Stormont House Agreement: Implementation
I beg to move,
That this House has considered implementation of the Stormont House Agreement.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I know you have taken an interest in these matters over the years. I welcome colleagues who have taken time out to attend the debate, including the Minister. I look forward to his response.
Although policing and justice issues are now devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive—at least for the next few weeks—the legacy of our troubled past remains a matter for this Parliament and the Government of the United Kingdom to deal with. Let me remind colleagues that, during what we call the troubles in Northern Ireland, there were more than 3,500 deaths, of which more than 2,000—60%—were murders carried out by republican paramilitaries, mainly the Provisional IRA. More than 1,000 murders were carried out by loyalist paramilitaries, amounting to 30% of the overall total. British and Irish state forces were responsible for 10% of deaths during the troubles, almost all of which occurred as a result of entirely lawful actions, where police officers and soldiers acted to safeguard life and property. Let me restate that for the record: the paramilitary terrorists were responsible for some 90% of the deaths in the troubles, and state forces on both sides of the border for 10%. I want hon. Members to hold that statistic—that fact—in their minds during this debate. I apologise to colleagues, because this is a very complex issue and I need to take some time to go through the background and the issues we are still dealing with in Northern Ireland.
There are some 3,000 unsolved murders in Northern Ireland linked to our troubled past. What a terrible legacy that is—one of pain, loss and in many cases a deep sense of injustice. It is a well-accepted principle that in a democracy no one should be above the law and yet, as will become clear from my remarks, there appears to be one rule for those who have served our country and the Crown and another for those whose objective was to destroy it. Unfortunately, those legacy issues were not adequately addressed, never mind resolved, in the Belfast agreement on Good Friday 1998.
Instead, in that agreement, the Government of the day agreed to release early from prison those prisoners sentenced for offences linked to the troubles in Northern Ireland and who were members of a terrorist organisation on ceasefire, in support of the peace process. In effect, the terrorists who had been found guilty of crimes including murder were released from prison after serving only two years in jail. For many of them, that was the limit. They included, for example, the notorious Shankill bomber, from the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). Sean Kelly was convicted by the courts in Northern Ireland of the murder of nine innocent people in a bomb explosion on Shankill Road in Belfast. He was sentenced to nine life terms in prison, but under the terms of the Belfast agreement he was released early, having served less than one year for each life that he destroyed.
In addition, and beyond the terms of the agreement, in September 2000 the then Secretary of State, Peter Mandelson, announced that the Government would no longer seek the extradition of Provisional IRA prisoners who had escaped from prison, including several who escaped from the Maze prison in my constituency in 1983. They were allowed to return home; they were no longer sought to be brought back and put in prison, where frankly they belonged. They included convicted terrorist Dermot Finucane—the brother of the late Pat Finucane, about whom we have heard a lot in the past—who was the former head of intelligence and the head of southern command of the Provisional IRA. He was a very senior figure in the Provisional IRA, and he escaped from prison and was allowed to return home. Kevin Barry Artt, who was convicted of the murder of the deputy governor of the Maze prison, escaped and yet was allowed to return home without having to go back to prison. I could go on with the list of the concessions that have been made to Sinn Féin and the IRA over the years in relation to those who were convicted of, or are alleged to have committed, very serious crimes.
In 2001, the then Labour Government sought to extend that further to introduce an amnesty for all members of terrorist organisations on ceasefire. On 4 May 2001, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Dr John Reid, wrote to the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and said:
“In the Hillsborough statement of 8 March we accepted publicly for the first time that it would be a natural development of the Early Release Scheme to discontinue the prosecution of pre-Good Friday Agreement offences allegedly committed by supporters of organisations now on ceasefire.”
Crucially, Dr Reid went on to say that the proposals, which would be enacted into legislation,
“should exclude members of the security forces from the amnesty arrangements”.
In other words, a terrorist who had committed crimes, including murder, before the 1998 agreement would be granted an amnesty, but a soldier or a police officer alleged to have committed an offence would not be the beneficiary of such an amnesty. Thankfully, through parliamentary opposition, that reprehensible scheme was defeated and the secret deal that had been done was thwarted.
But it did not stop there. Having been frustrated in that attempt to bring in an amnesty for terrorists, the Government of the day did another secret deal, issuing letters to paramilitary prisoners and suspects wanted for questioning about terrorist offences to say, “You may now return home. The police will no longer question or arrest you in connection with offences committed before 1998.” We did not know of the existence of that scheme, and it was only finally exposed when John Downey was brought before the courts here in London on charges linked to the murder of four soldiers in the Hyde Park bombings of 1982. What happened? Downey produced his letter—that “get out of jail free” card—and the courts threw out the case against him. He was allowed to walk free, without being prosecuted for the offences he is alleged to have committed.
When I was serving in Northern Ireland, my regimental band was blown up in the Regent’s Park bombing on the same day. A few hours later, I took a patrol out in the New Lodge area of Belfast, as the news of the bombing was coming through. The soldiers under my command showed unbelievable restraint in the face of taunts about that terrorist incident. Does the right hon. Gentleman understand the feelings of the people who showed that restraint, day in, day out, only to see now a one-sided judicial process that could take people of that era—people of my age and older—into court for alleged crimes committed during that period?
Yes, I do understand entirely the strength of feelings. I have many comrades with whom I served in the Ulster Defence Regiment in Northern Ireland, and they are daily subjected to headlines in our local newspapers such as “Off the hook” over pictures of convicted terrorists. The hon. Gentleman can imagine how my comrades feel too, having put their lives on the line to bring some of those people to justice. Similarly, members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, who went out to investigate the crimes, now find that the people they put behind bars can walk free, some of them as the result of the use of the royal prerogative of mercy.
As the result of a report prepared by Lady Justice Hallett into the on-the-runs issue, the Secretary of State of the day, the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers), told the House of Commons in a statement in 2014:
“The Government…will take whatever steps are necessary, acting on the basis of legal advice and in conjunction with the police and prosecutors, to do everything possible to remove barriers to future prosecutions.”—[Official Report, 17 July 2014; Vol. 584, c. 1041.]
She was referring to the future prosecution of terrorists. Since that statement was made, I am not aware of a single terrorist suspect being brought before the courts in Northern Ireland in relation to those matters. The Secretary of State also identified 36 priority cases highlighted in the Hallett report. Those were to be the subject of a review by the legacy investigation branch of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Will the Minister tell us in his response what has happened to those 36 priority cases that were to be reviewed? Are the suspects still wanted for questioning, or have they been told, “No, you’re okay, we don’t need to talk to you”?
I want to highlight a case that I find particularly appalling. Kieran Conway is a self-proclaimed member of the Provisional IRA from Dublin. He claims that he was a senior intelligence officer at the time of the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings, in which 21 innocent people lost their lives. Conway asserts that he is aware of the identity of some of the IRA members involved in that mass murder, but he has refused to disclose that information. In addition, Conway admitted that he had been involved in a number of shooting incidents, perhaps as many as 100. He claims that a number of British soldiers were killed in some of those shooting incidents that he witnessed.
Kieran Conway is so confident that the UK authorities will not pursue him that he has written and published a book setting all that out and putting it in the public domain. Not only that, but he has appeared on the BBC “HARDtalk” programme, openly boasting of his involvement in those crimes. Has Kieran Conway been arrested and questioned about the claims he makes in his book and has broadcast on other media? No, he has not—far from it. Today, Kieran Conway is a solicitor in Dublin, who acts on behalf of so-called dissident republican suspects in the Special Criminal Court. Imagine the conversations that Mr Conway has with his clients—“Don’t worry, boys. One of these days the Brits will cut a deal with you too. Just keep on doing what you’re doing, just like I did, and I’m walking the streets and advising clients how to evade justice.”
Soldiers and veterans look at all of that and they think, “What is going on?” We know is going on: veterans of our armed forces are getting the knock on the door early in the morning. They find a large number of police officers outside their homes; their homes are invaded and searched. The veterans, sometimes just out of bed, are marched off to a police station, subjected to cross-examination and interrogation about crimes that occurred sometimes 20 or 30 years ago. Those are the men and women who served our country, who put themselves on the frontline and who were prepared to go out and face the terrorists; today, they are waiting again for the knock at the door.
I hesitate to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, because he is making a powerful speech, and I congratulate him on it. Given the number of years that he has cited—20, 30 or 40 years—does he agree that if we accept this principle about harrying and pursuing members of the armed forces, then there is no reason to stop there? Some of my constituents who served in Cyprus and Korea, or even further back, are saying, “In the fullness of time, perhaps we will be questioned about what we got up to, under the rules and norms of today rather than those that applied at the time.”
As a former Minister in the Northern Ireland Office, the hon. Gentleman worked with me and others on such legacy issues, so he is well aware of the background to the situation. He is absolutely right. Earlier in the main Chamber, some of our colleagues made the point about what impact this might have on our ability to recruit men and women into our armed forces today. Would not a young 18-year-old looking at a career in our armed forces think twice about serving a country that might let them end up in the dock, simply for doing the job and protecting the community? That is a huge question that we need to ask of the Government. What is going on?
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on bringing the debate forward and on making his points so powerfully. Does he agree that evidence that is 20, 30 or 40 years old will be hard to rely on? We should be putting cases away unless there is new evidence. What really bothered me was that when I met a member of the police the other day, he said, “There are new ways of looking at evidence.” If there are new ways of looking at evidence, there is a threat that we will look at everything again. We simply cannot do that. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree?
I thank the hon. Gentleman, himself a veteran, for his intervention.
Let me remind hon. Members of the price that our security forces paid in Northern Ireland for the service that they provided to our country: 520 Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force regulars, reserves and veterans murdered by terrorists; 243 from the Ulster Defence Regiment and Royal Irish Regiment, or their veterans murdered by terrorists; 325 from the Royal Ulster Constabulary or other constabularies throughout the United Kingdom and retired police murdered by terrorists; and 26 prison officers and former prison officers murdered by terrorists. That is more than 1,100 men and women in the service of the Crown who were murdered by terrorists, alongside countless others seriously injured and left to bear the mental and physical scars of that reign of terror. That is the legacy of the service provided by the men and women of our armed forces and police services in Northern Ireland.
Evidently, little effort has been made to bring to justice those responsible for those heinous crimes. I repeat, because it bears repeating: 90% of the deaths in the Northern Ireland were not caused by the Army, the police or anyone connected with the Crown; they were carried out by illegal terrorist organisations. Yet where is the pursuit of those people? The victims of these crimes cry out for justice. Where is the justice for them?
The Chief Constable, in fairness to him, established the Historical Enquiries Team, which was tasked with re-examining all the unsolved murders connected with the troubles in Northern Ireland. To a certain extent, that was a paper exercise. The team’s only remit was to review the previous police investigations; it did not have police powers to pursue investigations. When that team was wound up, its role passed to the legacy investigation branch of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which is where it currently sits. The reality today is that 90% of the resources of the legacy investigation branch—I stand open to challenge on this—are devoted to investigating 10% of the deaths during the troubles, and 10% of its resources are devoted to investigating 90% of the deaths. Where is the equity in that? Where is the fairness in a system that produces such a result?
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this very timely debate. Does he agree that there is no comparison between former service personnel who served in Northern Ireland, who may in the vastly distant past have been engaged on patrol when whatever happened—whether it was an oversight, a misjudgment or a split-second decision—resulted in injury or death, and whose actions account for many of those 10% of deaths, and the deliberate, premeditated murders of the terrorists? That is what annoys and angers many personnel who served in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.
I thank my hon. Friend for that well-made intervention. Two former members of the Parachute Regiment have recently been charged in connection with the shooting of an IRA commander in Belfast in 1972—one Joseph McCann from the Markets area of Belfast. Those two veterans are aged 67 and 65. A 75-year-old veteran, who previously served in the Life Guards, has also been charged with the attempted murder of a man in County Tyrone in 1974. Those cases will soon appear before the courts, yet people do not, when they open their newspapers every day, see the terrorists who are responsible for the vast majority of the murders coming before the courts.
The right hon. Gentleman knows why I was not here at the start of the debate, and I am grateful to him for his courtesy. Does he agree that exactly the sorts of cases that he cites are having a chilling effect on men and women serving in the Army, who look at that opportunity for a career and say, “Why on earth would I do this?” Can he also tell us why this is happening now? My understanding is that these cases were properly identified and investigated at the time. Why is there partisan pressure now to reopen what was dealt with quite properly in the past?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention.
Order. The hon. Lady is an experienced former Minister. She has only just arrived. The debate is very over-subscribed; we will probably be down to two minutes for the six or seven Members who wish to speak.
I will move to my final point, Mr Pritchard, which I feel is important, but I will first address why this is happening now. I think it is because we have had a number of inquiries, which resulted in the creation of the legacy investigation branch. For example, cases linked to the Saville inquiry have been re-examined, cases have been referred by the coroner in Northern Ireland that were previously referred by the Attorney General, and cases have also been referred by the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland to the legacy investigation branch. A combination of all those things in recent years has resulted in what we are now seeing. I agree entirely with the hon. Lady’s point.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that despite the imbalance that he has well documented, Sinn Féin are still not happy? Indeed, the crisis in Northern Ireland is driven by their desire to get even more soldiers in the dock and even more security documents in the open, so that they can rewrite history. The Government ought to resist the blackmail that the people of Northern Ireland and the Government here at Westminster are being subjected to by Sinn Féin.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, to which I need not add.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that many people who died in the troubles—all murders and killings were wrong—who were not members of the armed forces were innocent civilians? I can think of many of my own constituents. Will he relate that to the Stormont House agreement, which this debate is supposed to be about?
I will take one final intervention.
I just want to make the point that Corporal Major Hutchings, whom we heard about earlier, was today refused bail to go on a cruise with his wife so that his health could get better. That shows the lopsided nature of what is going on.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that further intervention. The hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) is absolutely right about the murder of the innocent. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) said, republicans are trying to rewrite the history of the troubles. They want to portray the security forces as the bad guys, and they want to be portrayed on the side of good. But let me be clear: whether it was the massacre at Kingsmill, McGurk’s bar, La Mon, Belfast’s Bloody Friday, the M62 bombings, Birmingham, Narrow Water, Droppin’ Well, the Grand Hotel in Brighton, Newry police station, Enniskillen war memorial, Ballygawley, Shankill Road, Greysteel, Loughinisland in the South Down constituency, Canary Wharf or Omagh, no one can ever sanitise the horror, the inhumanity and the sickening murderous depravity of those acts of terrorism. They cannot rewrite the history of what they did to the people of Northern Ireland and others.
Two years ago, we reached an agreement in Stormont about the legacy issues and several new institutions were proposed, including an historical investigations unit that would have full police powers to revisit the unsolved murders. The main impact of the establishment of that unit would be that the murders committed by the terrorists would finally be subjected to proper scrutiny and reinvestigation, and the innocent victims that the hon. Member for South Down referred to would have the opportunity to have their cases re-examined to see whether there was the prospect of prosecution and people being brought to justice. I accept the point that the hon. Member for South Antrim made about getting evidence for cases from so long ago.
The Stormont House agreement is there. There is currently an impasse between Sinn Féin and the Government on national security. Sinn Féin are demanding that this Government fully disclose in the public domain everything that happened, which would mean that if the Special Air Service had carried out an operation in Loughgall and shot members of the Provisional IRA who were exploding a bomb outside a police station, all that the SAS did—all the rationale, all its modus operandi and all the military planning that went into that operation—would be out in the public domain. How could we ever counter terrorism again if we put in the public domain the very methods that we use to detect what is happening and safeguard life? It is a nonsense that a former terrorist organisation should have the right to demand that a lawful Government put that information in the public domain.
The Government must hold the line on national security; further, they should act now. They need to proceed with the Stormont House agreement. They need to implement the historical investigations unit. We have waited long enough. It has been two years since the agreement. Why are we allowing Sinn Féin a veto over the investigation of the murder of innocent people, soldiers and police officers? We owe this to those people and their families. I urge the Minister: please, let’s get on with it. Let’s do the right thing. Let’s investigate these murders. Let’s give the people the opportunity for justice.
Some housekeeping points: the debate will end at 17.52 because of Divisions. The Minister might like to give the mover of the motion, Sir Jeffrey, a minute at the end to wind up. The Front-Bench speeches will start at 17.32, with five minutes for the Labour Front-Bencher, five minutes for the Scottish National party and, of course, 10 minutes for the Minister.
A final point: Members will be aware that the screens are not working, so you cannot keep track of time, but the good news is that we can do it for you. There is a now a time limit of three minutes for each speaker, I am afraid, and when the time is up, you will hear the bell.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) on securing the debate. However, I do have to say that, as someone who participated in many of the negotiations in the process—some of which he discussed—and in particular has always been pushing to ensure that we keep the promise that was made in the Good Friday agreement about properly addressing legacy issues and tending to the needs of victims, I do not accept a lot of his recounting of the history of the process. Indeed, I would have to say that he has disremembered a number of key points.
In relation to dealing with the past, in a number of the negotiations that took place after the Good Friday agreement the Social Democratic and Labour party, at times the Alliance party and the Women’s Coalition were all saying that the question of victims and the past needed to be dealt with, but it was quite clear from the two Governments that the parties that did not want the past dealt with were the main Unionist party at the time and Sinn Féin.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the negotiations in Hillsborough in 2003. It was then clear. Three parties suggested that a victims’ forum be established to move forward on issues of the past because the Governments and their parties were failing. Again, that did not happen because of Sinn Féin and the Ulster Unionist party, but of course the Governments continued to proceed on what they said was their commitment from Weston Park in relation to the so-called on-the-runs. That led to the legislation to which the right hon. Gentleman referred—the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill in 2005. Contrary to what he said, that Bill was providing opportunities for certificates of amnesty to be given to members of the security forces or anyone else. Anyone could get certificates. In fact, anyone could turn up and get a certificate for anyone else—that is how wide open the scheme was—and it could all happen in secret, with victims not knowing or being told. If anyone found out, the Secretary of State could put on an additional seal of secrecy. I am proud of the fact that the SDLP led opposition to that. Did the Democratic Unionist party make that a deal breaker at the time in the negotiations for the restoration of devolution? It did not. It was the SDLP that fought on that, because the DUP was happy to go along with some aspects of the amnesty scheme, provided that it extended to members of the security forces as well.
The right hon. Gentleman also referred to the establishment of the Historical Enquiries Team. Paul Murphy was Secretary of State at that time, and he told me very clearly that I, as the SDLP leader, was the only party leader who was pressing for anything to be done in relation to historical enquiries. I was the only person who lobbied for that team to be established and the only person who lobbied for funding. Of course, it could not be provided for in statute because there was not agreement from the other parties. So we have the DUP complaining about the very things that it opposed and helped to prevent. Similarly, in terms of the Stormont House agreement and the prior discussions on Haass and everything else related to dealing with the past, the DUP stood in the way of getting an agreement as well.
It is a pleasure as ever to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) on securing the debate. I had wanted to speak at length about the perception of amnesty, but there is not time to do that, so, as an ex-soldier who served in Northern Ireland twice and in Iraq and Afghanistan twice, I will focus on what I believe is the impact of these inquiries on those who are serving or may serve in the future in our armed forces.
Retrospective investigation over actions taken in battles in Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland breaks the covenant that the Government, Parliament and the nation has with our armed forces. Those who have served feel betrayed, those who now serve are concerned, and those who might have served now might not. However necessary the Government might insist that these inquiries are and however fair and proportionate the investigatory process is designed to be, merely the prospect of it is enough to make those serving now hesitate before pulling the trigger. In battle, that hesitation costs lives.
Those who serve now do so inspired by this nation’s relationship with its armed forces over the centuries. To defile that relationship is to diminish our military capability now and in the years to come.
I shall deal with three aspects of this issue in the short time we have. The first is what the British Government should do. My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) clearly, fairly and comprehensively set down what we believe as a party that we as a society should strive for in terms of fairness and justice.
When I think of the Government, I also think of our head of state. Her Majesty the Queen has done more than anyone else historically and symbolically to bring people in these islands together. Her son, the Prince of Wales, made a historic visit two years ago to the place in Ireland where his cherished uncle, Lord Mountbatten, was murdered.
There was a conviction for an attempted bombing of the Prince of Wales last year, and three Members of the Dáil—MPs like us in the Republic of Ireland—wrote to court in support of a dissident republican. Mick Wallace TD, Clare Daly TD and Maureen O’Sullivan TD all wrote in support of a dissident republican who attempted to kill the son of our head of state. There is a huge onus on the Irish Government and on parliamentarians in Dublin when we consider Kingsmill and the promises that the Taoiseach made to the families of the Kingsmill massacre. They said that they would make full disclosure to the coroner’s inquiry. Have they done it? No, they have not. Therefore, while there is an onus on the British Government to ensure that we are serving our armed forces personnel and veterans in this country, there is a huge onus on those co-guarantors in the Irish Government to step up to the plate as well.
From a Northern Ireland perspective, what can we do? In my constituency last year, prison officer Adrian Ismay was murdered by dissident republicans. Despite five breaches of bail, the chief suspect in his murder was not challenged by police—police sent an order to officers not to bother him with bail checks—and only this week we discovered that Damien McLaughlin, who was charged with aiding and abetting the murder of David Black, a prison officer in 2012, absconded on 18 November. He has not signed on bail even though he was required to do so five days in the week, and the police did not raid his house for six weeks. They did not tell court or seek a warrant for his arrest until this January.
Whether it is historic, a legacy case or very much in the here and now today, we are failing innocent victims. I do hope that the Minister takes the opportunity to respond.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I welcome the opportunity to have the debate and thank the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) for initiating it. I think the starting point is the inequality in the current process and system, which was highlighted by the Minister just a few weeks ago in this Chamber. He accepted that the approach to the past had not been proportionate. That is a good starting point, and we have to realise that.
I am not going to go over all the issues, but may I say that unless we get a system that delivers for the victims in our society, Northern Ireland will never progress as a society that builds together and works together.
We have heard instances of some former soldiers. Like the right hon. Gentleman, I served in the Ulster Defence Regiment. I remember being on duty when Sergeant Hugh McCormick, a Roman Catholic police officer, was murdered coming out of mass on a Sunday morning—I remember going to that. I remember being flown out to an incident in which a good friend of mine, Jimmy Graham, was killed—the third of the Graham brothers to be murdered. He was driving a school bus to pick up a load of young kids to bring them to swimming.
The hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) mentioned the innocent victims. How much more innocent can you get than workmen coming home from serving and working, doing a building job? Their van was blown up at Teebane. How much more innocent can you get than those standing around a war memorial to remember the dead of the two world wars? An IRA bomb went off and murdered 11 of those people. How much more innocent can you get than those Kingsmill people going home from their work? This is absolutely disproportionate. I remember speaking to Ronnie Funston at the Enniskillen cattle mart where we were selling cattle. Two days later, he was murdered on his tractor. He was an innocent man and not a member of any security forces.
I have to say that, unless we stop this process whereby the majority of the focus is on former security forces, we will never move forward. If terrorists and former terrorists can get their royal prerogative, why can soldiers not? There has to be some equality in this system; we do not have any at present.
First, I hold soldiers to a far higher standard of service than I do terrorists—that needs to be understood. However, I have to say that what is happening at the moment is the worst possible recruiting sergeant imaginable. Having 70-year-old veterans being hauled out of their beds at 3 o’clock in the morning to answer for things that may or may not have happened 40 years ago is remarkable. I can scarcely remember what I was doing last year; I certainly cannot remember what happened 40 years ago.
I am really worried about the quality of available evidence for investigations of this sort. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has talked, and is worried, about a “twisted narrative”. He needs to say in clear terms what he will do to unpick that narrative, because the message at the moment is that the awful things that happened during the troubles were predominantly caused by members of the armed forces, which is truly remarkable, given the statistics shared by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson). That must be dealt with now. It needs to be nipped in the bud, otherwise our colleagues at the Ministry of Defence will find it ever more difficult to recruit the young men and women needed to serve the forces of the Crown.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Pritchard. It is undoubtedly safe to say that the political landscape across the Irish sea today is not as it was when the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) secured the debate. The stalemate around the implementation of the agreement remains, but there is now more to consider.
Some would suggest that politics in Northern Ireland has just entered election mode, and that there is little to be said by politicians such as myself on this side of the water. There may be some encouragement for the parties to get back around the table, but the chances of that happening currently seem sadly distant, to say the least. The renewable heat incentive seems to have become all-consuming, and the fallout from it will clearly continue to be an issue for some time; there may yet be an inquiry, and we will wait to see what that brings. The implementation of the Stormont House agreement will be waiting for whoever assumes responsibility for the Northern Ireland Executive in the months to come.
I do not think it is for me to tell Northern Ireland, its people, elected representatives or institutions what they should do, but it seems that the process of implementation is more than stuck and needs a hard push to get it moving. It will need some hard-headed negotiation and a great deal of good faith on all sides. The supply of good faith may be experiencing some issues at the moment, but I have no doubt that the fine men and women who sustain politics in Northern Ireland will not be shy in providing the hard-headed negotiation; we have seen that reflected in the passionate contributions from every single Member who has contributed today.
There has been plenty of movement in Stormont since the re-establishment of the devolved Government, and the individuals and parties who have served in the Assembly deserve great credit for the advances there and for the establishment of peace as an expected part of life. The attitudes shown at Stormont over the past decade will be needed now as much as they ever were, and I urge all parties in Northern Ireland to take a bit of time to focus on a strategy for the future that establishes what needs to be done to advance the interests of the people they represent, rather than allowing those interests to remain stuck.
It will be almost entirely the responsibility of Assembly members to sort out the problems that have resulted in the stalemate, and they will have to be the pivot on which the future turns and the implementation of the agreement depends. That said, it will need the support of the UK Government—especially in providing the resources needed for addressing the legacy issues and moving on from them. It would be good to have some assurances from the Minister that that will be forthcoming.
The next wee while will not be a walk in the park. The Scottish National party recognises that responsibility for forward movement rests in Belfast, but we offer whatever small help we can.
I join those who have paid tribute to your chairing of the debate, Mr Pritchard. I also join those who have paid tribute to the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson). I have known him for many years. He is a man who always speaks with utter—sometimes painful—honesty, but with the deepest sincerity. Anyone who has any doubt at all about the rawness of these issues should listen to the right hon. Gentleman’s speech, because that rawness still smarts today. We, as parliamentarians, and as co-guarantors of the Good Friday agreement in this country, have an absolute bounden duty to seek to achieve that which we all want: a peaceful, settled and secure Northern Ireland.
I also associate myself with the comments of the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Tom Elliott). I joined him in what I have to say was a slightly unlikely occasion for me: the 12 July parades in Maguiresbridge. I talked to people for whom the border conflict is not a footnote in history but a bloodstained page in their own family lives and their own family bibles—people who actually lived through that horror.
I do not look at this from one particular perspective or another, and I certainly do not look at it with blinkered eyes. However, as the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) quite rightly said, we expect higher standards from our armed forces. I see no comparison between terrorism and military action, but there have been occasions in the past when people in our armed forces have not acted in the best traditions of our armed forces. I do not think that any of us should pretend that there have not been occasions when matters have occurred that need to be investigated.
I do not believe that every single person in any single organisation can be completely exonerated. That might seem offensive to some people, and I apologise, but on behalf of the many who have served in the armed forces, there is no time or respect for people who act outside the law. Yes, it was a horrendous time, but there is still no excuse for anyone breaching their code of honour—and it is a code of honour that one subscribes to when one wears the Queen’s uniform.
However, the Stormont House agreement and the subsequent Fresh Start were about much more than that particular aspect. Hon. Members should not forget that it was welfare reform that ran the whole business into the sand. It is hard to think that it was agreed only in December 2014. At that time the issues were overwhelmingly ones of welfare reform, and also about the size of the Assembly. There were a huge number of other issues, including the winding up of the historical enquiries team and the introduction of another two or three bodies.
At that time, flags and parades was extremely important, as was the past. I pay credit to the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) and all of those involved in winding down the Twaddell Avenue circumstances, which showed that, on occasion, we can actually achieve things. What seemed insoluble a few years ago has been solved, and I pay undiluted credit to all the people involved, at least two of whom are sitting in this room today. However, implementation of the Stormont House agreement is the subject we are talking about today; we are not talking solely about the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the world looked at the peace process in Northern Ireland with huge admiration? It did many people sitting in this room enormous credit that they were able to swallow that agreement for the greater good. However, the world is also looking at the United Kingdom in a whole range of ways at the moment, and one of them is how we treat our veterans. This comes down to a matter of great interest for Britain’s perception in the world. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is something the Government would be well advised to consider?
I do not think that anyone would possibly cavil at the thought of respect for our military, our veterans and the military covenant. Equally, however, I do not think that anyone would say that without exception there has never been an incident in which a person wearing the Queen’s uniform acted outside that code of honour and those rules. That might be uncomfortable to say, but I think that we do our armed forces and our veterans a disservice if we say that they can do no wrong. After all, they are human beings.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. My problem with it is that one side in the conflict constantly referred to it as a war—it still does—so on one side there are people acting as they would in a war, where they can do terrible things, whereas the security forces are bound by very strict rules. I think that is the unfairness of it.
What we call something is less important than what actually happens. When someone is dying, when someone has been shot in the back, when someone has been bombed, when someone has been a victim on either side, whether it is called a war or murder is less important to their relatives back home who receive the message of the death of a loved one. I entirely understand that some people will seek to justify it on one side or the other, but we are talking here about the implementation of the Stormont House agreement and Fresh Start.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), who speaks for the Scottish National party, is absolutely right. One reason why the Fresh Start agreement was successful was that at that time the PSNI accepted and admitted that there was still dissident republican activity on the streets of Northern Ireland. That was one reason why the Democratic Unionist party went back into the Executive. I think that we should be concentrating on those issues. We have to look at the murders that are taking place today. We have to move forward. Yes, the past is a mighty weight on our shoulders and it cannot be denied, but we cannot allow it to crush us. We have to move forward.
I remind the Minister that the debate will end at 5.52 pm. If he wishes to allow time for Sir Jeffrey Donaldson to respond, he might wish to resume his seat at 5.50.
First, let me say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) on not only the content of his speech, but the honesty and the power with which he communicated his feelings on this very important matter. I also congratulate colleagues on both sides of the Chamber who either intervened or made speeches. I will mention a couple of those briefly before commenting on the Government’s position.
Let me recognise my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey) and the passion with which he speaks, as a former soldier—I speak as a former soldier as well. When I look at the hon. Members who made contributions, I see that it is a mix of people; some have served, and some represent communities that suffered terrible violence over a long period. Some people represent areas with soldiers. Some people serve on Committees. There is huge interest in, and a huge commitment to, trying to find resolutions to some of the challenges that we still have in Northern Ireland. The House should be very proud that it can bring together people with knowledge and a determination to resolve some of these issues.
There are difficult issues to address. I compliment my opposite number, the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), because we can just be sucked into a narrative that says that soldiers are always right. I served in Northern Ireland, and I was extremely proud of the professionalism with which my colleagues served. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers served very bravely. However, to answer the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) about the way the world is looking at how we treat our veterans, one reason why our services are regarded as such a professional body of people is the high standards that politicians, our military and the public expect from soldiers. It only takes one person to commit an act that undermines that reputation, so it is important, regardless of whether someone is a soldier or a terrorist, that if they have committed a wrong or there is a thing to be answered, it should be answerable.
A number of people have said that the military are held to a higher standard, and rightly so, but they are held to that higher standard at the time of the engagement and in the immediate aftermath. They are investigated by the Royal Military Police and the Special Investigation Branch there, in theatre. What does not need to happen is the investigation 40 years later of people who have done their duty and long since stood down.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I will just say that I sat and listened to the former Prime Minister’s contribution on the Bloody Sunday investigation. I have to say that I refused to accept a narrative that I had heard for many decades about what had happened, and there was clear wrongdoing, so there are moments when we have failed and we should hold our hands up and not just capitulate to a romantic message that we are always right in the military.
I want now to focus on what we are proposing, because the key message that I got from today’s debate was the passion with which the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley wanted to get that proportionality and balance back into what is happening at the moment. The Stormont House agreement addressed many things relating to legacy and the shape of the Assembly, but for us in this debate it was about the formation of the historical investigations unit and addressing some of the issues that people have talked about: the care of our veterans; reform of the Northern Ireland inquest function; ensuring that victims and survivors have access to high-quality services; implementing the comprehensive mental trauma service; seeking an acceptable way in which victims can gain a pension; and giving victims and survivors access to advocate-counsellor assistance. It is vital that progress is made on all of that to address the legacy of the troubled past, and we need political stability to be able to drive that forward. The Government want to put £150 million on the table. We want to create a period of five years in which we will work our way through and address the 90% of murders that were carried out by terrorists, and balance and proportionality will be brought back into the system.
There are huge numbers of former soldiers who were murdered and whose cases are not being investigated at this time. Nearly 200 soldiers were murdered, and those cases are not being investigated at the moment because there is no mechanism in place. When people talk about injustices against soldiers at this time, that is because of the present system. I would like to talk about what is proposed. When I was here just a few weeks ago, there was more resistance to what was suggested in relation to the historical investigations unit. I think that there is now an idea, an understanding, of what we want to actually do in putting that proportionality in place and ensuring that those 3,500 people who were murdered and the families of those people get some justice.
One conversation that has come about has been about an amnesty—an end to this whereby we just draw a line. The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley read out a long list of people and of events that had occurred—terrible events in which people were traumatised and damaged and will be for a long time. They want justice. There is not a line to be drawn. Whether an act was perpetrated by a terrorist or whether a soldier was involved, people want their moment in court, when they can get an understanding of what happened.
Will the Minister not accept, though, that because terrorists do not keep records and are not going to respond to letters from the Ministry of Defence inviting them to unburden themselves, there will be a mismatch in the information available to the courts? That means that successful prosecutions may be brought against servicemen—a small number, I suspect—but there is no chance, realistically, of a commensurate number of prosecutions being brought against terrorists.
What is important is that we create the space, give the resource and set a framework in which those investigations can be explored. We are suggesting a five-year period in which chronologically we work through the evidence that is available, the evidence that we can now discover through new means and techniques that are available, so that there is an understanding of what happened at that moment and we can best explore that. It is right that we put that proportionality back in and ensure that that is addressed.
I want to give the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley the opportunity to respond, so I will briefly touch on some of the issues and questions raised. First, the PSNI is still considering the 36 priority cases and actively reviewing the incidents involved. So there is not an end to that; it will pursue that. I have mentioned to the hon. Lady from the SNP, the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), that the Government have made clear their commitment to provide £150 million over five years to help support the establishment of the new institutions that are addressing the past.
We need to create a political space in which we can deliver this. The Secretary of State wants to consult the public on how we do this, but people will again raise the issues that have been put on the table today. However, as the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley said, it is important that justice is provided and that proportionality is brought back into this system. I hope that when these proposals come forward they are robustly challenged, people make contributions to them and we understand that this is about bringing justice to the people of Northern Ireland.
I will be very brief. I thank the Minister for his response and thank other right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed to the debate this afternoon. Let me be clear, Mr Pritchard. As a former soldier, like a number of colleagues who have spoken, I am not prepared to stand back and see my former comrades vilified and hounded for serving their country and standing in the gap between democracy and tyranny. They defended us, and we must defend them. Peace is a noble cause, but when peace means the denial of justice and becomes the oppressor of the innocent, it is less noble.
I can do no better than quote the words from a tribute poem written by Shane Laverty, who was 10 years old when his 18-year-old brother, RUC Constable Robert David Laverty, was murdered by the Provisional IRA on the Antrim Road in Belfast on 16 July 1972. He was sitting in a patrol car, travelling down the road. I finish with this:
“Remember me. For I cannot pass this way again and memories are all you can have. Unlike those who put me here. Was it I who broke the law or they? Yet they live to fight another day.”
We owe it to Constable Robert David Laverty, his family and all those who served our country as police officers and soldiers to stand by them, to stand with them and to ensure that there is proper, proportionate justice.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered implementation of the Stormont House Agreement.