Skip to main content

Parachute Regiment: Arrest

Volume 602: debated on Wednesday 18 November 2015

(Urgent Question): Further to the question to the Prime Minister from my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti), may I ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if she will make a statement about the arrest of a former member of the Parachute Regiment who was on duty in Londonderry on 30 January 1972?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. As part of an ongoing investigation by the Police Service of Northern Ireland into the events surrounding Bloody Sunday in Londonderry in 1972, a former soldier was arrested for questioning on 10 November. He was subsequently released on bail. Criminal investigations and prosecutions are a matter for the police and prosecuting authorities, who act independently of Government. The Government cannot therefore comment on an individual case.

This Government are committed to the rule of law. Where there is evidence of wrongdoing, it is right that it should be investigated. We remain unstinting in our admiration and support for the men and women of the police and armed forces, whose sacrifice ensured that terrorism would never succeed in Northern Ireland and that Northern Ireland’s future would only ever be determined by democracy and consent. Whether the current investigations will lead to a criminal prosecution is a matter for the police and prosecuting authorities in Northern Ireland.

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister pointed out in his statement on Lord Saville’s report, more than 250,000 people served in Northern Ireland during Operation Banner, which was the longest continuous operation in British military history and one in which I was proud to play a part. The overwhelming majority of those who served carried out their duties with courage, professionalism and integrity. The Government will never forget the debt of gratitude we owe them.

Thank you for allowing me to pose this question, Mr Speaker. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister for his service in Northern Ireland.

When the Prime Minister made his memorable statement to the House in 2010 following the publication of the Saville report into the events of 30 January 1972—known elsewhere as Bloody Sunday—I and others hoped that a line would be drawn under that tragedy. We now find, however, that 43 years after the event and some three years after the PSNI started its further investigations, a soldier from the Parachute Regiment, known as Soldier J, who was in his early 20s at the time and is now in his late 60s, faces possible prosecution for murder. There is also a prospect of further arrests.

For two reasons, I submit that this is wrong. First, what national interest will be served in bringing these cases to court? The Saville inquiry found that there was no premeditation to murder in the minds of those young soldiers. One of those who was killed had four nail bombs in his pocket, and a witness said that Martin McGuinness was on the other side, probably armed with a Thompson sub-machine gun. Those soldiers of the Crown were not hired killers. They were seeking to do their duty to their country in a filthy civil war in which the enemy were dressed in civilian clothes and indistinguishable from the local population.

Secondly, as the Secretary of State said in response to a question from the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) on 1 May 2014,

“the royal prerogative of mercy…was granted in Northern Ireland 365 times between 1979 and 2002”.—[Official Report, 1 May 2014; Vol. 579, c. 762W.]

The Saville report cost £195 million and took 12 years to compile, but our servicemen, then based in Aldershot, some of whom remain my constituents, had to make snap decisions, the consequences of which have hung over them for the whole of their adult lives.

What happened that day was a tragedy, particularly for the families of those who lost their lives. However, they are not the only bereaved. What about the families of the 1,441 British soldiers who died in Northern Ireland in the service of their country? There was no Saville inquiry into how they were killed, often brutally. There was no Saville inquiry into the murder of six civilian cleaning ladies and one Roman Catholic padre in Aldershot the following month. I submit that it is immoral for the state to seek nearly half a century after the event to put these men on trial, while others who deployed their bombs and bullets in the shadows are now in government or have received royal pardons—an act of government, not of the courts. I urge the Minister to exercise the royal prerogative of mercy with immediate effect.

I hear what my hon. Friend says. He has been a doughty and outspoken champion of not only the Parachute Regiment and his constituents, but Britain’s armed forces. This is not easy for me either; I know what it is like to make those decisions under pressure. But we should not forget that the British Army is not above the law, and nor should it be. That is the difference between us and the terrorist; it is what makes ours a professional Army around the world, admired by many, and sets it apart from some of those more tin-pot armed forces elsewhere in the world.

The House will have heard what my hon. Friend said about the use of the royal prerogative of mercy. What I will say to that is: I cannot comment on these individual cases, as they are obviously a matter for an ongoing police inquiry. It is long way from following a line of inquiry to charging and conviction in a court. I am sure the House will reflect on his call, but the Government cannot comment on this current case, and the police must be allowed to do their job and uphold the rule of law—the rule of law that I went as a soldier to uphold in my time in Northern Ireland.

It is only right and proper at this time to pay tribute to our armed forces, who are at this very moment engaged in defending our freedoms and are in harm’s way. They operate to the very highest standards, and we should always remember the difficult circumstances in which they serve and have served. Does the Minister therefore agree with me that it is always difficult to criticise our armed forces if they fall below these high standards, but we cannot and must not fail to do so if evidence of wrongdoing should exist?

The Saville inquiry of 2010 was clear, and this is what the Prime Minister said:

“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.]

He also apologised on behalf of the British Government. The whole report made very uncomfortable reading for all of us, and of course we must never forget the victims and families of those who were killed, both on Bloody Sunday and throughout Northern Ireland on so many other occasions. Can the Minister confirm, so we are all clear, that evidence given at the Saville inquiry is precluded from being used in any court proceedings against a particular individual? Can he confirm therefore that the arrest of Soldier J was based on evidence gathered by the PSNI since January 2014, which is when it announced a new investigation? The PSNI has said that there will be no further arrests until the results of a judicial review brought by other affected soldiers is concluded. When does he expect that will be? Will he also tell us what work the Northern Ireland Office has undertaken pending the outcome of that review?

Yesterday, we heard the welcome announcement of agreement on many important issues at Stormont, which came after weeks of exhaustive discussions. It was, however, not possible within that agreement for the parties to agree on how legacy issues and the past should be dealt with. Will the Minister outline what steps the Government intend to take to continue to pursue such an agreement? Does the case of Soldier J, and potentially others that we are discussing here today, not emphasise once again the need for a comprehensive process to deal with these issues and outstanding cases, however difficult this may be? The whole House will agree that the independence of the police and the judiciary is central to any democracy, but a process has to be sought and agreed, however difficult.

Northern Ireland is coming out of conflict. Huge progress has been made. The Northern Ireland of today is hugely different from that of yesterday. All of us who have visited it on a regular basis have seen that for ourselves. We have seen the desire to build for the future, and the hopes that everyone has for the new generation. When the Minister answers my questions about this difficult issue, will he also agree that the continuing and emerging issues from the past have to be dealt with as they cannot be denied? Let us also not forget how far we have come. All parties, all communities and the people of Northern Ireland deserve huge credit for that.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions. On the important issue of testimony, it was established during the Saville inquiry that the testimony of anyone giving evidence to that inquiry could not be used either as a basis for conviction or indeed to incriminate themselves. That was done so that we could find out as much as possible about what happened on that fateful day. That principle still stands, and the protection of a person’s evidence is still an issue. However, it does not preclude other evidence that is gathered later. I cannot comment on the current police investigation. It would be wrong for me to interfere with the PSNI, or indeed inquire too deeply, as it must be left to follow the course of its investigation.

On the issue of legacy, I wish to place on the record my admiration for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, the Northern Ireland parties and the Irish Government who, over 150 meetings in the past nine-and-a-half weeks—75 bilateral meetings and more than 35 round table meetings—resolved the current impasse in Northern Ireland. They have decided that the best future is to move forward and not back. It is regrettable that that legacy has been left out of the final agreement in so far as legislation is concerned. However, the agreement signed yesterday continues to commit the parties to produce solutions to deal with the legacy; the victims of the Northern Ireland troubles will demand that. We, as the United Kingdom Government, have committed to provide the funding for that legacy inquiry to take place, and I hope that sooner rather than later, we get to a point where the policy we are examining in the Northern Ireland (Stormont House Agreement) Bill can be enacted so that, in the end, we can achieve not only justice for victims, but closure from the troubles.

The Minister—and indeed the Prime Minister a few minutes ago—was right to draw the House’s attention to the separation of powers. In order for people in Northern Ireland, and throughout the United Kingdom, to keep their faith in the peace process, is it not important that whoever is suspected of committing any crimes is fully investigated regardless of what roles they may be playing in Government now?

I totally agree with my hon. Friend, and it is why, not so long ago when a prominent member of Sinn Féin and former members of the provisional IRA were arrested, I said quite clearly at the Dispatch Box that we support the PSNI in pursuing the evidence that is presented to it to bring them to justice whether they are senior members of a political party or members of a terrorist organisation, but that is not to equate them with individuals who were in the British armed forces and who were doing their job to defend people who could not defend themselves.

We echo the comments made by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) and we endorse what he has said. Is it not the case that we still have people in Northern Ireland who are prepared to go out and murder former members of the security forces? Is it really appropriate that, when a man offers to go to a police station for interview, three police cars arrive at his home to arrest him in full public view, given his background? If we are to do this, we need to find a more sensitive way. We should not be placing men and women who have served this country well, and their families, at risk and in danger simply, as appears to be the case, to appease some other people?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to express concern at the manner in which anyone is arrested, but, as I have said, I cannot comment on this individual case. If he has issues with how and in what manner that person was arrested, may I suggest that he takes it up with the Chief Constable?

I entirely endorse the comments of the Minister and the shadow Secretary of State about how the current circumstances in Northern Ireland could never have come about without the extraordinary bravery and discipline of all those in our security forces who allowed the peace process to take root. To pick up the shadow Secretary of State’s question, the Saville report is the most extraordinary compilation of detail. Will the Minister confirm that all the evidence given by soldiers who were questioned is absolutely untouchable and cannot be used on legal grounds to incriminate them, and that their anonymity is also legally protected?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. It is absolutely the case that the testimony given by a former soldier cannot be used against that former soldier in any future case. He or she is protected from incriminating him or herself, whoever gave that evidence. As for my right hon. Friend’s other point, I think the best thing is for me to get a proper, clear answer and to write to him on that matter.

As the MP for the constituency in which the events of Bloody Sunday took place, I know that I have to take care not to go so far in rebutting some of the issues raised by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) that it adds to any impression of political pressure or motive behind the current investigation, or indeed any arrest. Will the Minister confirm that one of the things that all the parties have agreed, in all the discussions on the legacy, is that amnesty is no basis for dealing with the past, and that the House should therefore avoid getting involved when there are particular investigations or arrests?

Will the Minister also qualify his last answer by saying that protection does not extend to perjury, that Lord Saville warned several witnesses and that the prosecuting authorities took the position that they would pursue perjury—which would happen in this jurisdiction, because that is where any possible perjury took place—only after what they called the substantive crime of possible murder was dealt with? Therefore, if people are looking to say that the investigation of possible murder should somehow be parked or abandoned, will he consult with colleagues to see whether the issues around perjury should be reconsidered by the prosecuting authorities?

The hon. Gentleman is right that the protection does not extend to the area of perjury of witnesses giving testimony at a public inquiry, and that would be the same for any witness on that day. On amnesty, I can confirm to him that, throughout the whole legacy discussions of the Stormont House Bill, as it was going to be, amnesty was never part of the process—not with the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval or, indeed, with the Historical Investigations Unit. That was not something that either Government or parties wanted to commit to.

May I pay tribute to George Hamilton and the Police Service of Northern Ireland? They are bound to follow the evidence, and we should support them in so doing, but does my hon. Friend accept that in following the evidence they are likely to follow the actions of members of the armed forces first and foremost, as the Provisional IRA, inconveniently, was not in the habit of laying down written evidence? The legacy investigation branch is therefore bound to give at least the impression of focusing on former members of the British armed forces. Does my hon. Friend understand that that serves the historical revisionist agenda of Sinn Féin, and will he comment on whether that is likely to be helpful or unhelpful to the peace process?

My hon. Friend knows all too well, having stood here at the Dispatch Box doing this job previously, that what serves the peace process is the reckoning of the past, closure for victims—but also justice for victims—the pursuit of former terrorists, if they have not been convicted, and the pursuit of anyone else. That is what serves peace. Recognising the huge sacrifices made by members of the security forces and the civilian population of Northern Ireland is what actually brought us to the negotiating table. It is what defeated the terrorists, and that is why we need to make sure that, when we move forward, we do so in a spirit that is measured and recognises where justice needs to be done, but also that we do not indulge people who would like to revise the past, as if it were some big conspiracy against people.

We often hear from the Prime Minister about the importance of having enshrined the military covenant in law in this country, and he is quite right to boast of that: it is a wonderful thing to have done. In that context, will the Minister guarantee that the Ministry of Defence will pay for all the legal costs—for legal advice and top legal representation—of any former soldiers who served in Northern Ireland who are charged in connection with any inquiry, such as Bloody Sunday, or any inquest, such as those announced for Ballymurphy?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. The MOD recognises that we have a duty of care to all current and former members of the armed forces. As an essential part of that, we will pay for independent legal advice, so that they are able to defend themselves when they face legal proceedings or matters related to their former service, so the answer is yes.

I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend has said about the need to uphold the law. I entirely understand why any decisions about prosecutions must be independent and why he cannot comment on this particular case. However, without prejudging in any way any particular case, does he understand that we also need to uphold justice and that it would offend the natural sense of justice of many in this country that how the Army behaved on a certain day 40 years ago is being reopened, while so many on the IRA side who killed have been granted amnesty? Does he agree that, if we are to draw a line under past events for the sake of peace, it should be drawn on both sides?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. I would just like to correct him: paramilitaries and terrorists who have not been convicted and were not part of the Good Friday agreement have not been granted any blanket amnesty. They are still subject to the full force of the law, and there are no doubt individuals who are still being looked for or cases being prepared. In that case, I am afraid there is no blanket amnesty, but my right hon. Friend is right that we should not let individual cases colour the very strong and successful work that our armed forces did. We went to Northern Ireland to protect those who could not defend themselves. That is a record we should be proud of, but that record can be besmirched—it has always been the same since the war, or any other time—if members of the armed forces think they are above the law. It is what makes us different from the terrorists we challenge.

There may be no blanket amnesty, but is it not the case that former terrorists have been granted immunity from prosecution? Does the Minister agree that no fair-minded person will understand why the same right is not extended to British soldiers?

I think I have to correct the hon. Gentleman. It is not my understanding that anyone has been granted amnesty from prosecution, and we should not confuse some of the recent events with that meaning—a blanket amnesty. No one has an amnesty available to call on to protect them from facing up to what they did, but he is right: I face, nearly every week, people sitting opposite me who I know killed my soldiers, but I can do that because I think it is about the future and about making peace to move forward for the people of Northern Ireland.

My constituent, himself a Northern Ireland veteran, has written to me expressing dismay about the arrest of this 66-year-old ex-soldier. Chillingly, he writes:

“You should be aware that there is a large and rapidly growing undercurrent of anger and resentment of these actions within the current military and more importantly amongst the many tens of thousands of veterans who like me, spent long months and years being stoned, bombed, fired upon, injured, intimidated and vilified”.

I understand the parameters within which the Minister is operating, but can he ensure that an explanation is brought forward rapidly and that matters are brought to a swift conclusion, to allay the anger reflected in that correspondence?

I am tempted to say to my right hon. Friend that I might have drafted part of that letter. I was stoned, vilified and abused over many years on those tours.

The anger is real. I feel the anger of many of my former colleagues and of my right hon. Friend’s constituent about making sure that this is not used as some political campaign. We in the Government are determined to make sure that it is about the rule of law—that the police have to gather the evidence, if there is any, and that it has to follow its course. We are a long way from that. We are in a position where I cannot comment on the current case, although we are currently talking about people being questioned—under caution and, obviously, arrested—but it is a long way to make the jump to this being some form of campaign against the British Army. What I will say is that we are listening to what people are saying. The Government know that this is about moving forward, and therefore we shall do everything in our power to make sure that, as the MOD is doing currently, we recognise and support our soldiers who face prosecution or, indeed, investigation, to make sure they are given the representation they deserve.

I am glad that the urgent question was granted. We recognise and support the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, but there is real anger among veterans. Will the Minister take steps to end the current inequality that allows for those in the armed services to be pursued with greater vigour and effort than the terrorists, and ensure that we move towards a level playing field in the future?

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is an inequality in the process. I do not believe that some people are being pursued by the police and the Chief Constable with more verve than others. They will go where the evidence takes them and they will follow them. This is a process that I hope will help many soldiers and former Royal Ulster Constabulary members to clear their names. Having such a process is as important as not having a process that could allow people to make false allegations against them.

I entirely concur with the Minister’s point that no one is above the law, but the perception among many Members in this Chamber, and among people in the country, is that our British soldiers are hounded while those who murder and kill become politicians and are still allowed—I have personally faced them—to walk free. Will the Minister confirm that the identities of Soldier J and anybody else from before 1973, which I think is where the rule comes in, will be kept secret?

We must all challenge the perception that they are hounded. As I have said, 250,000 people served during those 25 years. No one is hounding them. The police must be allowed to follow a course of inquiry in order to help either to clear names or to achieve justice where there has been a breach of the law. That is very important. We have to distinguish: we are the people who follow the rule of law and it is the terrorist who does not. In answer to my hon. Friend’s second question, as I told my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I shall write to him about that detail.

Five years ago, the Prime Minister stood at the Dispatch Box and tried to bring closure to the £200 million Saville report, and people across the House and in many sections of society expressed the view that the matter was at an end. I predicted in this place at that time that that would not be the end of the matter and, unfortunately, so it has proved. Does the Minister accept that he needs to meet the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland to ensure that, irrespective of whether people were in or out of uniform, if they had machine guns or probably had sub-machine-guns, like Martin McGuinness, they should be subject to the law and questioned equally, in order to be brought before the courts?

The Chief Constable is absolutely adamant that, in all criminal inquiries, he will treat people the same. He will investigate and he will follow the course of action. It was not that long ago that we were hearing cries about Sinn Féin politicians being arrested and taken in for questioning. I have confidence that the Chief Constable, who is respected by Members on both sides of the House, will follow his professional training, pursue people based on evidence and treat them fairly in that process. I cannot get involved in investigations. I cannot go to see the Chief Constable to interfere. If I did and the result was the same and there was no evidence in a particular case, it would never be allowed to be gotten away with. People would accuse me of having interfered in a case and someone would be prevented from clearing their name.

I took a patrol out on the streets of Belfast a few moments after we had discovered that our battalion band had been blown up while entertaining Londoners in Regent’s Park. I will never forget the restraint shown by riflemen and other ranks under my command as they faced the taunts of the IRA and its supporters. That is just one example of thousands of similar occasions when the armed forces showed unbelievable restraint in the face of unbelievable provocation. My colleagues at that time, and many veterans like them, want to say, “What about Bloody Warrenpoint? What about Bloody Regent’s Park? What about Bloody Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday? These things were happening every day of the week.” The Minister is entirely right to say that this has to be dealt with properly, but does he agree that society wants a line to be drawn under it?

I hear what my hon. Friend says and I do not disagree with him. Like him, I have had personal experience of that restraint. We should not forget the tremendous pressure that soldiers and police were put under every day, including provocation. I remember soldiers being attacked and people parking their cars in front of ambulances so that they could not come to their rescue. There was inhumane treatment, murder and victimisation by parts of a society that we were there to try to protect. Like my hon. Friend, I have real passion for what our soldiers achieved. The United Kingdom Government recognise and support that. He will also recognise that those soldiers who showed restraint are the ones who make ours the best Army in the world. Their professionalism meant that they managed to carry on and try to achieve a better result for the people of Northern Ireland, who they were there to protect, and that restraint means that those people who have a chance to clear their name should be allowed to do so. It is those soldiers who follow the rule of law who are only ever let down by those very, very few soldiers who break the law.

I concur and agree wholeheartedly with the comments of the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth). The diligence and zeal shown by the authorities in questioning and detaining Parachute Regiment soldiers cause concern when compared with the treatment of on-the-runs, who have committed horrible, brutal, evil crimes and are free today, some in elevated positions across the Province and in other parts of Ireland. Does the Minister appreciate the anger that many feel towards the double standards evidenced by what is happening today?

The hon. Gentleman is right and I understand his point. Indeed, I was on the Back Benches during the whole on-the-run process. I cannot comment much further on the on-the-runs, other than to say that it is my understanding, unless I am corrected, that the on-the-runs are not subject to any amnesty, and that means that they are not free from prosecution. I hope that the prosecuting authorities will hear what we say today and make sure that they continue, where they can, prosecutions of any of those individuals who have committed crimes against our armed forces and the people of Northern Ireland.

Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan), I have been contacted by constituents who are deeply concerned about the appearance of double standards and of some kind of amnesty for terrorists. In the week that the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly heard from the Chief Constable of the PSNI that his officers are still going about their business while dissident republicans aim to kill them as they work to protect their community, will the Minister assure us that there is no question of any amnesty for those who attack and maim our armed forces?

Not only can I assure my hon. Friend that there is no amnesty, but in the latest Northern Ireland agreement, which was reached yesterday, there is £160 million more money to fund our police forces and security services in Northern Ireland to pursue people who commit crimes, or who have done so in the past, against the innocent people of Northern Ireland. Yesterday’s agreement also included measures to monitor the paramilitary activity of former paramilitaries or organisations that should be inactive. We are determined not only to deal with the past, but to invest and give our police the support to make sure we bring to justice those terrorists who have been on the run and who have not yet been brought to justice, as well as those dissident republicans who are out there right now targeting colleagues and police officers who are going about their business in Northern Ireland every day.

The Minister has said that he does not think there is any inequality. How, then, does he explain that more than 20 PSNI officers are investigating Bloody Sunday soldiers, but not one police officer is investigating the 11 murders in Enniskillen on Remembrance Sunday in 1987?

I do not know the inner workings through which the Chief Constable and his senior officers decide to investigate each individual case, and nor should I. Suffice it to say that the Chief Constable is determined, as I understand it, to bring to justice any individual who has broken the law in the past. There are plenty of former and current terrorists who need to be brought to justice, and PSNI officers and Security Service officers are out there every day trying to catch the terrorist. It is not, in my view, all focused on former soldiers.

We have always been opposed to terrorism and to on-the-runs. It was my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) who steadfastly opposed that in the House some years ago. We also believed in accountability and sensitivity for all victims, irrespective of where they came from. Will the Minister redouble the efforts to ensure that the legacy of the past is fully pursued and that we obtain a final resolution that takes on board national security considerations, so that truth is made available for all?

The hon. Lady is right. The SDLP has a fine and long track record not only of pursuing justice but of using democratic methods to pursue its political agenda. We should not forget that throughout the troubles the SDLP took quite a lot of intimidation. Like the hon. Lady, I regret that the legacy did not make it through the agreement. Like her, I am determined to make sure that we deal with those issues from the past. That is why funding is still available to do that. Next week I will press Northern Ireland parties on what we will do to move on from the agreement, to ensure that we move forward on the investigations and the legacy issue so that families get more information and closure and that justice is served.

I congratulate the Minister on his professional response to upholding the rule of law, which, given his background, must be very hard for him. His response is exactly what we expect from our service people, and we do expect more from them. That is why it is right and proper, if the rule of law is being followed, that the people concerned get the chance to clear their name if that is possible. We have to remember that 13 people were left dead on the streets of Derry 43 years ago, and that must be sorted out. If people did not act properly, it is right and proper that they are brought to book.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments. I reiterate that what sets us apart is the rule of law and soldiers who show restraint and professionalism. That is how we get public and community support. If we are trying to deal with a terrorist threat and counter-terrorism, we need the population on our side. I know more than anyone that when populations felt that we were above the law or that we did not treat them as if they were part of society, the soldiers’ job was harder and more dangerous because no one helped us or gave us information, and our lives were put at greater risk.

What an invidious choice. I call Mr Sammy—oh, Mr Baron, you have suddenly risen to your feet. Was the hon. Gentleman here at the start? From the very start, Mr Speaker.

Like other hon. Members in this place, I led soldiers and platoons in those troubled times in the 1980s. I pay tribute to the vast majority of soldiers who showed true professionalism, often in very hostile environments. I agree with the Minister that nobody should be above the rule of law, but may I make one plea to him? Will he use his offices to do what he can to expedite this matter? What we all want in this place, on all sides, is to draw a line under those troubled times so that we can move forward. That, together with good offices on all sides, will give peace and the peace process the best chance of succeeding for the longer term.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am delighted that you called my hon. Friend. He is right—we need to put all this behind us. However, I cannot interfere in a police investigation or any of the processes. To do so would jeopardise the course of justice and may jeopardise someone’s ability to clear their name.

The Minister says that the Army is not above the rule of law, and that there is no blanket amnesty for those whom they were seeking to prevent from killing the people of Northern Ireland. However, the perception of the casual observer is that either because of political position or because of scandalous certificates handed out by the Labour Government, or by an action of the PSNI, there is a group of killers in Northern Ireland who are immune from prosecution. That stirs up animosity and puts police officers in fear while they are dealing with the current bunch of republican terrorists, that at some time in the future their families will also whinge for inquiries and those same police officers will stand in the dock. Can the Minister not see that some mechanism, such as that used in the past against IRA killers, must be used to ensure that Army personnel are not pursued in this way?

I can see the hon. Gentleman’s last point but I will not equate IRA killers with British forces. They are not the same, and I will not encourage an alternative mechanism that somehow equates them. My view and the Government’s view is that the police, and our forces, must follow the rule of law. If the hon. Gentleman is worried about perception, we must all do more to correct that perception. I shall do more to correct that perception, and next week when I meet the police and the security services, I shall certainly press on them again the need to pursue those people who are still at large and those terrorist crimes that have not been solved and for which people have not been brought to justice.

The double standards in this affair are palpable for all to see. We have hundreds of on-the-run letters signed off, clearing people of mass murder, and some of several mass murders. A dozen of them were signed off by the Minister’s colleague. Is it not a disgrace that people such as Rita O’Hare are freely available to meet with Prime Ministers and Presidents, yet the Minister tells us that there is no double standard? There is a double standard and it must be addressed. These soldiers cannot be held in the way that they are being held.

The hon. Gentleman reiterates the point that there is an unfair playing field and a double standard, but I do not believe that there is a double standard. I do believe that the police and the PSNI, in their professional manner, are pursuing the evidence that is presented to them. A line of questioning is a long way from conviction and court cases. Who knows where it will take us? But if politicians interfere with that course of justice, we will not solve the problems of Northern Ireland. We will just extend those problems, and people will continue to refer back by saying that all along this was a big fix and it was not really about making sure that justice is done. Everyone in Northern Ireland deserves justice. Everyone who served in Northern Ireland deserves justice. I want to know who killed my soldiers and I will continue to ask those questions, but I will not find out who killed my soldiers if we do not move Northern Ireland forward and give the police the money to do their job, and allow them to pursue people and achieve convictions where they are deserved.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I appreciate the latitude you have shown in calling me.

I am alarmed by the Minister’s apparent indication this afternoon that the pursuit of prosecutions is a good opportunity for ex-servicemen to clear their names. Surely, as a former serviceman, he can understand the anguish, the pain and the stress of people who stood by me, my family, my colleagues and my countrymen through all those hard days. He should reflect on whether the pursuit of such prosecutions is a worthy or noble way for people to clear their name.

I did not actually say “the pursuit of prosecutions”; I said that the pursuing of a line of inquiry is important to allow people to clear their name. It is also important because when, or if, the PSNI says on a number of occasions that there is no evidence to answer, the public will have full confidence that the police have done all they can to establish whether that is the case. If the police—or the Director of Public Prosecutions or anyone else—rule out charging someone, the public have to believe that that is because there is no evidence. They cannot do it on the basis that a politician, a Minister or anyone else interfered with the process, because that would be a subjective matter, and it would undermine justice, not strengthen it.