gratitude to our armed forces, there remains a disproportionately high, and arguably unnecessary, number of investigations in the light of the number of killings attributed to the armed forces in Northern Ireland. In a speech in this Chamber in 2017, the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) said:
“The reality today is that 90% of the resources of the legacy investigation branch…are devoted to investigating 10% of the deaths during the troubles, and 10% of its resources are devoted to investigating 90% of the deaths.”—[Official Report, 10 January 2017; Vol. 619, c. 68WH.]
This e-petition seeks to address that issue.
My hon. Friend has hit on a key point. Members of the armed forces and security forces went out every day during Operation Banner to prevent people being killed. They had to make extraordinary life-and-death decisions at a moment’s notice. The terrorists went out to kill and maim; that was their purpose. We have to remember that 90% of the deaths in Northern Ireland during the troubles were at the hands of terrorists.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The armed forces were there from the outset to protect peace; the terrorists were there to inflict harm on people. That is an important distinction to make.
I hold veterans and serving members of our armed forces in the highest regard. I hope and believe that that sentiment is shared across this Chamber. In my short tenure as the Member of Parliament for Southport, I have sought to spend a considerable proportion of my parliamentary time raising issues pertinent to those who have served or continue to serve in our armed forces. I am glad to do so again today, although I think that many hon. Members would agree that this issue should have been resolved some time ago.
I welcome this debate, and I thank all hon. Members from across Parliament who are present, including my right hon. and hon. Friends. I am also delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer). His perseverance and unrelenting dedication to our veterans has encouraged the Government to act more swiftly on this issue. While policing and justice issues in Northern Ireland are now ordinarily devolved to the Northern Ireland Executive—or, in their absence, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—the legacy of the troubles remains a matter for this Parliament and the UK Government to contend with. To do justice to the issue, we must meet it with the upmost respect and candour.
In a debate on this topic last May, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham) reminded us of the incredibly high number of lives lost during the troubles in Northern Ireland: an astonishing 3,500 people were killed in those terrible years. Let us break that figure down. Approximately 3,000 of those victims were killed by non-state forces—republican terrorists and loyalist paramilitaries. Some 370 were killed by security forces. A total of 722 members of the security services— mainly British soldiers—were also killed. Twice as many soldiers were killed by terrorists as terrorists were killed by soldiers. That should give us British citizens tremendous confidence in our armed forces. It is proof of the commendable restraint shown by the British Army and the Police Service of Northern Ireland at that time.
All those killings, bar a few outstanding terrorist cases, have been investigated fully—often repeatedly. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), a distinguished and gallant veteran, said last week in an urgent question on the subject that he had been through the process more than once. He is not alone in that. Despite the investigations, matters are complicated further by subsequent developments, poor record keeping, the passing of former servicemen and women, the hundreds of royal pardons that have been granted over time, and the over 500 prisoners released on licence until the year 2000.
The entire process so far appears to have been rigged against our armed forces and in favour of terrorist groups. That does not provide closure or justice. Terrorists and illegal paramilitary forces cannot and must not be viewed or treated as being equal to the police and armed forces, as if they were somehow standing on shared moral ground; they never have done, and never will. However, the legal framework would have us believe that the words “terrorists” and “servicemen and women” should be treated equally in the context of Northern Ireland—they should not.
Having said that, I appreciate the need for closure felt by everyone involved in those tragic years of our great nation’s history. Likewise, I respect the implications of the Good Friday agreement, and understand the pain and suffering endured by the victims’ families, who yearn for justice. Where crimes have been committed—they do happen, albeit rarely—the rule of law should be applied, those involved should be investigated, and prosecutions should be forthcoming. However, let us be clear: in the midst of conflict, those instances are the exception, not the rule. The overwhelming majority of our servicemen and women believe in the preservation of life and the rule of law. They swore to uphold those values in making their vow to the Queen and the people of the United Kingdom when enlisting into the armed forces, and they believe in those values today.
Let us look at some key historical facts. Operation Banner was the longest military engagement in the history of the British Army. During the troubles, as I mentioned, there were more than 3,500 deaths, some 60% of which were murders carried out by republican paramilitary terrorists, mainly from the Provisional IRA. Approximately 30% were carried out by loyalist paramilitaries. British and Irish state forces were responsible for 10% of the deaths; almost all of those occurred as a result of entirely lawful or yellow-card actions, when soldiers and police officers were instructed to act to preserve life and uphold the virtues of the rule of law.
Another stark fact about that period is that a member of the security forces in Northern Ireland was three times more likely to be killed than a member of the IRA, which contrasts with today’s theatres of war, where members of terrorist organisations are three times more likely to be killed than members of the armed forces. That point alone depicts the unrelenting bravery of those who served in Northern Ireland.
Let there be no doubt that paramilitary terrorists were responsible for almost 90% of deaths in Northern Ireland, including more than 3,000 unsolved murders. If we consider that in comparison with the 10% of deaths that have been attributed to those who were serving with the armed forces at the time, we may begin to understand the relentlessness faced by those victims and their beloved families, and the burning injustice faced by our veterans who are being routinely investigated.
The Good Friday agreement, which was hailed as a triumph in 1998, advanced long-term peace in Northern Ireland. For some, however, it may also have inadvertently equalized those who sought to defend the Crown and those who sought to bring it down in the most violent fashion, and have tilted the scale in favour of the terrorists by authorising the early release from jail of many—too many.
Terrorists killed more than 1,000 servants of the Crown involved in Operation Banner. The victims were members of several armed forces divisions, such as the Army, the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force, the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Irish Regiment. Police forces, including the Royal Ulster Constabulary and other constabularies, also lost hundreds of lives at the hands of the terrorists. We cannot do anything to bring those men and women back to their families and loved ones, but we can do something to honour them: ensure that justice is done.
What did the UK Government do instead? They went to explicit lengths to show mercy to people who had been found guilty of the most heinous crimes. One of many examples is Sean Kelly, the infamous Shankill bomber. Prior to 1998, Kelly had been found guilty of murdering seven people and condemned to nine life terms in prison. As it turned out, he barely served seven years.
Despite efforts to investigate the unsolved murders that occurred during the troubles in Northern Ireland, of which the Historical Enquiries Team set up by the Chief Constable is the most prominent, it is saddening and frustrating to see how little real effort has been put into prosecuting the perpetrators of approximately 90% of the crimes committed, while those who fought to preserve the state have been subjected to multiple investigations. Some of those investigations started more than four decades ago and have been opened and closed multiple times, with no consideration for the old age and welfare of those being investigated.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the powerful case he is making for Op Banner. Does he agree that central to the debate must be the fact that the Secretary of State for Defence is making an oral statement tomorrow in the House of Commons, as I understand it, which will set out a 10-year statute of limitations on all operations around the world, apart from Northern Ireland? Can we deduce from the fact that the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, is answering the debate that Northern Ireland is excluded from tomorrow’s statement because the Northern Ireland Office insisted on that? Would it not be better if a Defence Minister were here to answer on behalf of our soldiers?
My hon. Friend is right. The Ministry of Defence should take the lead on this matter, so as to defend our armed forces as they gallantly defend us.
If the Government used the same tenacity to pursue the real criminals, it would go a long way towards reassuring former and current loyal servants of the Crown, and their family members, that their service had not been and will not be forgotten. The state asked an awful lot of those men and women at the most crucial and bloody time—a time when its existence was in jeopardy. They were willing and ready to answer that call. As representatives of the state, we should do everything in our power to ensure that those people do not live the last years of their lives in fear of repercussions for protecting our citizens, our values and our United Kingdom.
Last week, the Secretary of State for Defence announced that British troops and veterans will be given stronger legal protections against prosecution. Those protections will prevent investigation of actions on the battlefield after 10 years, except in exceptional circumstances, so that there are no repeated or unfair investigations. Although I welcome her announcement, I was disappointed that, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) said, the protections will exclude those involved in Operation Banner.
The important thing is that the Secretary of State is introducing a Bill to bring in the 10-year statute of limitations, and that Bill will, of course, be amendable. Last week, in answer to my point of order, the Speaker of the House of Commons made it plain that the Bill could be amended to include Northern Ireland. Will my hon. Friend join me in tabling amendments to the Bill, so that the Op Banner soldiers are included with everybody else?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. That is the right thing for us to do. As I look around the room, I see many hon. Members who will answer that clarion call to amend the legislation so that Operation Banner in Northern Ireland is included. That should not have had to be done in an amendment, however; it should be in the Bill already. It is the Government’s duty to care for and look after our precious veterans, who stood on the frontlines to protect us from some of the bloodiest enemies our nation has ever encountered.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech. We all have veterans in our constituencies who are in their 70s and have received paperwork from the Ministry of Defence that they are too scared to open, because they are worried about what it means, and they do not know what will happen afterwards. This is about people who put their life on the line, as he said, but who now do not feel that they have support from their Government or community. The Government need to act.
The hon. Lady makes an important point; we must foster a true caring environment for our veterans. They should not be hounded in old age, and sometimes illness, by the thought that there could be a letter or a knock at the door that will mean them having to answer for something that happened many years ago.
I say to the Government: enough with the hesitation, and enough with the special provisions that, in the name of supposed human rights violations, have caused our country’s dereliction of its sacred duty of care. We cannot let brave former personnel spend the rest of their life in fear of yet more investigations, more trials and more prosecutions. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) rightly proposed that a statute of limitations be introduced to shield soldiers and police officers from further scrutiny once their names had finally been cleared by our justice system; I am pleased that the Government are looking at that. That is what a motion that he brought to the House would have achieved, and that is what the hundreds of thousands of people who signed the petition want us to do.
Servants of the Crown involved in Operation Banner have had to endure far too much because of the hesitation shown by Governments from 1998, whether in the name of political correctness or out of fear of opening old wounds. It is our duty to put an end to any wavering, and to be decisively proactive on behalf of those who bravely put their life on the line out of a sense of duty and love of country. Indeed, it falls to us Members of Parliament, and to the Government, to protect those who gave their life to protect us.
It is a pleasure to be called so early in the debate. I take your guidance about not speaking about individual circumstances, Mrs Moon. My purpose is to give a voice to the many veterans in Plymouth who have attended my surgeries and stopped me in the street to raise their concerns about what is happening. There is a real sense of betrayal among many veterans with regard to what is going on with veterans of Northern Ireland—not just among those who served there, but among those who wore a uniform anywhere. They feel that an attack on one has become an attack on all.
Those veterans have asked me to pass on their genuine concerns. In particular, they feel that the words spoken to date by the Prime Minister and by Government Ministers have been hollow—they were not meant. There is a sense that when veterans are needed for electoral purposes, there are lots of warm words about supporting them, but when those people who served our country need guidance and wrap-around support from their Government—the people who sent them into conflict and harm’s way in the first place—that is absent.
I would be grateful if the Minister set out answers to some of the questions that I have been asked. The first is about what new evidence means. A number of the reasons given for going after veterans relate to new evidence, but the definition of that is something that many of the veterans who have spoken to me struggle to understand. When new evidence from the past does not look that new or evidential, what does it mean now? That is not a matter of prejudging the guilt or otherwise of any individual but of understanding the legal framework within which any decisions may be taken.
What support are the Government—be it the Ministry of Defence or any other part of Government—providing to veterans to enable them to gain support? A number of the veterans who have contacted me are very old: something that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) also mentioned. In any other circumstance, we would be providing support for them because of their vulnerability. Strength and stoicism in this matter cannot be given as a granted because of the age of the veterans and the severity of what is taking place.
I have not met a single veteran who has said that someone who breaks the law should not be prosecuted. Indeed, every single one of them has reinforced to me, time and again, that the UK armed forces are the very best in the world because they uphold the law, are trained in what is right and wrong, and understand what is a legal order and what is an illegal one. That sense of training and duty is very important.
Why are the decisions on this matter not going up the chain of command? Veterans have raised a question about how those being looked at now, in the round, are part of a command structure. At what point does the command structure come into play—those politicians and senior officers who may or may not have given orders or set an engagement framework within which anyone serving in Northern Ireland will have operated?
I intervene simply because the command structure does not really come into it. The decision is in the yellow card. Individuals have to make their own decisions about opening fire; there is no time to turn around and ask for permission. The decision can sometimes be made very quickly. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about the command structure being involved, but opening fire is a personal decision and the person who makes it has to stand by it and justify it. That is why it is so important to train very hard on the yellow card.
Given his service to the country and experience in Northern Ireland, the hon. Gentleman knows this issue better than many others in this place. Veterans have raised the question with me about how decisions are made because sometimes there is a sense that not everyone who was involved in the operation is being pursued. However, I entirely agree with and understand the hon. Gentleman’s point.
The sense that I have been asked to communicate, and I do so for the final time now, is that many veterans who served in Northern Ireland, and many who did not, feel betrayed and let down by the Government. They hope that whatever comes out of the situation and the debates—
It all comes down to a sense of fairness, for the victims, their families, everyone who lived through the troubles in Northern Ireland and all those who continue to live with the consequences, but also for the veterans and their families: so that they know exactly where they stand and why. It comes back to whether more effort needs to be put into peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, into talking, while ensuring that there is no prosecution at the same time. It is down to fairness for the families—for everybody.
I agree. Fairness is an important part of the solution to dealing with a sense of betrayal. Justice needs not only to be done but to be seen to be done and, at the moment, there is pain in many different communities.
Everyone in this House welcomes and values the progress made in Northern Ireland through the Good Friday agreement. I would like more Members to read that agreement; I sense that an awful lot of debate takes place without its words having been read. However, there is an opportunity here for Ministers—be they from the Northern Ireland Office or, especially, the Minister of Defence—to really understand the concerns of those who served in Northern Ireland and, equally, those who did not but just feel that something is not right here. I would be grateful if the Minister addressed the concerns raised, especially about the definition of new evidence.
I served for more than three years in Northern Ireland, on seven operational tours. I first went there in 1970. Sadly, I lost six men who were directly under my command, and many more in my unit. Almost 50 of the men under my command were wounded—35 in one incident. I have been involved in several fatality shootings. I think I have the right to speak for Northern Ireland veterans today.
We were sent to Northern Ireland by our predecessors. The Glosters were sent in, I think, August or September 1969. We were sent to save lives, to look after people. We were given a yellow card, which was approved by Parliament, and that yellow card told us what we could and could not do under fire. We trained very hard on it. We memorised it. We rehearsed it. Colleagues are nodding their heads. We practised on exercise incidents so that we would learn.
Army training screams out against opening fire in peacekeeping. That decision is an incredibly difficult one to make and it is very difficult in an urban environment because soldiers are thinking, “If I open fire, who else am I going to hurt?” How many times did I see instances of our soldiers not firing when under fire because of the possibility that children or women would be caught in the crossfire? That tactic was used by our opposition. There is huge inhibition to opening fire, and the decision to do so has to be made in milliseconds by our young men. By the way, I worked with some young women on operations, but not in the infantry. When that decision and those actions are judged, it is in some courtroom, warm and nice with time and lawyers. A judgment is being made about a decision taken by someone who is panicking like hell.
My right hon. Friend is right: it was taken a long time ago. We must remember that most of our young men were 18 or 19 years old. They were kids. My soldiers looked so young that they could have been in year 9 or 10 at school.
Firearms were used as a last resort. On the yellow card it says, in capitals:
“FIREARMS MUST ONLY BE USED AS A LAST RESORT”.
That was drilled into us. A challenge had to be given before someone could open fire, unless doing so, it says on the yellow card, would increase the risk of injury or death to others or oneself. That challenge was clear: “Army. Stop or I fire.” Again the yellow card is specific: opening fire was allowed only if lives were endangered by someone firing a weapon at a soldier or someone they were protecting, or if someone was planting or throwing an explosive device—the card specifically mentions petrol bombs. One third of my platoon were injured by petrol bombs in 1970 on the streets of Londonderry, at the Rossville Street/William Street junction—one third burned, and we had not opened fire at all. And nor did we. If someone is driving at a soldier, that soldier is allowed to open fire. Finally, if a terrorist has killed someone or is in the act of killing someone, a soldier can open fire if they cannot make an arrest in any other way.
We could only open fire with aimed shots, not with machine gun fire; we did not do it automatic. We had to use “the minimum force”—that, again, is on the yellow card—and we had to be careful that we did not hit innocent people. That little phrase stopped so many British soldiers from firing, particularly in Belfast on the Falls Road.
Does my hon. Friend recall, as I do, it being drilled into our heads that a 7.62 round would travel through two levels of brick and kill something on the other side? That often gave our soldiers cause for hesitation, even when thinking about returning fire.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Most men on the ground were petrified that, by accident, they would kill an innocent person. That was a factor in the decision to open fire, in those milliseconds.
I know what happens in the case of a fatality, as I was involved in such an investigation. The Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Special Investigation Branch of the Royal Military Police hauled us over the coals. Even though we had just acted to save our life or someone else’s life, we were treated as though we had done something wrong. Soldiers are separated, questioned individually and kept in isolation. They are not given assistance and they have a very uncomfortable interview. The weapons they used are seized and checked; all the ammunition is counted, and they have to account for every single round. That is what happened to our men, and some women, when they were involved in fatality shootings.
Detailed reports were produced. The problem is that those reports are usable by the Director of Public Prosecutions; they are dug up, and some people go to court. In 1978, I had a very uncomfortable interview with two soldiers who were working with me. They were not infantry. I told them they had to go to court and would be charged with manslaughter. They went ballistic. They said, “Sir, you bloody officer. You are actually going to ditch us. You are going to abandon us; you are going to let us go to a court.” I felt rotten, because I agreed with them, but the Royal Ulster Constabulary told me that I had to instruct those soldiers to go to court and I had to support them, because if they went to court on a charge of manslaughter and that court proved there was no case to answer, the case would be dismissed and they would never hear about it again. Well, will they?
We always acted within the law. If we did not, as we have heard already, we should be prosecuted, but this card was given to us by our predecessors in this place as a protection, as well as instructions as to how we should act. Terrorists just disappear. There is no record of what they have done; they just kill. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) has said, we must not judge them in the same way as soldiers. It is so easy to go after men in uniform who went out at our bidding and acted within the law, with everything written down. It is so much more difficult to get evidence on a terrorist. Those terrorists just disappear, and then they get letters; I know those letters do not give them immunity, but it seems like they do. To the men and women who are veterans and who I am trying to represent, it seems like our Government—or Governments, because this includes the Labour Government as well—are giving those guys get-out-of-jail cards. So many of our veterans feel really bitter about that.
It is unsurprising that there is huge anger among the veteran community. They ask, quite rightly, “What are you Members of Parliament doing to help us? You sent us there. You gave us this bloody card and said that if we used it and acted in accordance with it, we would be protected.” Now, our soldiers need protection. They need our protection. How can soldiers, policemen and members of the Ulster Defence Regiment—some representatives of that regiment are here—be considered in the same light as a terrorist? As my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury said, those guys went out to kill; we went out to save lives. There is a huge difference in intention, and we have to sort this matter out. Terrorists did not give a damn who they killed. I have held people dying—women and young girls, including one 18-year-old girl who happened to be a Catholic. They did not give a damn who they killed, and it was terribly upsetting.
Our men and women who served in uniform require us to act. We need a statute of limitations for Northern Ireland veterans. It is absolutely right that we have a statute of limitations for people serving outside the UK, but what is the difference? Someone putting on a uniform was more likely to be shot in Northern Ireland than someone doing it in Iraq or Afghanistan. I can tell you that in Northern Ireland, our casualty rate was pretty big. The casualties we had in Northern Ireland outstrip the casualties we have had in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not just that: there were people who were really badly injured. I had three who lost their legs.
Colleagues, we cannot consider our servicemen and servicewomen in the same light as terrorists. I am ashamed that our Governments—I say “Governments” because I include Labour, the coalition and our present Government —are, as our servicemen and servicewomen see it, complicit in a witch hunt against them. These are old soldiers. Many are in their 70s—I will get there in a couple of months. In the Army, when we really wanted to sort something out, people would be told, “Get a grip.” It is time that our Government and our Ministers got a grip.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I start by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). I do not think there is any Member of this House who does not have a deep affection for him. He is held in high esteem, and his was probably one of the most powerful contributions many of us will hear over years in this House. It starkly lays out the challenge we face. We spend a lot of time in this House bantering with one another, sharing bonhomie and referring to those who served as gallant men, but we have just heard the cries and calls for help. No matter how well we wish to dress on 11 November to honour those who have honoured us, we have just heard the challenge to us as parliamentarians: the job is not done. It is okay honouring and recognising sacrifice, but when our men need us—and they do—we have to act.
The debate has come at a most opportune time. Members of the House will know I made comments publicly last week expressing my deep disappointment at the sounds coming from the Ministry of Defence, which envisages legislative protection for armed personnel, but not those who served in Northern Ireland. Mrs Moon, you know me. We serve together on the Defence Committee. You know the history, you have heard the stories and you know the experience of people who have lived or served in Northern Ireland. They deserve our support.
I have enormous time for the Minister of State, but he should not be here today. We cannot talk as a nation about our commitment to those who served us, yet delegate anything that happened in Northern Ireland to the Northern Ireland Office. When we as a country established an armed forces covenant and said we had a commitment to those who served, it was not caveated. We did not say, “One system for those who live in England, Scotland and Wales, and another for those who live in Northern Ireland.” We did not say, “If you happen to serve in Northern Ireland, you will be treated as less than someone who happened to serve overseas.” When we talk of sacrifice, we recognise it as such. It does not come in different grades or forms that require different responses.
I read the response to the petition—I commend the petitioners and the hon. Member for Southport (Damien Moore), who opened the debate admirably—and the Government are right when they say that any proposal should be consistent with the rule of law. They are right to say that criminal investigations and prosecutions are a matter for police and prosecuting authorities, which act independently of Government and politicians. They are wrong, however, to fail to seize the challenge here for us. We set the rule of law in this country. As parliamentarians, it is our duty to set the parameters through which our prosecutors and police operate.
We have a problem. The Government say that they will consult on proposals. They await the responses on the Stormont House agreement or the proposals for a statute of limitations, but what consultation was there on the odious on-the-runs letters? None, but the political proponents of the IRA asked for them, the Labour Government gave them, and the Conservative Government continued to operate the scheme. John Downey, responsible for the Hyde Park bomb, walked free as a direct result of that on-the-runs scheme. There was no public consultation. There was no putting it through the prism of the Northern Ireland Office to see what the views were among political parties or the general public. The deal was done. The Government provided the cover that terrorists sought; they did not ask us. They did not ask the public in Northern Ireland for their view. They did not ask for people’s views on whether it was appropriate to give a get-out-of-jail-free card to those who attempted to destroy society in Northern Ireland.
I have a constituent who served on many tours under Operation Banner. He highlighted to me one line of the Government response, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned:
“We do not support amnesties or immunity from prosecution.”
Does the hon. Gentleman agree with my constituent’s response, which was:
“Hiding behind legal process, when in fact everyone and their dog knows that it is a political process (otherwise how could it be possible to amnesty terrorists at the same time you are prosecuting soldiers) is entirely incomprehensible”?
I am grateful for that intervention, and for the contribution from the hon. Lady’s constituent veteran. He is right. I do not support an amnesty. I will never support an equivalence between terrorists and those who stand up for law, order and democracy in our country—never. They are not the same, and when we published our report 18 months ago, no member of our Defence Committee supported an amnesty either. When a statute of limitations was proposed, the ask was very constrained. First, it recognised that the state had to discharge its duty under article 2 of the European convention on human rights. As the hon. Member for Beckenham said, all those cases were investigated. Secondly, there was no preclusion of a second prosecution if there was “new and compelling evidence”. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) was right to ask what was meant by that.
The distinction between an amnesty and a statute of limitations is acute, and much more thought needs to be given to it. Where the state has discharged its duty and there has been a satisfactory investigation, and a veteran has been told, “Sir, you have no case to answer. Go home,” they should be allowed to get on with their life, unlike the scores and scores of terrorists in Northern Ireland who live with no fear of prosecution.
I entirely concur with every word the hon. Gentleman says. I pay my respects to our veterans, and also to him for the courage he shows in Northern Ireland, because there is still a threat today; let us make no bones about it. Does he agree that fear of more terrorism is preventing the judicial process from taking its lawful course and bringing these thugs to justice? That is what I think, and certainly what the veterans I speak to think.
I think the hon. Gentleman is right, and I thank him for his comments about me. I am one of the lucky ones; I am a member of a party of 10 MPs, but I have not faced what my colleagues or their families have faced. I have not faced the threat that they endured for many years, and I am grateful for that. Society in Northern Ireland has moved on, but fear of invoking something that is wrong cannot be right. It cannot be the path that our Government walk.
There was some suggestion over the weekend and last week that Northern Ireland’s not being included in the statute of limitations was the Democratic Unionist party’s fault. I have heard said over the past six months, “The confidence and supply partners are holding back the expansion of the proposal,” but let me nail that myth today. Anyone who serves with me on the Defence Committee knows my position and that of my party. We will never stand up for an amnesty that equates terrorists with service personnel, but we will work for and provide the protection that our service personnel need.
I have a letter here that we sent to the Prime Minister on 31 October. It states:
“As we have done in the past, we reiterate again that we will vigorously oppose any attempt to introduce an amnesty for the criminal actions of illegal terrorist organisations. There can be no legal or moral equivalence made between the armed forces acting under the rule of law and terrorists who acted outside the law. Affording legal protection in the form of a statute of limitations or similar mechanism to the armed forces and those who served alongside them including the Royal Ulster Constabulary, will not mean an amnesty for anyone. This was the conclusion of the Defence Select Committee and it is a point of view we will uphold.”
I simply want to share that for clarity.
We should not be surprised that we face this challenge. Governments of various hues find it within their gift to respond to the calls of armed service personnel only when the cost of not doing so is higher than the cost of doing so. That is true in my experience of the armed forces covenant in Northern Ireland, where we have Ministers who, because of their political prejudice, say, “I’m sorry; the armed forces covenant does not apply here.” I have shared with Members in this House correspondence from Michelle O’Neill, the leader of Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland, who wrote just that when she was Northern Ireland’s Minister for Health—“The armed forces covenant does not apply here.” She was wrong. It was a national commitment. Do we have a Government who are prepared to enforce that national commitment and repay the trust and the service of our armed forces personnel in Northern Ireland? No, we do not—at least, not yet.
When Joanna Lumley campaigned for Gurkhas who sought the right of abode in this country if they had served before 1997, the Government said no continually. It was only in the dying throes of the Gordon Brown Government that they finally acquiesced, because not doing so was causing them too much trouble in the run-up to an election. That is not how we should honour those who protected us.
I want to share some context—for the rest of this debate, not for the rest of my speech—about Bloody Sunday. I recognise entirely what was said at the start of the debate, and I will not go into specifics about the day. I will not breach any of our conventions about what is sub judice and what is not; it would be inappropriate to do so. Bloody Sunday happened on 30 January 1972. Anyone who has taken the opportunity to look at the Saville report and to hear from families and understand the hurt that they have experienced, and who heard our Prime Minister at the time say that it was unjustified and unjustifiable, knows that it was a dreadful day.
In Northern Ireland, 1972 was a dreadful year, with more murders than any other; 258 people lost their lives. I will take the three weeks before 30 January. On 5 January 1972, Keith Bryan of the Gloucester Regiment was murdered by the IRA. On 12 January 1972, Royal Ulster Constabulary Reservist Constable Raymond Denham was murdered in his workplace by the IRA. On 13 January 1972, an Ulster Defence Regiment sergeant and site foreman was murdered by the IRA. On 21 January 1972, Private Charles Stentiford of the Devon and Dorset Regiment was murdered by the IRA. On 27 January 1972, in Creggan in Londonderry, Sergeant Peter Gilgunn and Constable David Montgomery of the RUC were both murdered by the IRA: a Catholic sergeant and a Protestant constable serving together, and returning to their RUC station together, having sought to protect and defend the integrity of our society together, both murdered by the IRA. On 28 January 1972, Constable Raymond Carroll was murdered by the IRA. Only when we hear those names and the range of dates—this was only three weeks—do we recognise the circumstances, and the pressure under which people were serving.
The hon. Member for Beckenham focused his remarks on the yellow card, which was not the be-all and end-all. It was revised in the ’80s because it was seen to be too complicated. When Lee Clegg was convicted in the ’90s, it was changed again. We have taken evidence on the yellow card not being worth the paper it is written on, yet those were the rules of engagement that our service personnel were told they had to abide by.
We had Bloody Sunday, Bloody Friday and the Claudy bomb all in 1972. During the three-week period that I mentioned, four members of the IRA were killed. Two innocents were killed as well. On 8 January 1972, Peter Gerard Woods was murdered by loyalists in north Belfast, and on 18 January 1972, Sydney Agnew, who would have been a constituent of mine, was murdered by republicans. I do not see there being a fair reflection of that circumstance, that atmosphere or that experience in any court process today. I am deeply disappointed by the level of legal support that the Ministry of Defence offers service personnel in that situation today.
I am deeply disappointed that, unlike the scores of groups that our Government fund to research cases on behalf of victims and their families in Northern Ireland, our Ministry of Defence does not take an overview from one case to the next; that it does not contextualise the support that it gives; and that there is no equivalence between the documents retained by our state, those used against our state, and those that protected our state.
As I say, today’s petition is opportune. All the contributions this afternoon have asked us to do more. When I asked the Attorney General on 31 January this year whether any proposal brought forward by the Government would apply equally across this United Kingdom, he not only said yes, but said that it would be plainly wrong to do anything else. I hope he is right.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore) for his initiative in bringing this debate to the House and for how he presented the case. I also pay tribute to all the subsequent speakers who, without exception, made powerful and well-informed contributions.
I wish briefly to answer, perhaps in part, the question posed by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) in his extremely powerful contribution. He asked, “What are you doing about it?” I can perhaps throw a little light on one aspect: what the Defence Committee has been doing about it. As has been mentioned several times already, we have produced one inquiry report and had a response to it from the Government, and now we are working on another one. Why are we having to do a second report and a second inquiry into what amounts to largely the same material? It is because of something rather strange that happened when we produced our first report.
Our first report was produced in April 2017; it was the seventh report of the 2016-17 Session and it was entitled “Investigations into fatalities in Northern Ireland involving British military personnel”. I will read one of its conclusions and one of its recommendations. The conclusion was:
“It is clear from the experience of these legacy investigations that, unless a decision is taken to draw a line under all Troubles-related cases, without exception, they will continue to grind on for many years to come—up to half-a-century after the incidents concerned.”
We had to wait a long time for the Government’s reply, which eventually came in November 2017—later than the two months that one normally expects. Their comment underneath that conclusion was:
“The Government notes the Committee’s comment.”
More interesting and positive, however, was the Government’s response to the recommendation that I am about to quote from our original report:
“Accordingly, we recommend the adoption of”—
what we called—
“Option One—the enactment of a statute of limitations, covering all Troubles-related incidents, up to the signing of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, which involved former members of the Armed Forces. This should be coupled with the continuation and development of a truth recovery mechanism which would provide the best possible prospect of bereaved families finding out the facts, once no-one needed to fear being prosecuted.”
In other words, we recommended adopting what might loosely be called “the Nelson Mandela model” from South Africa.
The Government’s reply was as follows:
“While the Government believes that the most effective option to address Northern Ireland’s past is to implement the proposals set out in the Stormont House Agreement, the Government acknowledges that others have different views on the best way forward, including approaches such as that proposed by the Committee which do not involve recourse to the criminal justice system.
As such, the Government intends to include within its forthcoming consultation on the draft Northern Ireland (Stormont House Agreement) Bill a section entitled ‘Alternative approaches to addressing the past’. This section of the consultation will discuss alternative ways forward and include a description of the Committee’s recommendation. The consultation will invite respondents to give their views on ‘the potential effectiveness and appropriateness of alternative approaches such as amnesties and a statute of limitations”—
I am glad that the Government did not identify the two as being the same because, as the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) made clear, they are not—
“to address the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past’. Following the consultation’s conclusion, the Government will consider all views carefully to inform next steps.”
I need hardly remind anybody present that that did not happen. When the consultation appeared, there was no reference to the suggestion of a statute of limitations. The only explanation I can find for that is that somebody behind the scenes lobbied someone in a position to make the decision for the option of a statute of limitations to be excluded. I know only what I saw in a newspaper report, which I think came out very recently, suggesting that there was some correspondence between the Prime Minister and other Cabinet Ministers.
What I have no doubt about is that, when our original report came out, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), subscribed to the answer that we received in the response. Subsequently, sadly, for medical reasons he temporarily had to leave the Cabinet and there was a change of personnel. I suspect—I put it no more strongly than that—that with a new Secretary of State, the people behind the scenes in the Northern Ireland Office felt, perhaps, that they had a better opportunity to kill a proposal that they may feel would somehow endanger what has been constructed to stop the terrorist violence of the past. I am unconvinced that that is an honourable approach for the Government to have taken.
I make just one other point; so many people wish to speak that I do not wish to labour things too much longer. The reason why we immediately started another inquiry was that, when we saw that the consultation had come out without our recommendation even being included for consideration, we thought, “Right—if that’s the way the Government are going to play it, we’ll start the whole process all over again.” That is what we are doing, and we are at an advanced stage in our re-examination, although this time we are examining the wider picture of service personnel at risk of prosecution as a result of other conflicts in foreign countries.
I do not wish to understate the importance of the progress that the Government appear to have made in moving towards a solution to that problem at least. I welcome that, and I hope that they do not get cold feet about what they are proposing to do. It is good that the Government have worked together. In that respect, I pay tribute to both the previous Defence Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson), and the Defence Secretary before him, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon), both of whom took this issue very seriously. Under the previous Defence Secretary, a special unit was set up in the Ministry of Defence, as the Committee had long advocated privately, to try, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham said, to get a grip on this matter once and for all. As a Committee, we met informally with that unit.
Progress is undoubtedly being made. Understandably, we have the problem that people on the paramilitary side of the argument do not want any of their personnel to be pursued for anything that they did, but they are adamant that the servants of the British state must be prosecuted until the end of time. People who rightly point out that the servants of the British state had very different intentions from the terrorists naturally take the view that they do not want any equality, as we have heard expressed forcefully in this debate, between service personnel doing their duty and terrorists trying to destroy innocent people.
However, in one respect I slightly disagree. This is just my personal view, but I believe that one must focus on a piece of legislation that has not yet been mentioned: the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998. Under that Act, even if someone killed 50 people they cannot go to jail for more than a maximum of two years. I speak with some understanding of the position of families who lost a loved one under such unexplained and unresolved circumstances, because my family were caught up in the holocaust of the second world war.
I must say that I was not terribly keen on statutes of limitations for Nazi guards from Auschwitz, for example, but if somebody had said to me then, “There is no question of anybody serving a sentence that is in any way proportionate to murdering somebody, and in any way a recompense for doing that,” would I have felt that it was perhaps more important to bring out the truth than to try to send someone who did not want to tell the truth to jail for a derisory two years? I think I would have wanted more to discover what had really happened.
That is the strength of the Nelson Mandela approach, which was to understand that at a certain point we can heal society only by drawing a line, and find out the truth only by removing the threat of prosecution. When someone knows that as a result of prosecution the maximum sentence that can be imposed is so risibly disproportionate and lenient compared with the crime of which they would have been found guilty, it is easier than ever to understand that that is the civilised and sensible way forward.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Southport (Damien Moore) for raising the issue and giving us a chance to participate in and contribute to the debate. I declare an interest as a former member of the Ulster Defence Regiment; I was also in the Territorial Army for 14 and a half years.
When the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) spoke about the yellow card, I was reminded that some 45 years ago, when I joined the Ulster Defence Regiment as an 18-year-old, the yellow card was preached into us every night before we went out. We were very clear about what it meant. I thank the Lord that I never had to fire a gun in anger—I never had the opportunity to do it, was never in a position to do it, and was never confronted with it.
All hon. Members have spoken exceptionally well, but I hope that they will not mind if I pick out the hon. Member for Beckenham, who displayed the leadership and courage that many of us respect him for—not only in uniform, but as a Member of this House. He probably does not understand just how much we all consider him a friend. It is also a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), whose speeches —like his work on the Defence Committee—always have an honesty and calm that give us a chance to participate. I will not leave out my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) either: his speech was exceptional and encapsulated what we all think.
How topical it is to hold this debate the day after a memorandum was leaked from Downing Street that states, according to The Sunday Telegraph, that veterans should be offered
“equal, rather than preferential, treatment”
relative to other groups covered by the plan to investigate historical killings. Let us consider that idea for a moment. At first view, it seems right and proper—in a normal situation, it would be right and proper to treat soldiers in the same way as we treat Joe Bloggs on the street. But that assumes an even playing field. It assumes that the soldier in uniform decided, off his own bat, to take a weapon, enter a mission hall in Darkley and open fire, killing men whose crime was to worship their God in church. It assumes that officers chose to pull over a vehicle, take out 10 Protestant workmen and kill them, as a Roman Catholic man runs to safety. It assumes that soldiers set up a honey trap to trick three young men to their death. It assumes that officers set a bomb at Ballydugan in Downpatrick to murder four UDR men, three of whom I knew personally. It assumes that soldiers knowingly placed a bomb on a busy shopping street and gave false information about its position to secure maximum death and destruction.
For all things to be equal, rather than preferential, all inquiries should start from the premise that an act of terrorism with a determined and planned aim is very different from the events under investigation. That is not our starting point in these investigations, so things are not equal—never mind preferential.
These incidents began the second that there was a call saying that there was a suspicion of terrorist activity. These actions took place when soldiers looked to their officers for advice and relied on their training and on the yellow card, which said that if they were attacked, it was okay to defend themselves, as the hon. Member for Beckenham clearly illustrated. The events took place when unlawful terrorists were attempting to kill these men—to all intents and purposes, at the very least.
The actions of soldiers were a reaction to the environment around them—an environment that did not allow them to relax for even a second, lest they lose their lives or see their brothers murdered by the very people who now cry out for preferential treatment and a rewrite to justify what is unjustifiable. That is why I have to say respectfully that, yet again, the Prime Minister is flawed in trying to rationalise and equalise everything in Northern Ireland. It grieves me to say that about my Prime Minister—our Prime Minister—but that is the way I feel.
Some things are not equal and cannot be equalised. We cannot and must not attempt to equate a soldier in uniform with a terrorist. Yes, feel free to equate the murders of the IRA with those carried out by loyalist terrorists, which were outside the law, unacceptable and despicable. But to try for a second to allow republicans to rewrite our history and equate the actions of a soldier, carrying a legally held weapon and instructed to uphold law and order, with the actions of someone with an illegal weapon and a determination to bomb and murder his or her way to a political endgame is horrifying. It must end here.
Soldiers are not asking for equal or preferential treatment. They are asking our Government and our Prime Minister to acknowledge that they put them into life-changing and horrific situations and asked them to carry out actions to save us in this place from having to deal with evil men with bloodlust and a desire to wipe out any and every person who dared to consider themselves British—I am British and very proud to be British—or even to speak with those who did. Soldiers are asking the Government, who trained them and told them what was and was not acceptable in times of attack, and us in this place—in this debate and all the other times we have spoken on these matters—simply to be honourable and do right by them. That is what this debate is about: doing right by our soldiers. It is important to put that on the record.
I served on the streets of Northern Ireland. I listened to the unforgettable wails of mothers when they were told that they would never see their children again. We have all lost loved ones and friends—that is no secret in this world. My cousin Kenneth Smyth was a sergeant in the UDR and a former police special; he was murdered with his Roman Catholic friend Daniel McCormick. No one was ever made accountable for that.
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who is giving a very moving speech. As we have talked so much about equivocation today, does he agree that it is simply not acceptable for a Prime Minister of this country to stipulate that veterans should receive equal treatment—not preferential treatment to other groups in the conflict, such as the IRA, but equal treatment? That demonstrates a mindset fundamentally out of keeping with the justice that this is all about.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for intervening. What annoys me is that of the three people who killed my cousin Kenneth and Daniel McCormick, one blew himself up with an IRA bomb—he is in hell today, and deserves what he has got—the second died from cancer, and there is one left. None of those three was ever made accountable for the murders of Kenneth and of Daniel McCormick, a Roman Catholic who just happened to be a former member of the Ulster Defence Regiment. The IRA murdered more Roman Catholics than the soldiers ever shot. That is the reality of Northern Ireland, where I have lived all my life and where others in this Chamber have served with such courage and credit; I know that many of them will speak in this debate.
I lost friends in the police as well. I think of wee Stuart Montgomery, who was only 18 and just out of the police academy; within a month, he was murdered outside Pomeroy with his friend. Where is the accountability for those people’s families and loved ones? Of the four UDR men killed at Ballydugan, I knew three personally and from an early age. Where is the accountability in this process for those who murdered those four UDR men? One person was made accountable for a small part of it, but the man who murdered them was never held accountable—although he met his just deserts in Downpatrick shortly afterwards while in the process of trying to blow up more soldiers, so in a way justice has happened.
These repulsive murderers have the freedom to justify what they did—and, indeed, to walk these halls, free from prosecution and free from real justice. I hear them again and feel a searing pain as I read the latest example of the fact that our Prime Minister has no idea of what we have gone through as a nation in an attempt to wrap up legacy issues and tie a bow around them.
The hon. Gentleman speaks with real emotion. That rawness shows how poignant these events can be, many decades after they occur.
I want to share a very powerful sermon that I listened to in church yesterday. It was given by a military chaplain, who spoke about the 50 to 60 bodies discovered each and every year in the fields of France and Belgium, and about the services that he undertakes to ensure that those people have a proper burial and that their descendants are contacted. It reminded me of the ongoing pact that we have, as a nation, with the people who have served and given their lives for us. Does the hon. Gentleman share my constituents’ instinctive concern and sense of shame that the approach being taken, with soldiers being prosecuted many years after events, diminishes the ongoing pact between a nation and those who risk their lives for it?
I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Lady; I do not think there is anybody in the House who has a different opinion.
Like others in this House, I make myself available to help the Prime Minister understand what is clearly beyond her at this point. Upholders of law and order do not deserve to be treated equally with murdering scum of any religion; they deserve to be treated differently, because it was different for them. For those in uniform, it was different from any other case. I stood shoulder to shoulder with people in service then, and I stand shoulder to shoulder with them now. I want them to know that, which is why the debate is so important—other contributions will underline that.
The blood of those I loved, and of those who gave their all in service to Queen and country, cries out not for equality, but for truth, honour and real justice from those who should know better. We in the House should know better, and there is no excuse for this memo, or indeed for any deviation from supporting people who were not terrorists but law enforcers. There is a very clear difference in my mind and others’: they are not equal. Take them out of the same bracket, and be honourable.
I do not seek to add to the incredible speeches we have heard today, particularly from individuals who served in Northern Ireland—I did not. I want to add just two or three new points and not take up too much time.
People are very well aware of my general feelings on this subject, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore) for securing the debate. This is not a niche issue for people who have served or who have a particular interest in this subject; it is as basic an injustice as this House has seen for some time. I urge colleagues to think about what more can be done.
When the Good Friday agreement went through in Northern Ireland and the settlements were reached, it was deemed more politically tolerable for soldiers, servicemen and policemen to take the hit, rather than other sides. That is why we are where we are—it was simply more politically tolerable for politicians to do that. I urge my colleagues to do whatever is required to ensure that this Government do not continually speak warm words that ultimately mean nothing, and to hold them to account on behalf of people who need it.
I know the Minister personally and none of my remarks is directed at him—he only recently took over the job. This weekend’s revelations were genuinely shocking, with the Prime Minister’s clear mindset that people who served should receive treatment
“equal to, not preferential to”
other groups in the conflict. Many people have written to me in the past two days on the back of that specific sentence. The situation reminds me of three years ago, when I took part in a Westminster Hall debate, with the then Minister for the Armed Forces, who is now the Secretary of State for Defence, on the Iraq Historic Allegations Team. That is the point I want to make: nothing ever seems to change. We say a hell of a lot in this place. I remember her looking up at me and saying, “No one hears from these investigative teams first”, but that morning I had been on the phone to someone who had heard from those private investigators first.
MPs who recount their experiences are not turning oxygen into CO2 for the hell of it. This actually means something; this is people’s everyday experience. I know the responses will be, “We’re thinking about this and we’re thinking about that,” but there has been a clear moral failure by the Prime Minister and the Northern Ireland Office to deal with the situation. I am afraid that it simply cannot go on.
As many hon. Members have alluded to, this is not about whitewashing history. I urge colleagues to be really careful with the language they use. It is not colleagues who said this but last Thursday the front page of The Guardian read, “Mordaunt to give veterans amnesty for battle crimes.” Nobody has ever asked for that, and nobody has ever thought about it. That is deliberately inflammatory wording, designed simply to prey on the grief and the hell that some families and veterans are going through. In this case, an amnesty is not appropriate in any way whatever. On its own, a statute of limitations cannot work. There can be no time limitation on serious criminal behaviour.
Last week, we began to see the beginnings of a presumption not to prosecute, which is the sort of area we should be working in. That came from the Attorney General.
My hon. Friend raises a really interesting point. The checks and balances being discussed by the Attorney General relate to a rigorous investigation. Comprehensive and new compelling evidence should provide a safeguard. The problem with a statute of limitations per se is that where clear evidential thresholds are met—when it comes to clear wrongdoing—we start entering difficult areas. We should at least start a conversation about it, but the Prime Minister has specifically asked my right hon. Friend the Chair of the Defence Committee not to do so.
I would not put it quite as explicitly as that, but it was certainly implicit in the way that our report recommendation was first put forward and then somehow mysteriously excised from the Government’s agenda. May I try to resolve the pointed issue and ask my hon. Friend whether he would accept the term, “qualified statute of limitations”? That is what the Government seem to be putting forward, that there will be a presumption against prosecution after 10 years have elapsed—hence the statute of limitations—unless new and compelling evidence emerges, hence the qualification.
Around this legal language, there are ways out of this. We can do that without using inflammatory terms or mechanisms that people would not agree with. I am afraid that what gets lost in a lot of this is that there is an impression that individuals such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and I—[Interruption.]
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham. There is an impression that we have no feelings for the victims, that they play second fiddle, and that there is no effort to pursue justice in any way. We have just heard my hon. Friend talk about cradling an 18-year-old girl as she died in Northern Ireland. Victims and families get this impression because legal teams drag them down a pathway and get them genuinely to believe that they might, in the end, have all their questions answered. There is nothing more disingenuous than using their grief, anger and sense of unjustness to propel a totally false narrative, which is used simply to extend the conflict.
Like many hon. Members who have spoken and raised their concerns, I have heard from veterans in my constituency and from people who are deeply affected by this issue. The longer this goes on, the more we create a difficult narrative that cuts across people who have served, people who have family members in the armed forces, and ordinary members of the public who are dismayed and angry at the situation. We also have recruitment issues. Does my hon. Friend agree that this poses a very serious threat to people we ask to serve, by suggesting that we will not protect them?
[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]
Those are really good points from my hon. Friend, whose constituency contains Royal Marines Condor and Arbroath.
I want to express why I and may others feel so angry about this. There are many burning injustices in this place, but we have been here before. The greatest worry is that this will never end. It will be a problem not just for this Government but for the Government who replace them, these veterans and veterans of the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan, until a Government or a Prime Minister decides to show just one quarter of the courage that we asked our men and women to show daily in those conflicts. I do not want to overdo it, but it is pure cowardice for someone to say they are on the side of those who served—the bravest of the brave—and give a conference speech to rapturous applause, and in private to say the complete opposite. I urge colleagues to stand with me in doing everything we can. This is not a game; the nation and how we defend ourselves is at stake. I pay tribute to those who served out there and gave such inspiring speeches today. There is no more to be said on this subject, but there is a hell of a lot to be done. That is what people like me are looking for.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, and to have served under Mrs Moon’s.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), that there is not an awful lot more to be said, but I will say it anyway because the e-petition demands that we reiterate and re-reiterate the reality of what has been going on. I congratulate those who started e-petition 243947 on their work, and my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore) on his very good and powerful speech.
I have not spoken about this subject pretty much since I left Northern Ireland, but I listened with great interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), and it brought back an awful lot of memories of Northern Ireland. I was a young platoon commander like the ones he described, not that long out of Sandhurst. I do not know that I learned very much at Sandhurst; it all had to be re-learned after I left. I remember large periods of incredible, intense boredom, followed by massive periods of panic and fear—literally almost alongside each other. I lived in the masonic car park with my company, in an old caravan that had a hole on the side by my bed. I was damp the whole time I was there, because the rain lashed through the whole of the winter.
I remember the fear in my young guardsmen’s eyes when they were caught up in an incident. It came not from the idea of what might happen to them, but mostly from what they might have to do, and what they might get wrong. The yellow card, which was drilled into us before we left, scared the living daylights out of me before I even set foot in Northern Ireland, and I know it was the same for my young soldiers. As my hon. Friend said, some of them were 18 years old and had very low levels of education. They were in an urban environment that they had never been in, and they were armed and acting in support of the police, as a quasi-police force. We expected them, in a moment, to make the kind of judgments that highly paid, brilliant legal brains would stall at. Those young men had to make those decisions for themselves, as my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, and they bore the burden by themselves—too often, without support.
I take the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View made. I have a real problem with our relationship with the armed forces in this country. We expect them to do the right thing and go to war. I still remember my father, who served with great distinction in the second world war, telling me that many of his friends who had been incarcerated in prisoner of war camps for a number of years came home to find their families in near destitution, because the then War Office had decided that, as they were living comfortably in a prisoner of war camp, their pay could reasonably be cut in half; they would have no need for the other bit. It forgot that, or did not even bother to find out whether, they had dependants living at home, who, by the end of the war, were in deep poverty and starving. I am afraid that that is the kind of relationship that we have percolating through after every single operation. We treat our veterans of Northern Ireland in much the same way.
I am sad to say that the Government, and previous Labour and Conservative Governments—I am not necessarily speaking of mine, but all Governments—are determined to find the reasons why we cannot do things, but never the reasons why we can. Our servicemen and women get put in operations, genuinely risk their lives, and do not complain about it. They do that on the general assumption that a paternal Government would oversee their wellbeing if they were wounded, if their families were hurt or if they ended up in a difficult situation in which they might be prosecuted.
Too often, in the slightly politically correct conversations that take place outside Parliament when Ministers are interviewed, they start equivocating about who was doing what. We get equivocation about the terrorists versus the soldiers. I did not serve with particular distinction, but when I was in Northern Ireland, I had to find a cache of a large number of armour-piercing Garand—an American rifle—rounds. I thought to myself that they were on their way to somebody who would do a snipe on one of our patrol vehicles. They would have gone clean through it, and would have killed anything on the inside. Terrorists were setting up another attack, like those the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) described, on people who were there to keep the peace. There is no equivalence between those who go out to kill people, and those who go out to defend people but may end up having to kill people as a result. That stands above all else. That is what we do as soldiers. That is what we know we are about.
That is particularly the case with British soldiers, who I still believe to this day are the best trained, and most reasonable and decent, troops on the ground. They always operate with a real sense of restraint. They do not even have to be taught about that; there is an instinctive sense of restraint that comes from their training. We now find that 90% of the cost of these prosecutions is going on 10% of the incidents. Where is the natural justice in that?
I want to raise an issue. I had friends who never came back, and I want to talk about Robert Nairac. I saw him a few nights before he went to Northern Ireland, and he never returned. What happened to him—a brave young man trying to do his job—was horrific. He was not just killed but tortured and dismembered. He disappeared, and no one has ever owned up to knowing where his body is buried. No one has owned up to doing it, although we have a fair suspicion of who it was. His poor parents have gone to their grave with no conclusion to the sad tragedy of Robert Nairac. He is typical of many people, both soldiers and non-combatants, who disappeared in Northern Ireland. Where is the justice in the fact that families such as his will never see those responsible prosecuted for their filthy, foul actions? There is no natural justice in pursuing British soldiers, rather than the people who tortured and killed Robert Nairac, because it is easier.
Worse than that are the letters of comfort that were given out. I find it astonishing to discover that letters of comfort are given quietly to those on the run. Why are they on the run? Because they have committed atrocities and cannot come back. That is about Government and perhaps about the Belfast agreement—but in a funny sort of way, not really; otherwise, that would have been done publicly. It would have been shouted from the rooftops if it were an equivalent process, but it never was.
As my hon. Friends have said, the endless nightmare for soldiers who served in Northern Ireland was that they were three times more likely to die than the terrorists who they were after. The likelihood of death was greater on the streets there than in other operations before or since. Why was that? Because our soldiers walked through the streets in plain sight, and were targets every single moment that they were there.
I recall the sheer fear I felt as a young platoon commander on the first commemorative Sunday of Bloody Sunday in the Bogside. I remember having to keep a patrol safe as over 100,000 very angry people talked about tearing them limb from limb if they found them, and knowing that at any stage, any one of my patrol could have been taken away, never to be seen again. Those were the kinds of decisions that one had to make. That still resonates, even today.
Ultimately, I simply urge the Government to do the right thing—to recognise that it is quite ridiculous that soldiers who have been cleared in previous investigations should ever be pursued again, unless there is absolute, categorical and clear evidence, beyond what is needed to meet the burden of proof, that they have done something that nobody knew about before. These men, who are in their 70s, should never face that, but they do. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham mentioned one man who was arrested by a stream of police cars and taken away immediately, as though he had committed some foul offence and might run. The overcooking—the nonsense—that the police get up to on these matters sometimes is quite ridiculous.
I do not want these men to be treated differently, but I say quite categorically that if there is to be a statute of limitations, it must cover veterans of Northern Ireland. I understand that those who served in other operations may well be covered, but because Northern Ireland veterans served in the United Kingdom, UK law will override anything that the Government might do. That absolutely cannot be allowed.
I give my Government fair warning that I will simply not put up with shunting Northern Ireland veterans to one side while seeking some sort of general political cover, as though we had done something for them. We will not have done anything unless we deal with all our servicemen and women, who have had the bravery and courage to serve their country. There can be no second-class treatment.
There is debate about whether it should be stated that prosecutions must be based on new evidence, or whether there should be a statute of limitations. I would be content with observing this one principle: no servicemen or women who served in Northern Ireland should be arrested and pursued, particularly after cases against them have been dismissed, simply because the police have nothing better to do with their time than find out whether they did something. It is time that the Government acted on that.
I urge the Minister and his colleagues to recognise that those of us who served in Northern Ireland did not ask to. We did not, in a fit of passionate patriotism and bravery, suddenly volunteer to go there on our own. We were told to go there because we were soldiers. That was the command. We were told that it was an operation; it was not some other affair, as we now seem to hear. We went on that operation—Op Banner was an operation—and did our duty.
It was Operation Banner. Soldiers did 28 days in Northern Ireland and were awarded a General Service Medal, which is the recognised medal for serving in combat zones such as Malaya, Aden and Borneo. Northern Ireland is on the clasp for the General Service Medal, so it is an operation like any other.
I agree. The other day, I made the point that I have an Operational Service Medal for Rhodesia, as it was then, and a General Service Medal with a clasp for Northern Ireland. I assume that the operations were recognised as equivalents—I do not remember a distinction. I was never told that I was on a subset of an operation in Northern Ireland, but that I could go on a real one in Rhodesia. I can tell hon. Members, without a shadow of a doubt, that Northern Ireland was the more frightening of the two.
The Minister must say loudly to all those who have the privilege of running Departments, and even to the Prime Minister, that this simply cannot stand—it is a deep injustice. Those who served need us to stand up for them, because they have nobody else. Their families need us to stand up for them, because they have nowhere else to go. Successive British Governments have too often failed their servicemen and women because they were mealy-mouthed about how to support them. That has to stop; we must now protect them.
I have one last phrase for the Minister. When natural justice collides with the law, we must change the law to protect those who protected us.
I, too, pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore) for securing this debate and for his excellent speech introducing it. I also pay tribute to all those who have spoken. It is humbling to be surrounded by so many hon. and gallant Gentlemen who served in Northern Ireland or elsewhere.
To introduce briefly where I fit in, I did three tours of Northern Ireland. My first was in December 1978. I remember the sergeant-major at Sandhurst saying to me as I left, “Sir, you have time to say ‘Happy Christmas’ to your parents. Then get your arse over to Northern Ireland.” I said, “Right. Thank you very much indeed; that’s my Christmas gone.”
I went over on the ferry with a great friend of mine. The difference between England and Northern Ireland was absolutely marked at that time. I remember getting off the ship, on which we were treated as normal, free civilians—we enjoyed a drink and a chit-chat—and getting into an armed vehicle, which was affectionately known as a pig.
We then drove to our base in McCrory Park, just off Falls Road, where I spent the first six months of my three tours. As we drove to McCrory Park, I simply could not believe that we were in the United Kingdom. It took a huge amount of appreciation for it to sink in that our country was that divided by hatred and violence, as I would soon witness.
On 20 July 1982—after my tour—Lieutenant Anthony Daly was leading the changing of the guard with his men; he was going from Hyde Park barracks to his duty when the IRA detonated a nail bomb in Hyde Park. Another bomb was laid at Regent’s Park that afternoon, which killed members of the Green Jackets, who were performing there. I am sure that we all remember the ghastly pictures of horses and men splayed across the road. Today, there is a commemorative stone for Anthony Daly on the spot where it took place. John Downey, a convicted IRA killer, got off because of a letter of amnesty.
We have heard many examples from hon. Members of how the IRA seems to get away with the atrocious deeds it did, but members of our armed forces who go out to save lives—this point was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), among others, and I wish to reiterate it—
On John Downey, the alleged Hyde Park bomber, is it not correct that when he produced his so-called “comfort letter”, the judge abandoned the trial? The Government continue to maintain the fantasy that such letters have no legal power or strength, yet a judge in charge of a murder trial abandoned it when one was presented. Does that not drive a coach and horses through the Government’s case?
It drives a tank through the Government’s case. My hon. Friend speaks with his characteristic verve and clarity. He is absolutely right: so it does.
To speak personally, my view over many years—I am 61; I served nine years in the Army, and I have been here for nine years—has been that politicians generally, although there are noble exceptions, all of whom are in the Chamber today, simply do not understand the armed services. They just do not get it. I have a huge amount of respect for the Minister, whom I know well; this comment or any I make are not aimed at him but at all Governments, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) said. What is the first thing that happens when a Government come to power and are short of power? They cut the armed services. That is intentional madness. The armed services are an insurance policy that require money to be invested in them. We hope that we do not have to use them but, in places such as Northern Ireland, we do.
If I recall this correctly, we had about 35,000 troops in Northern Ireland at the height of the troubles. We would be pushed to mount an operation on a similar scale today. In fact, as has been said, it would probably be impossible. My message to the Government therefore concerns all those things we say about our armed forces. We repeatedly hear from politicians how they respect the armed forces covenant and all such things, in the Chamber and outside, but when it comes to the crunch, our armed forces are let down.
I will touch briefly on Royal Marine Al Blackman, whom I and many others managed to get out of jail after he had served only half his time. This example is similar to one given earlier. None of the circumstances in which that man was forced to operate—it was in the most appalling conditions in Afghanistan—was taken into account. It is easy for politicians for who have no experience of operational service to sit in an armchair with their gin and tonic and say, “I condemn that man or woman for what they did.” They fail to understand the total picture in which our brave men and women all too often serve.
Mention has been made of the yellow card. I, too, learned the yellow card. I recall—I hope that I have my old memory working—that one of our main concerns was the vehicle checkpoint. We were told, and this often happened, that young boys would challenge Army checkpoints. Young kids and teenagers, not related in any way to terrorism, would try to drive through our checkpoints for a laugh. We discussed that on many occasions—“How do we deal with that?” A car is coming at us at 50, 60 or 70 mph, we have one, two or three seconds to react, and we have a gun in our hands. We think, “Is this a terrorist? Is this a young boy fuelled by drink? Who is this guy?”, then bang, the car goes into the checkpoint, possibly killing or seriously injuring one of our soldiers or a member of the civilian population, and the car drives away. Are we allowed to shoot the person in that car then? The answer we all came to was no, because that person is no longer an immediate danger to us or to anyone else. Had someone been shot in that car, there would have been a kerfuffle, a court case, accusations of murder and all the rest of it.
This point about restraint has been made, but I make it again: those I served with, and the many others I served alongside, all showed restraint, in particular in riots or very dangerous areas. A soldier’s instinct, when going to someone in trouble, is to help; it is not to kill, or beat up. A number of times I saw my guardsmen go to the aid of those on both sides of the community, and as we built up a relationship, the number of cups of tea offered often increased a little, because most Irish people are decent. A few rotten apples, sadly, spoil the barrel.
I absolutely agree with everything that has been said by all right hon., hon. and gallant Friends so far. I urge the Government to stop doing what we do best, which is talking; that is over now. We cannot go on betraying our brave men and women; we tell them that they are brave, but when they come home, we sell them straight into a court, throwing them to the mercy of lawyers et al. That is not on. Finally, justice delayed is no justice at all.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, and to follow the speeches of so many hon. and gallant Friends who have spoken so compellingly about their service and how that translates into how they see things now as policy makers. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore), who opened the debate with great clarity; his speech would have been well received by all ex-service people watching the debate. It pains me, however, that the Northern Ireland Office Minister responding to the debate is my immediate constituency neighbour—my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose). He and I are great friends, but I am afraid that I must not pull any of my punches: I feel that the Ministry of Defence should be responding to the debate, rather than the Northern Ireland Office.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, although I missed the beginning of the debate. I hope that he will join me in asking the Minister to address the Stormont House agreement when he responds. I rather fear that the reason why we are in this predicament with Northern Ireland veterans relates to the terms of that agreement—in relation to historical investigations, in particular.
I very much agree. My hon. Friend is right that the political angle to this is most unfortunate. I will come to that later in my remarks.
I am deeply concerned by any suggestion of equivalence between the actions that I and so many other service personnel have taken on operations and the actions taken by terrorists out to take life illegally. There is no equivalence. In the debate on the urgent question on Thursday morning, the Government deployed a disappointing line, which seemed to suggest that comfort letters would not endure and, if they did not, all would therefore be open to prosecution. Although that corrects an imbalance, by definition it creates an equivalence, in which we say, “At least both sides can be investigated and prosecuted.” That is simply not acceptable: there is no equivalence.
David Griffin, aged 78, is a Chelsea pensioner. In 1972, he killed an IRA gunman who was about to assassinate one of his comrades. He was investigated at the time and exonerated. Forty-six or 47 years later, he is being investigated again by the PSNI, who will not tell him his fate. He was an Irish Catholic born in Dublin—
It is not sub judice. I am sorry, Mr Bone: I completely understand your intervention, but this is not before a court and the case is in the public domain. Very quickly, David Griffin has no comfort letter—he has no comfort of any kind and is in utter limbo, although he is a Chelsea pensioner. He is very worried. Why do our Government allow this to happen?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is no equivalence whatever. Whether the other side can now be investigated again or not, it is simply unreasonable, wrong, immoral and a breakdown of our covenant with our armed forces that we allow the investigation of those who have served to continue.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) gave an amazing speech, in which he reflected that there was a time when his blokes thought that he had thrown them under the bus because they were required to go to court. It was clear from his speech the pain that he felt having to look his soldiers in the eye and break that news to them. I suspect that if those soldiers were watching you, Colonel, this afternoon they would have been proud to see someone take the responsibilities of command so seriously years after their watch is done. I found that very powerful.
All of us who have had the great privilege of carrying a commission in Her Majesty’s armed forces, and to have had command of soldiers, sailors and airmen, will relate strongly to the pain that my hon. and gallant Friend so clearly felt. Even now, in another career many years later, we feel we are letting our riflemen, guardsmen and private soldiers down. That is what motivates us all to be here.
The first time I was involved in any such process was in Kabul in 2005, about a year after I had been commissioned. We had been involved in the use of lethal force following a double vehicle-borne suicide bombing. Throughout the afternoon and evening that followed, and overnight as we stood on the perimeter, we went back through everything we did and thought tactically whether we did the right thing. When we got in the next morning, having been relieved, and the first thing we got was a date with the Royal Military Police’s special investigations branch, I was pretty close to throwing punches. But I understand that is a necessary part of applying lethal force on the battlefield. We are trained to live and operate by a higher standard, and we should have nothing to fear when the investigation starts immediately on the back of the application of force like that.
Two years later in Basra, and two years after that in Sangin, that process was commonplace—in Sangin, as a battalion adjutant in the most contested Herrick tour and battle space, I was responsible for an awful lot of initial investigation processes. The immediate debrief could not be accurate, because adrenalin was still coursing through the veins of the riflemen who had been involved. They were emotional because, very often, their friends had lost their legs or had been killed in the very same mission. There was confusion about what had happened because the fog of war was all around them. As they relayed their individual testimonies about what had happened that afternoon, night or morning, often that did not match up with the testimony of the rifleman who had stood immediately next to them, fighting the same contact.
In the process of that investigation, the company second-in-command drafts a report and comes up to the adjutant, who has a look at it; he then goes to the brigade and the legal adviser looks at it, and the special investigations branch has a look at it. Meanwhile, that rifleman would have been deployed on three, four, five, six or seven more patrols in the following seven days, in which there would have been more kinetic activity in which they would have applied lethal force, and on the back of which there would have been more reports by the company’s second-in-command, coming up to the adjutant and so on and so forth. Very quickly, all the details of those missions start to mesh into one—so much so that we had riflemen go to the coroner’s hearings six or nine months or a year after a tour and not recognise the contemporary report of what happened that night when they applied lethal force.
I make that point because days or a year after, those servicemen cannot remember exactly what happened—it is a natural part of how we deal with our mental health to seek to delete and overwrite. How on earth can we turn round to them decades later and replay to them accurate reports made at the time as part of the evidence against, and ask them to account for themselves to try to establish their innocence once again? Some of us have had that moment when a threat is perceived—in a split second we have to decide whether to apply lethal force because our life or the life of another is in danger.
My hon. and gallant Friend is absolutely right: the IRA did not keep such records, which is a great unfairness. Those of us who have had to apply lethal force have taken the decision in a split second, hoping that all our training, instincts and everything we have learned since first going into the Army, Navy or Air Force will mean that we take the right decision. We know there is a danger that we might get it wrong and we need to know that, provided we are in the rules of engagement and can say squarely that we perceive the threat to be there, our Government will stand behind our actions.
The written ministerial statement that may come tomorrow is great news for those of us who served on Operation Herrick and Operation Telic. My tours of Afghanistan in 2005 happened more than 10 years ago; my tour to Basra in 2007 was 10 years ago; and at the end of October, my final operational tour to Iraq and Afghanistan will be more than 10 years ago. That statement should be, and will be, huge comfort to tens of thousands of veterans who served in those theatres.
As somebody who served in Northern Ireland, an MP with many constituents who served in Northern Ireland and a former rifleman with many ex-riflemen friends who served in Northern Ireland, I’m all right, Jack. We must remember that it is not okay—in fact, it makes it worse—to have one statute of limitations that applies to the conflicts that are most on people’s conscience, while ignoring those who fought in Northern Ireland in just as trying circumstances, as we have heard so many times this afternoon. They are left behind.
The legal premise on which my former comrades served in Northern Ireland is not their fault. The failings of any investigation that happened at the time is not their fault. Conversely, the quality of the investigations at the time, which allows vexatious politicians and lawyers to pore over the detail and challenge it decades later, is not their fault. The political situation in Northern Ireland is not their fault. The fact that they pulled the trigger in Northern Ireland rather than in the Falklands, the Balkans, Iraq or Afghanistan is not their fault. The fact that the Government have not yet done anything about this is also not their fault.
This situation cannot drag on any further. A universal statute of limitations across all theatres is required now. This is not an amnesty. Our armed forces are not above the law—we ask of them higher standards than we do of those in civilian life. When they fall short, we punish them in a way that would be draconian in any civilian employment setting. If we understand some of what they do, as many of us here do, we understand why they deserve protection. We ask that they accept unlimited liability in defence of our nation. We must accept the political liability that comes with saying, “Come what may, we’ve got your back.”
I will follow your instruction to be brief, Mr Bone, and I apologise to you and to Mrs Moon for not requesting to speak in advance—I was unaware that the debate was taking place.
I will try to keep it simple. As someone who was shadow Secretary of State for three years and Secretary of State for two years, and who did business in Northern Ireland when I was younger and continues to go there, I sincerely thank all those who have spoken very movingly, including my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I thank them for everything they did and all the people they represent—the hundreds of thousands in the military and the security services who did their level best to maintain the rule of law. That is what it was all about. It was the most extraordinary insurgency, which aimed to break the rule of law.
I was in Northern Ireland only 10 days ago, talking to a guy who had worked his way up the ranks and was a senior officer. He was emphatic that he did not want any amnesty, because what he and his men did was defend the rule of law. We all support the Belfast agreement, which is an extraordinary achievement. Politically, it had the support of both main parties in the UK, both main parties in the Republic of Ireland and both main parties in the United States. It would never have begun without all those brave servicemen, policemen and members of the security services who maintained the rule of law. It is very much thanks to them that Northern Ireland is in such a better position now.
We know that during the talks, the Blair Government, like the Major Government before them, had to take some hideously difficult decisions. We know about the infamous letters, but releasing prisoners only two years on from their conviction, after due process, of the most appalling crimes was an incredibly difficult decision. At the time, that was much bigger for many people than the issue of letters, but it has been worthwhile, and we should thank all those who gave it their best. Bluntly, those brave men and women made it impossible for those pursuing the republican cause to get their aims by violence, and made them realise that the only way to pursue their aims was by peaceful means. That was a remarkable achievement.
Today, many people wish Northern Ireland to become part of the Republic of Ireland. The political campaign has not gone away. As United Kingdom representatives, we have to be careful that innocent old soldiers do not get drawn into the current political process. That is what is happening. I will be very careful given your strictures about matters that are sub judice, Mr Bone. I talked to an elderly veteran who had several pieces of paper from military legal departments exonerating him for an incident, yet a rural police force, which I would have thought had better things to do, sent half a dozen police cars around to arrest him. That shows that this has got completely out of hand. There is a real sense of grievance and injustice. Bluntly, the Government have to wake up to this and put it right.
My hon. Friends the Members for Wells (James Heappey) and for Beckenham spoke very well about how tiny the moments were in which the decisions that may lead to these processes were made. I am one of the probably very few human beings who has read every page of the Saville report. I was responsible in Northern Ireland for the various reports that came through from the peace process, which, obviously, we published and reported to Parliament. I doubt any country in the world could have gone to such lengths and such expense to try to get to the truth. On many parts of that terrible event, Saville is very clear—he establishes what happens—but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wells said, there are several tiny moments on which Saville struggles for page after page. In some instances, he does not come to a conclusion. These were split-second moments back in 1972. As my hon. Friend said, people could not remember them a week later, so how on earth are they going to remember clearly new facts?
There are merits in a statute of limitations. I leave that to lawyers, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts), who is about to speak. It would be completely wrong if the Secretary of State for Defence made a statement tomorrow that there is one regime for soldiers who served in one theatre—Afghanistan or Iraq—and a completely different regime for those who served in Op Banner. That would be absolutely wrong. As my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham said, politicians at the time sent these young soldiers to do their duty—to defend the rule of law. Those soldiers were not told, “Sorry, guys, but in 30 or 40 years’ time you’re going to have a different regime because, bluntly, you will be drawn into a contemporary political campaign.” That is what is happening.
This is my appeal to the Minister. There are two things the Government could do now. First, we do not need statements in Parliament or new legislation; we need an absolute, categorical guarantee from the Government that those who have legally valid pieces of paper exonerating them for incidents in the past will not be subject to a further process unless there is absolutely clear new evidence. Secondly, allied to that, there must not be any process in which a fair trial is not allowed. That is a very long-standing principle. I am not a lawyer, but there has to be clear, absolutely categorical new evidence, and an absolute assurance from the prosecuting authorities that the trial will be fair. It would be very good if the Minister confirmed that.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore) on leading this extremely important and topical debate.
I always speak with some trepidation in debates such as this. I cannot speak with the authority of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) or my hon. Friends the Members for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) or for Wells (James Heappey), who have been there and experienced it. In fact, I am afraid I am one of the lawyers of whom various hon. Members have spoken. However, I venture to say a few words simply to make the point that the abhorrence of lawfare is not confined to those who have served or are serving, but extends also to lawyers.
I am a barrister. Lawyers—those who serve at the Bar—have an honourable profession. They speak for people who cannot speak for themselves. They often speak for the downtrodden—people who need to be listened to but are not listened to at all. Members of the Bar are fiercely independently minded. They will say things that are not popular, and they will argue for causes for which no one else wants to argue. But sometimes they are put in the position of having to prosecute law, or defend law, that is wrong. When law is wrong, it is the job of Ministers to act and of Parliament to approve; the lawyers are put in the wrong position, and it is for us in this place to act. So it is in this case. The law needs adjustment to right this great wrong.
I feel very strongly about this matter, albeit from a different perspective from those who have spoken so movingly. I first came across this aspect of lawfare in 1993, when Lee Clegg, who was mentioned earlier, was on trial for murder. I was about 14 and, being probably an uppity little fellow, I wrote an essay saying how unjust I thought it was that someone who had made such a narrow decision in such trying circumstances was being tried for murder.
Of course, that was a highly controversial case. I will explain why I say that. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham for giving me his yellow card, upon which that case turned. Article 5 reads:
“You may only open fire against a person:
a. if he is committing or about to commit an act LIKELY TO ENDANGER LIFE AND THERE IS NO OTHER WAY TO PREVENT THE DANGER. The following are some examples of acts where life could be endangered, dependent always upon the circumstances”.
The third of those examples is
“deliberately driving a vehicle at a person and there is no other way of stopping him.”
The issue of driving at a person was the point on which the Clegg trial turned. That is an incredibly narrow distinction. That is why the case was so controversial at the time, and why it remains controversial to this day. The court was dealing with someone who at the time would have been in his teens or early 20s and under enormous pressure. My understanding of the case is that he fired shots as the car approached, which would not have been subject to action, and then a nanosecond later fired a shot through the rear windscreen, which sadly killed somebody. That was the point upon which the case turned.
Those who have served may well say, “The rules are what they are, and you have to accept and work within the rules.” Of course I entirely hear that. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wells pointed out, if it is difficult for someone to make that incredibly narrow distinction at the time, when they are frightened, under enormous pressure, young and inexperienced, how much more difficult is it 50 years later for them to remember how they felt and the reason they acted as they did?
Everyone should be clear. Neither I nor anyone else in this House is saying that servicemen should be above the law, but there is no moral equivalence whatsoever between servicemen who are involved in an unplanned incident—and who are sent to do a job, to protect people and to do their duty—and terrorists, who set out to do none of those things and who maim and murder. No one suggests that servicemen should be above the law. They do not want carte blanche to do whatever they like; they want recognition for the incredibly difficult and trying circumstances faced by servicemen who are young, inexperienced, frightened and under severe pressure, including having to make split-second decisions.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech and raising a number of notable points. I must declare an interest, in that my husband is a veteran. As a psychologist I have worked on trauma, which affects the brain after an incident. On trauma processing, in many circumstances it is extremely unlikely that people will have an accurate recollection. Surely that must also be taken into account in these cases.
That is an outstanding point, and I entirely agree. My hon. Friend the Member for Wells made a similar point. I have not prosecuted or defended military cases such as these, but I have in cases of affray and assault. As any criminal barrister will say, if there are 10 witnesses to an affray, there will be 10 different versions of events. There are many reasons for that. Part of it is perception, but is also because everyone is involved in a stressful situation, and that has an effect on the brain. Of course, that is exacerbated over the course of months and years as time passes.
We would probably accept that there may be a need for investigations, but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) said—I am glad he has returned to his place—it is a question of natural justice. If someone has been acquitted after being investigated by a proper competent authority, there comes a point when there should be no repeat investigations into those historical matters. That is close to the double jeopardy rule, which used to exist except in certain circumstances.
I do not accept that there is no way in which the law can deal with these cases. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for indicating that a statute of limitations or a presumption not to prosecute—which amount to much the same thing—will be considered for those who served outside the UK. However, it would be incredibly difficult to apply two different regimes to a soldier who had happened to serve in both Iraq or Afghanistan and Northern Ireland. It is difficult to see how that would be a logically sustainable position for justice and the law of the land.
The point, essentially, is this: those who have put everything on the line for us are entitled, at the very least, to us drawing a line at a point after which they know they will not have to fear a knock on the door in the night. They should not have to fear a cavalcade of police cars taking them away when they are in their old age. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for her indication, but there are ways in which this matter can be dealt with. A statute of limitations would provide a safeguard for exceptional circumstances and new evidence; the same is true of a presumption not to prosecute. As I observed in our previous debate on this issue, civil law—which, obviously, is not the same—offers a similar safeguard for when matters come to light years later. To give one example off the top of my head, a witness may appear who had never been seen before. The law is able to do that; what we need is the political will.
This has been going on for far too long. Those who served in Northern Ireland are entitled to know that their country has got their back, just as they had their country’s back at the time of maximum peril. We have had enough talk. We need action, and we need it now.
This has been an extremely emotional debate in which many hon. and gallant Members have spoken passionately about their personal experience in Northern Ireland. We expect the highest standards from our armed forces, and that requires them to operate within the rule of law, in accordance with the rules of engagement. Military operations in Northern Ireland were highly stressful, so a high level of training was central to ensuring that discipline was maintained.
Many Members have spoken about the restraint they had to exercise during their service in Northern Ireland, and they described their exemplary behaviour. The actions of a few in the armed forces during Operation Banner, which, in the case of the Bloody Sunday killings, Prime Minister David Cameron described as “unjustified and unjustifiable”, let down their colleagues and made the overall task more difficult.
We have heard many examples of how stressful the process has been for the individuals and families involved. The hon. Members for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), and for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), asked what sort of new evidence would be considered appropriate when looking at investigations. We need that important question answered. Many families have been left in limbo while investigations drag on, as have members or former members of the armed forces.
The legacy investigation branch of the PSNI is reviewing all deaths attributed to the security situation in Northern Ireland between 1968 and the Belfast agreement in 1998. However, it is not only deaths attributed to security personnel that are being investigated. We therefore need to be careful about talk of soldiers being prosecuted or being easy targets for prosecution, and terrorists getting away scot-free, because that is simply not true. Any decision by the legacy investigation branch to prosecute is referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland. That is an independent process, without UK Government involvement.
As I said, we must be careful about the language we use. In March, the Northern Ireland Secretary was forced to issue an apology to the House for what she described as her “deeply insensitive” comments on state killings in Northern Ireland. She referred to her “inaccurate” comments on the actions of soldiers during the troubles. In her statement to the House, she declared:
“What I said was wrong. It was deeply insensitive to the families who lost loved ones in incidents involving the security forces.”
She added that any evidence of wrongdoing should be
“pursued without fear or favour, whoever the perpetrators might be.”—[Official Report, 11 March 2019; Vol. 656, c. 74.]
That is crucial to the ongoing peace process. If we do not want to lose sight of what we have achieved in Northern Ireland and what we continue to want to achieve, we must be sensitive to the victims on both sides.
We must have confidence in the police and the judiciary in Northern Ireland, and it is for Stormont to reform those institutions if they are not serving Northern Ireland well. I certainly hope—I hope hon. Members will join me in this—that Stormont will function fully again in the future.
That said, none of us wants former or current members of the armed forces to be treated unfairly when accusations of wrongdoing are made. I hope that we all support the idea of justice being done, and that includes fairness to our armed forces personnel, who are entitled to due process in answering allegations made.
Our armed forces have our gratitude for defending us and our values in traumatic and highly stressful situations. The then Prime Minister David Cameron made a statement to the House on 15 June 2010, the day the Saville report was published. He said that
“the conclusions of this report are absolutely clear: there is no doubt; there is nothing equivocal; there are no ambiguities. What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong.” —[Official Report, 15 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 739.]
The hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) talked about the yellow card—he has his yellow card here—and about the rules of engagement that had to be adhered to during any conflict. However, Prime Minister Cameron went on to quote the report’s finding that
“none of the casualties shot by soldiers of Support Company was armed with a firearm…in no case was any warning given before soldiers opened fire.”
These investigations must not be time-constrained. The idea that after a set period of time a line is drawn under past incidents does not support the families’ need for resolution.
The Chair of the Select Committee on Defence made some interesting points in talking about the report. He mentioned a truth recovery mechanism. Such a mechanism will need to investigate incidents; regardless of what we do, there has to be some sort of closure for families and for victims.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point; I do not think any of us here want to see 70-year-old former soldiers going to jail. However, in order to get to the truth, there has to be investigation. He has to acknowledge that part of this is tied up with the Belfast agreement; we cannot start to make changes without having an impact on that agreement.
In 2012, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary inspected the role and function of the Historical Enquiries Team. The subsequent report was highly critical of the Historical Enquiries Team, and in 2013 the PSNI announced that it would review all military cases relating to the period from 1968 until the time the Good Friday agreement was signed, in order
“to ensure the quality of the review reached the required standard”.
Surely, when we know the original investigations were flawed—they did not include full, written witness statements and did not take account of all the ballistic evidence—we cannot object to attempts to reach the truth.
This Parliament has a responsibility to support the peace process. None of us wants a return to the violence of the past. Reconciliation and trust are key elements of the process, but if this place were to introduce legislation that prevents still-grieving families from learning the full truth about those who killed their loved ones, that fragile process would be put at risk.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (Damien Moore) for bringing the debate.
It is a common truism and an error when people pay credit to debates by saying they are the most important they have heard; on this occasion, that is not an exaggeration. We have been privileged to hear some extraordinary testimony, not just from eye witnesses, but from people who have made it their business to study this awful, tragic business over many years. On the one hand, we have the ugly, unfortunate and unacceptable image of pensioners being dragged from the golf course, but on the other hand we have to look into the eyes of those whose relatives were killed. I am glad that some people mentioned the victims; it is important to mention them.
We have to ask ourselves: 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 we all know that there were incidents: four soldiers were convicted of murder during that period, although in one instance, the case was then downgraded to manslaughter. All four were sentenced to life imprisonment; all four were released by the royal prerogative after fewer than five years; and all four rejoined the British Army. I have not met a single person serving or formerly serving in the armed forces who has anything but contempt for soldiers who break their oath and act outside the area that they should; that is incredibly important. We have to recognise that there are two sides. Obviously, we have sympathy for people.
In many ways the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) encapsulated the heart of the problem. He implied—he may have meant to do more than that—that we should have prosecuted at the time; the problem is justice delayed. As these cases were not prosecuted at the time, we are led to the present situation. To have prosecuted at the time might have been more sensible.
The hon. Member for Southport said that over 3,000 people died during the troubles; that bears repetition. Probably the most chilling statistic I have ever heard is that more than that number have killed themselves since the Good Friday agreement. There have been over 3,000 suicides in Northern Ireland. That tells us something about the continuation of the horror that has bitten deep into the soul. When we hear the testimony of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—I call him my friend—we realise how raw these emotions still are. That is why, if at all humanly possible, we have to be as dispassionate as we can be. That is not easy. We are talking about points of law, and about decisions that we take in this House that will echo down the ages, for years to come; we have to be cautious and careful in what we say.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) rightly referred to the chain of command, which has not been discussed overmuch. In some cases, ordinary troops—ordinary soldiers, ordinary sailors, ordinary airmen and women—were let down by the chain of command.
That brings me to the extraordinary speech of the hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). I was privileged to be in the House on the incredible occasion when he quoted Kipling:
“it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Chuck him out, the brute!’
But it’s ‘Saviour of ’is country’ when the guns begin to shoot”.
I never saw active service, but from the emotion that he showed on that occasion and has shown today, I felt the real importance of the debate.
The hon. and gallant Gentleman spoke about the yellow card. There has been much discussion about the yellow card, but I think we need to have a few facts. It was amended six times between 1969 and 1972, and was never, ever intended to supersede the common law, which gives the right of self-defence. Nobody ever suggested that the yellow card was anything other than a source of guidance; it did not supersede the common law. The central point is that the law has to apply to all on every occasion.
If there is one thing that has echoed round this Chamber today, it is that there is no equivalence between troops and terrorists—between people who wear uniform and people who wear balaclavas. I am sorry, but I resent the right hon. Gentleman’s point; I think that the attempt to make it demeans the quality of the debate. He was a very distinguished Defence Minister, and he speaks with good sense on many occasions, but that point was slightly unworthy of him.
The hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) rightly spoke about the rule of law. He mentioned something that I still find almost too agonising to think about: the on-the-run letters. I can do no better than quote Mark Durkan, formerly of this parish, who said that he felt those letters blighted the peace process
“with their penchant for side deals, pseudo-deals…shabby deals and secret deals”.
That is recognised on this side of the House, and I hope on all sides. They are not defensible, and we would not seek to defend them today.
The right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) raised an extremely interesting point, to which a few others have referred: the almost unbearable tension in the mind of a 17, 18 or 19-year-old person who knows that at any minute something they do could have lethal consequences—against them, or from them. That is the point: it is just as terrifying for them to think of the damage they could do to someone as to think of the damage that that person could do to them. The point that the right hon. Gentleman made about that fear is something that only people who have been in the situation can understand, and I am grateful to have heard what he said. The hon. Member for Strangford talked about the environment of tension, and that is something we need to talk about.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) widened the horizons of the debate, and talked about IHAT and lawfare. I have no case to make for lawfare or those ambulance-chasing scoundrels of lawyers who somehow manage to infest the lower reaches of the legal system like foul leeches, trying to take blood from our people. I have no time for those people who came up with trumped-up cases to embarrass, and in many cases threaten and terrify, people who had served with distinction and honour. I have no time for those leeches, those bloodsuckers, those ambulance-chasing scumbags.
I was enjoying listening to the stream of insults, but I feel I should perhaps stick up for my profession and reiterate my point that lawyers just interpret the law as it stands. It is for Ministers to act and Parliament to make the law. If there is a problem, as many of us will accept there is, it is for us to deal with it, and not blame the lawyers.
Fabrication of evidence is not a legal requirement of the British Parliament. We have not at any stage stated in part 3, paragraph (27)(b) of schedule 2, “thou shalt go forth and fabricate evidence”. There are more than enough cases in which people have fallen way short of the high standards of the legal profession so gloriously and elegantly exemplified by the hon. Gentleman.
I have heard many speeches by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), and have never regretted a second that I spent listening to them, because he speaks with profound good sense. Today he gave us the slightly unusual perspective of the man in the caravan in the masonic hall car park. Again, he made the point about the impact of tension on young people. Often in groups of young people in such a situation, one person tends to lead, and if there is one person in a platoon with a contemptuous and contemptible attitude towards the people they are supposed to be protecting, that will often ratchet up. A person will say things that are unforgivable, and other people in the platoon, in the file, or on the mess deck, will be uncomfortable about challenging it. That happens with human behaviour. It is human. It is important to realise it.
We cannot mention too often the name of the late Captain Robert Nairac. We are at the anniversary of his disappearance and death. What a tragic waste of a life it was. It was one of 3,500, by all means, but he was a man who gave his all—everything—for his country, and I do not think that we can forget him.
I found it extraordinarily moving when the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) talked about arriving, as a newly commissioned officer, in civvies on a civilian transport into Northern Ireland, and finding he was in a country—a place—he did not recognise. Is that not part of the problem? On our relationship with “John Bull’s Other Island”, we often do not understand Ireland or the Irish. It would have been even more honest of the hon. Gentleman to say that he had, perhaps, some preconceptions about Ireland, but he had the courage to say that when he arrived there, he did not realise the full nature of the place he was coming to. I think that that shock was dramatic, and what he said was much to his credit.
Yes, indeed. The hon. Gentleman will be delighted to know that our shadow Secretary of State for Defence has issued a statement via something called Twitter that sets out the whole thing. Rather than take up the time of the House, which is short, I shall send him across a copy, which enunciates precisely what we are doing.
The hon. Member for Wells (James Heappey) talked about Kabul and about a wider situation. However, what the issue comes down to, and the point I shall finish on, is that I am not precisely sure what the petitioners are asking for. They are not asking for an amnesty or for a statute of limitations, because, frankly, justice cannot be time-expired. We cannot have a situation in which a crime is a crime one day and, a few years later, is not, so I should like to know exactly what they want. If there is one thing that everybody in the Chamber agrees on, it is that this matter has been dealt with without sensitivity, subtlety or good sense. The idea of a cavalcade of police rocking up at someone’s house at 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning is indefensible. We cannot go there, so we need to be much more sensitive. If we cannot turn the clock back to investigate the cases that happened at the time, and if we are going to investigate them now, we need to be sensible. Above all, we need to remember two groups: the veterans, by all means; but also let us never forget the victims.
It is good to have you looking after the second half of the proceedings, Mr Bone. I echo the repeated compliments and tributes to my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore), who led this tremendously important debate, kicking off a set of angry, passionate and emotional contributions from colleagues, many of whom have served in Her Majesty’s armed forces. Even those who have not—including those who have confessed to being lawyers—have been incredibly understanding and sympathetic to the plight being discussed today. My hon. Friend rightly started by saying that the vast majority of the deaths caused during the troubles were caused by terrorists. A very small minority can be attributed to the actions of Her Majesty’s armed forces.
I should pause to say that, if we listen to veterans, we find that this is not just a question of prosecutions, although those are difficult enough and require a lot of support. It is also a question of the repeated and unending investigations before any prosecution ever happens. In fact, in most cases no prosecution has ever happened but people live in fear of the knock on the door, the cavalcade of police cars turning up at 5 am, and the repeated interviews, which are often, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey) eloquently put it, about events that not only happened 30, 40 or 50 years ago, but happened in the fog of war, and were hard to remember, define and record a few days later, let alone decades further on.
We heard a catalogue of worries, concerns and justified outrage, and comments about betrayal, injustice and lawfare. I thought one of the most telling contributions was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who intervened early in the debate. He is a former Green Jacket and I think his point was widely accepted. It was that soldiers went out to protect innocent civilians, whereas terrorists went out specifically to kill and maim. His point was that there should be no moral equivalence between those two purposes. That point has been made many times by other Members during the debate.
One of the most powerful speeches that I have heard in a long time was made by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). Equipped with his yellow card, which he had kept all this time since his tours in Northern Ireland, he made the point about decisions made in milliseconds that get re-examined at leisure in peaceful courtrooms many years later. That approach to justice is extremely hard to justify. He also eloquently made a point that others made when he said, “We always acted within the law. If we did not, we should be prosecuted.” That point has been made repeatedly by other people here—in fact, my hon. Friend the Member for Southport made it in kicking this thing off. He said that the rule of law must be applied but that for servicepeople breaches of those laws were a very rare exception and not the norm.
Nobody here is trying to pretend, and I have not heard a single person say, that those breaches of the law should not be treated with the utmost care, gravity and severity, but nor should we pretend that they were common, ubiquitous or frequent. When we try to maintain a sense of proportion and balance, which many people have rightly pointed out is widely felt not to have been achieved, it is essential that we do not forget that central fact.
The hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) made the correct point that sacrifice does not come in different grades. He said that any solution must work under article 2 of the Human Rights Act, and he is right about that. He also made a crucial distinction between an amnesty and a statute of limitations, a point echoed later on, and rightly said that we must do more before, in what I thought was one of the more affecting moments, reading out a very sombre and sober list of names of some of the people killed in just the few weeks before the Bloody Sunday outrages.
The Select Committee Chair, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), was extremely careful in his views. He said that we need to make progress, and in fact we are making some progress, but we have not made nearly enough. He then mentioned the Nelson Mandela approach; I will come back to that point, because it is central to any potential action and solution that we may want to come to later.
I will try to ensure that not only do I leave a few moments for my hon. Friend the Member for Southport to respond, but that at the end of this I suggest some actions that can be taken. People have said repeatedly, and rightly, that words are all very well; politicians, as we all are here, are good at words. I am afraid that as a Westminster Hall debate, this does not end in legislation per se, so we cannot debate a law here this afternoon, but we can at least start to move toward actions, and I hope to be able to propose some of those.
This was discussed at some length in the urgent question last Thursday, and a number of hon. Members have made the important point during the course of this debate that was also made on Thursday: for people serving on Operation Banner, it did not feel any different. It felt the same whether they were patrolling in Northern Ireland or in Basra or Afghanistan—it did not matter where. The surroundings might have been different, but it felt the same and they felt under the same pressures. I think everyone here has rightly made the point that morally, as a society, we owe Northern Ireland veterans the same debt of gratitude. Not only that, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wells said, no matter what happens, “Come what may, we’ve got your back.” No matter where people served, that should be the outcome.
The difficulty, to answer the point by my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) , is that in strict legal terms, the legal basis on which the service took place differs depending on whether it was abroad or in the UK. Our challenge as lawmakers is to ensure that the outcome for our servicemen and women is the same. They may have to start from different places, but the destination must be the same; if we cannot do that, we will have failed, and failed really badly.
That is indeed one of the points I will make when we come to the actions. I will briefly mention the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who made one of the most emotional contributions; he served, I think, in Northern Ireland himself, and he is absolutely right in his enjoinder that we must all be honourable and do right by our veterans.
One of the most thoughtful examples of controlled anger of the afternoon came from my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), who said that we must do more. I think everybody here would agree with that. He also said that we are not asking for an amnesty for war crimes and that a statute of limitations, pure and simple, cannot work because there should never be a time limit on serious criminal behaviour, although he also said that something around the announced presumption of non-prosecution looks promising. In a point that I think we would all echo, my hon. Friend was also rightly contemptuous of the false narrative of hope that the legal teams of the lawfare profession are using to manipulate victims’ grief.
I will not go through everybody, but I wanted to say that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) rightly stated the point I was just making: the fact that this is UK law rather than service abroad cannot be used as an excuse for failing to help Northern Ireland service versus service abroad. That cannot stand, and it is a deep injustice.
I am under pressure of time, so I will gloss over some of the other comments, but they were all valid. My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset, himself a former Grenadier Guard, made the point that our words must match our actions, and he is right. My hon. Friend the Member for Wells, a former rifleman, asked how legal cases can justly be tried decades later, after the fog of war has passed.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), himself a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and thus a man with personal experience of many of these policy issues, said something that, again, I think would be echoed rightly around this Chamber: no further legal process should happen unless there is clear and categorical new evidence, a point also made by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts), who said we should not go anywhere near what used to be called the double jeopardy rule, under which someone cannot be tried twice for the same offence.
What must we achieve? We must achieve an answer that will do several things. Of course it must work for veterans in the armed forces, but it must also work for former police officers, prison guards and wardens too. They are not in the armed forces and they work on a different legal basis, but the answer must work for them as well. It must work for innocent, peaceful Catholics and Protestants alike in Northern Ireland—people who have never served or wanted to serve, but were potentially in the line of fire from some of the actions that look place.
Our answer must work for the victims and the families of the victims. We have heard some of that, but it needs to be emphasised. Most importantly, it must work in court so that, when the inevitable legal challenges come from the lawfare brigade, this thing is robust and stands up; if it does not, we will have failed in our duty to protect our former servicemen and women. There is no point coming up with something that sounds great, but falls over the first time a clever lawyer pokes it in court. That will not stand.
Finally—I have treble-underlined this in my notes—our answer must draw a line and allow people to move on. It must allow not only the victims and the veterans, but the whole society in Northern Ireland, to draw a line. That is why I come back to the point made by the Chairman of the Defence Committee. There is not an exact comparison between Northern Ireland, which is a unique place, and South Africa, but there are many parallels. We must find some way of creating an approach that will allow people to get closure, truth and justice.
What I hope and expect we will do is, first, to publish very soon the results of the consultation so we can all see what people in Northern Ireland genuinely think about the details of the questions. Secondly, promptly after that, I expect us to announce the Government response, which must be actions, not words. The Stormont proposals are a starting point, but there are genuine concerns on all sides about the details of those proposals. They cannot stand as they are, but they are a good starting point and we need to work on the details of how we modify them so that we can bring forward a Bill.
The crucial thing is the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green: when natural justice collides with the law, the law must change. That is what we do here.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the conclusion of this debate, Mr Bone. I thank all right hon., hon. and gallant, and hon. Friends and Members for their contributions, particularly my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).
We have a moral obligation to ensure that justice is done. That does not mean special treatment for veterans, but it does mean that if, for example, we are to have a statute of limitations, they are not excluded from it. They deserve fairness, justice and closure on this issue.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 243947 relating to immunity for soldiers.