I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Seventh Report of the Defence Committee, Investigations into fatalities in Northern Ireland involving British military personnel, Session 2016-17, HC 1064, and the Government response, HC 549.
It is a pleasure to introduce today’s important debate under your chairmanship, Sir David. My interest in the topic was first sparked by contributions made at an end-of-term debate by my hon. and gallant Friends the Members for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti), both of whom are here today, although sadly one of them, as a Parliamentary Private Secretary, cannot contribute personally to the debate.
When the Defence Committee agreed to look into this question, we delved into it very much from the point of view of what was technically possible, and what was impossible for reasons of international law. From the beginning of the troubles in 1969 to the signing of the Good Friday agreement, there were 3,260 troubles-related deaths. Of those, 238 were the result of engagements by military personnel.
The Committee was particularly exercised by recent events. As a result of the much more recent campaign in Iraq, soldiers were being brought to court, and it appeared that thousands of cases would have to be investigated, despite the fact that at the end of long, tortuous and expensive processes, the vast majority were found to be without much, or indeed any, substance. The Committee was worried that a similar sort of process would now begin retrospectively in relation to the 238 military-related deaths that occurred during the troubles.
In the course of our inquiry, we took the advice of a panel of four distinguished lawyers who gave evidence. I drew a number of lessons from what they had to say. They told us that it would be possible to draw a line under the events of such a long period so long ago, if that was what was decided, but they assured us that it would not be possible under international law to do so in a selective fashion. They were quite clear that two conditions would have to be met if we wished to bring in, as the Committee felt that we should, a statute of limitations concerning troubles-related deaths up to the date of the Belfast agreement. I have already alluded to the first condition, which is that the statute of limitations should apply to everybody. The second condition, which is a requirement under international law, is that there must be a proper investigative process for deaths that have occurred, even though that may not lead—indeed, if there were a statute of limitations, definitely would not lead—to a prosecution.
I started to discuss the matter with various interested parties. The Democratic Unionists with whom I discussed it certainly want a statute of limitations applying to the military forces, the police and the security agencies, but they have grave difficulty with applying such a statute to former republican paramilitaries. Only yesterday, for the first time, I was given the opportunity to have a discussion, which I welcomed, with three of the Sinn Féin elected MPs. I think it is true to say that they were interested in something that already seems to apply to republican paramilitaries, but they were not interested in something that would apply to the military, the police or the security agencies. There is also a certain lack of clarity, to put it mildly, about the present policy. As we discovered in our discussions yesterday, there is even failure to agree on whether existing limitations on the sentences that can be given to convicted paramilitaries apply to service personnel as well.
What are the existing restrictions? I think we know what they are. As part of the agreements that have been reached after so many years, so many negotiations, so much death, so much tragedy and so much trouble, it was agreed that no matter how great the offence or how numerous the victims, if paramilitaries were convicted under the terms of the agreement, whether they had killed dozens, scores or even just a few individuals, they could not be sentenced to more than two years in prison. The likelihood, therefore, is that they would not serve more than one year in prison.
There seemed, however, to be no agreement on whether that restriction applies to the military. I do not know if the Minister will be able to enlighten us today; if not, I hope that he will write to us with a definitive answer. The Sinn Féin MPs definitely thought that it did, yet previously I had it explicitly put to me by a lawyer for one of the service personnel currently facing trial that the two-year maximum, no matter how heinous the offence for which a republican or presumably any other paramilitary is sentenced, did not apply to the military. If it does not apply to the military, the imbalance between the unlimited sentences that can be imposed on soldiers and the two-year sentences—one year actually served in jail—that can be imposed on paramilitaries is so egregious that it is hard to imagine that the Government would not seek to impose at the very least a cap for all who may be affected by any proceedings. However, I want to try to take a wider view, and I appeal to all who were involved, one way or another, in the tragedy that was the troubles of Northern Ireland to try to take the broader view, too.
It has been put to me in very stark terms that people who suffered losses during that period, even if it was only 40 years ago, cannot rest until those matters are resolved. I share their understanding of the matter, and can perceive something of what they feel, because my family was caught up in the holocaust, and the part of my family who were still in Poland in the second world war was annihilated, with the exception of one very small family unit that was saved by courageous non-Jewish Poles. Even though it happened a few years before I was born, I felt for years after the war that the people who killed them should be hounded forever, yet that is not the situation that we face today, because we have already decided that—in the interests of an overall settlement—there should be a limit of two years on the maximum sentence that paramilitaries can face, so by no stretch of the imagination can the punishment be said to fit the crime.
I come to the second element of what the distinguished professors told the Committee in their advice to us on what would and would not be possible under international law. Any statute of limitations would not only have to apply for everybody—because if it were applied only to the forces of the state, that would legislate for state impunity, which is illegal under international law—but would also have to be coupled with a truth recovery process.
We all know where we first began to hear about truth recovery processes: in South Africa, after Nelson Mandela came out of prison and changes occurred. The decision was taken in South Africa to draw a final line under all the horrors on whichever side, or by whatever part, whether we are talking about state authorities, revolutionaries or innocent civilians caught up in someone else’s crossfire. There, it was decided that in the interests of peace and coherence and the possibility of building some sort of united community, a line must be drawn, but that families must have closure and the best possible opportunity to find out what had happened to their loved ones. That led to people who had been involved in terrible activities coming forward and giving testimony, secure in the knowledge that, even if they were incriminating themselves, they would not be prosecuted. That is how there was some form of resolution for those people who had been bereaved, in the sense of public accountability and the discovery of the truth. It was not only a brilliant and magnanimous concept, but a legal requirement. There is a legal requirement to investigate; there is not a legal requirement to prosecute.
The trouble in the situation in Northern Ireland—I hope I will not strike the wrong note by seeming to be flippant at this point—goes back to the origins of the troubles in 1969. I went to university the following year, 1970, and while I was at university in Oxford, I made a friend called Martin Sieff. Members might deduce from his surname that he has the same sort of background as I do. I remember him trying to explain to me the depth of division between the communities in Northern Ireland. He said, “For example, there was one occasion when I found myself cornered by a gang on the street. They asked me that age-old question: are you a Protestant or a Catholic?” Martin thought he had the perfect, truthful answer; he said, “I am a Jew.” They said, “Yes, but are you a Protestant Jew or a Catholic Jew?” I am not trying to be flippant; I am trying to indicate that there are irreconcilable and deep-seated beliefs at work here.
The role of the Defence Committee means that our concern has to be for the welfare of the service personnel. We do not wish to see hundreds of old cases reopened, in the absence of any new evidence, which would mean that they were highly unlikely to be successfully brought to a conclusion—if a conviction is regarded as successful. People would nevertheless be put through a tremendous ordeal at a late stage of their life. At the end of it all, in the vast majority of cases, it would almost certainly be found that they did nothing more than their duty and did not commit any offence at all. The Committee’s concern in the report had to be to make a recommendation about what should happen to those personnel. We were unanimous in our belief that a statute of limitations should be enacted for any troubles-related offences, or alleged offences, up to the date of the Good Friday agreement.
We felt that it is for the Government of the day to go wider and decide what other groups beside service personnel and associated police and agencies ought to be included, but we did not shy away from pointing out that the unanimous expert legal advice we received from the four professors made it quite clear that if a statute of limitations were introduced for anyone, it had to be introduced for everyone. That will be very difficult to accept for the different parties across that terrible divide in Northern Ireland that we are seeking to repair. The Unionists take the view that some people should benefit from a statute of limitations, but not others. The republicans take the view that others should benefit from a statute of limitations, but not the people whom the Unionists wish to see benefit.
I will go as far as I can without breaking any personal confidences, and it may be that I am misinterpreting the signals, but from my conversations with people on either side of the argument, I sometimes get the impression that they are held captive by the response they feel they have to make to the people who elected them and brought them to this House. I sometimes detect—perhaps I am wrong; perhaps I am misreading the signals—that, in their heart of hearts, they know that there is either going to be a solution that applies to everyone, or no real solution that applies to anyone, but they will never be able to articulate or promote that.
It is a step forward that the Government have said that they will hold a consultation in which a statute of limitations will be one of the options aired. I believe that sometimes people must seize the opportunity to take a lead. There is nothing of a legal nature to prevent this Parliament from enacting a statute of limitations. If it applies to everyone and is coupled with a truth recovery process, it will maximise the chance of people finding out what happened to their loved ones and of avoiding the poisoning of the settlement so far reached by a constant succession of cases being brought before the criminal courts.
I wish to end on another factor, which I hope the Minister will take back to his colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office. I was particularly impressed by it in the meeting I had yesterday with two Labour colleagues, in which I met the Sinn Féin MPs. From their point of view, it seemed to me—I hope I am not misrepresenting what they said—that one particular ongoing issue was the failure to hold inquests into the deaths of many of the people who died during the troubles.
If we could set to one side, as a route of trying to get to the truth, dragging a succession of old men through the courts when there is insufficient evidence against them, and if as part of an overall settlement we could all decide to go ahead with a statute of limitations that applied to everybody, that might open up the possibility of inquests being held. A combination of inquests being held into deaths that have so far not had inquests, and a truth recovery process in which people know they can come forward to say what happened without any danger of incriminating themselves, might be the basis of a step forward.
Today’s debate is only one piece in an enormous jigsaw that people have been trying to put together to come to a conclusion that enables the communities in Northern Ireland to live at peace with each other, and that—as far as we are concerned—ensures that soldiers who did their duty are not hauled through the courts many years after the event, when no new evidence is available. I hope that people do not have too great an expectation that the production of an individual report or the holding of an individual debate will do anything other than add to the momentum.
One thing that the Defence Committee can claim, however, is that we have focused attention on one specific remedy that offers a way forward. If it was a way forward with no disadvantages, of course people would have signed up to it or something similar long ago. There are disadvantages to every policy possible, and people will have to make sacrifices. People do make sacrifices, and have made them. The question is: is it better to go down the route of endless court hearings, deepening divisions and the poisoning of the more positive links that have slowly and gradually built up, or is it better to take a leaf out of the South African book?
I conclude with this thought: if it was good enough for Nelson Mandela, after all he went through and all that the people he represented went through, should it not be good enough for us and the Northern Ireland communities?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.
As ever, it is a privilege to follow my Chair on the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), and to be rejoined by some of our former colleagues who served on the Committee in the previous Parliament, because we discussed this issue. I do not intend to speak for long, but I want to talk about the people and why we need to handle the situation so delicately.
Many colleagues will want to be aware that families touched by this issue are sitting in the Public Gallery. Every time we look at the issue of Northern Ireland, we need to remember that this is about people—people on all sides of all communities—as well as service personnel, including those who are serving now, those who may want to serve in future and those who served during the troubles. This impacts on every part of our military. I am speaking today as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the armed forces covenant, and our responsibility to the covenant is mentioned in the report’s conclusions and recommendations.
Given the political situation in Northern Ireland, not for a decade has there been a more difficult time to raise the issue we are discussing. I do not envy the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my neighbouring MP, the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), who has to deal with some of the challenges. None of us wants to make her job more difficult as, in the months ahead, we work towards a political settlement in Northern Ireland.
The issue, however, has an impact on people throughout the country, including those of our constituents who are ex-serving personnel. There is not a veterans’ brunch or breakfast that I visit at which people, including members of my own political party who served during the troubles, do not regularly—by which I mean monthly—express their concerns to me about what it might mean for them as they approach their 70s and 80s. They are concerned that legal action may be hanging over their shoulders. As hard as it is for the families who are still suffering the legacy of the troubles, it is also hard for those people who served during that time. We have a responsibility to them, as well as to the families, to give them reassurance going forward.
There is also a knock-on effect for those who may be looking to serve in future. We saw such an effect from Iraq, with the Iraq Historic Allegations Team. If we are continually looking to judicial responses and the law, people will simply stop signing up because of fears about what will happen to them even 30 or 40 years after their service.
The issue is not straightforward by any stretch of the imagination, but it was right for the Defence Committee to explore it and I am proud of our report. That report raises the issue and adds to the burden on the Minister, for which I apologise, but the issue is one we can ignore no longer. We need a settlement that is agreed by all parties, whichever side of the conflict and the troubles they were on.
Our brave service personnel were acting under orders. We asked them to do many things for us; we need to have their backs when they need us. As delicate as the subject is, I hope that everyone will approach it in the same way as the right hon. Member for New Forest East, who led the debate. We need to move forward and we look to the Minister for guidance. I hope that the report’s recommendations will be followed.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Sir David. I will keep my remarks short, because I have been struck down by the lethal man flu—a very dangerous thing of the sort that would have kept the Minister in bed for a week.
On the issue of historical allegations, I have a recent history in the military and with the Iraq Historic Allegations Team and so on, but at times I feel that we cannot make it clear enough that individuals such as me and those I served with absolutely want to see the rule of law upheld in every nature of engagement that we are involved in. It is completely wrong to assert that we are looking for some sort of cover-up, or even enabling, of illegal activities. That could not be more wrong. We join the military and become part of it because we believe in it and in its mission—that what we are doing is making the world a better place.
It is fantastic to hear the thoughts of my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), the Chair of the Select Committee, on the situation. We are indeed going to have to have uncomfortable conversations. We are going to have to get together intellectually to work this out. Why are we going to have to do that? Because it does not work for anyone at the moment. The only people who benefit from the existing situation are lawyers, who I know for a fact are being encouraged to practise in Northern Ireland because they see the issue going on and on. I am afraid that that is not acceptable for the victims, their families or, of course, our armed forces.
We know all that, so what are we going to do about it? A couple of options are clear and straightforward on the face of it, but they also represent deep challenges. I echo what my right hon. Friend said, which is that nobody will get a 100% solution. I gently say to those who continue this fight—I will always continue it because I think it is the right thing to do, but there are those who have been in it for far longer than me—that there will come a time when my generation will want to move on, whether they served in Northern Ireland or were affected by crime or other events there. The sympathy that is absolutely with those who have suffered wrong, whichever side of the divide they are on, will not last forever.
We have a unique opportunity to work this out and to make a solution work. A statute of limitations is important, but we have to be so careful about how it is applied. Under the Good Friday agreement, paramilitaries faced a maximum sentence of two years, but that does not apply to the security forces. That is such a binary issue and it is not acceptable. We should have moved on from that.
I have huge sympathy with those who feel that they have been wronged in this process. My experience of dealing with cases of people killed in operations, or with those who have lost sons, daughters, husbands or wives, is that ultimately what they really want to know is what happened. Of course, they want recompense—people talk about compensation crime and time in prison—but what they really want to know is what actually happened. We are not doing those affected by the troubles a service if we carry on in this manner, which in no way will uncover what actually happened.
Doing those people a service requires bold leadership. It requires someone who will sensitively bring everyone together. It will require compromises, because the current situation is not reconcilable. Above all, it will require courage. People talk about courage in the military, but there is another element, which is moral courage—the courage to do things that are difficult because the bigger picture is worth it. Northern Ireland is clearly a wonderful place and it has a bright future. The young people of Northern Ireland want to leave this in the past. Let us help them do that by really coming together in a mature, forward-looking way, with the victims and their families absolutely at the centre. Let us do that in a magnanimous way that can really achieve something for the families, but also halt the totally unacceptable practice of pensioners who have served in this country being relentlessly under scrutiny, when in some cases nobody else is alive to recount the incident.
Let us seize the initiative of this report. I strongly welcome it and I am very pleased that the Government are going to do a consultation on it. We have to have the awkward conversations, because not having them does not work for anyone. It is incumbent on us as political leaders not to rest until we have solved the issue of historical allegations in Northern Ireland.
As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I follow three Members whose contributions were different in many respects. They are all engaged in this issue and have considered it thoughtfully throughout the Select Committee inquiries. It is a privilege for me serve on the Defence Committee and to be a part of the inquiry.
While I was listening to our esteemed Chair, the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis)—I mean that respectfully—I was thinking of Otto von Bismarck’s quote about legislation being a bit like sausages: no one needs to see how they are made. The right hon. Gentleman and I have had many private conversations about this report. He knows very clearly that my party colleagues and I are not supportive of an amnesty and that many victims in Northern Ireland—whether they are victims of republicanism, nationalism, Unionists, loyalist paramilitaries or of state forces—collectively do not believe in an amnesty, nor are they interested in having the hope or the pursuit of justice snuffed out. That is the environment in which it is important to consider this report.
This morning I was listening to BBC Radio Ulster, which had a contribution from Northern Ireland victims about Holocaust Memorial Day. One victim, Alan McBride, lost his wife on the Shankill Road when she went to her local fish and chip shop to get an evening meal and was blown up by the IRA. He spoke about a day of reflection in Northern Ireland, which is 21 June. I did not know this, but he shared the reason that 21 June was selected: victims across the Province had sought to find one single day in the calendar on which there has not been a troubles-related death, but they could not. They could not find a single day when someone had not died as a consequence of the troubles. They focused on 21 June because of the solstice representing a change in culture and weather, and the hope and aspiration of warmth and sunshine.
Our history is harrowing. Anyone who has been personally or directly affected by it is left with the scars and the emotion of the troubles of Northern Ireland. The report is about who “guards the guardians”, to use the phrase from a previous Defence Committee report. It is about how we look after those who protected society in Northern Ireland, not those who persecuted and were prosecuted for the most heinous crimes in Northern Ireland.
A total of 300,000 service personnel served in Northern Ireland—there were 27,000 of them at the height of the troubles—and 1,441 human beings who we, as a nation, asked to serve and protect our interests, perished. They died. Three hundred individuals died as a direct consequence of engagement with security forces, but that does not mean 300 murders. It is important to make that point. It does not mean that 300 people were murdered at the hands of the state: 300 people died engaging against the state. They were legitimate deaths—deaths that arose out of conflict and out of those individuals who we asked to defend us standing on the frontline and defending us as best they could.
I thank my hon. Friend and his colleagues on the Select Committee for the huge amount of work they have put into the report and its conclusions. Does he agree that there is a stark difference between someone who went out with murder on their mind to hurt and to kill in the pursuit of terrorism, and the brave men and women of our security forces and armed forces? They went out night after night and day after day to serve and to protect, and some were involved in difficult operational decisions with very tragic outcomes. We should be protecting them, as opposed to a terrorist on the loyalist side, a terrorist on the republican side, or somebody in the armed forces who went out with the intention to murder. That is not what this is about. It is about protecting those who are honourable and who went out to serve and protect.
I agree most fundamentally with my hon. Friend. She has been engaged for almost a decade in the policy matters and implications of legacy issues in Northern Ireland. I pay tribute to her for the work that she has done. These are not easy issues at all.
I am not saying that those 300 deaths were murders or unlawful, but that should not mean that they are immune from investigation. I say that most clearly: they should not be immune from investigation. I will quote from the “Who guards the guardians?” report led by the hon. and gallant Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) on the inquiry into the Iraq Historic Allegations Team:
“With the prospect of investigations into British deployments in Afghanistan and Northern Ireland, the Government must prove both in private, but especially in public that in adhering to the pursuit of justice and the rule of law, it does not lose sight of its moral responsibility and its commitment to the Armed Forces Covenant with those who have served.”
I was disappointed that the Government dismissed those lines.
Given what we have attempted to do in Northern Ireland thus far in dealing with the legacy, this report barely surmises that the overall process of investigations into fatalities in Northern Ireland has been deeply unsatisfactory. The instability of investigatory bodies, the limited resources and manpower provided to them and the continuing question marks over their independence have delivered a vicious cycle of investigation and reinvestigation that fails service personnel, their families and the families of those who died.
I respectfully suggest to the Minister—the Chair of the Select Committee should know my views on this as well—that dealing with this issue through the prism of Northern Ireland does not work. As parliamentarians who stand up in this national Parliament and ask individuals to put their lives on the line for our protection and our security, we should not look at this issue through the prism of Northern Ireland alone. A consultation is fine, and I have nothing against people submitting their views, but the principles with which we are engaged go far beyond the Northern Ireland context. I am not asking for anything that would be injurious to investigation or to upholding the rule of law.
When I say that, I am acutely aware that there are relatives of victims of the Ballymurphy massacre sitting in the Public Gallery—relatives who have sought for years to achieve truth and justice for their loved ones for that incident, which took place over a number of days in August 1971. I say very gently—this applies to their case and to many others in Northern Ireland—that the pursuit of truth and the pursuit of justice are two noble pursuits, but one does not always lead to the other. Someone can have truth but not get the justice they seek; someone can have justice but not get the truth they think they know. That is the mix that we deal with in Northern Ireland, but a statute of limitations would not, in our view, change the ability to get an investigation or to get closure, or remove the state’s responsibility or what it has to do to be article 2 compliant.
I disagree with the Chair of the Select Committee about this. The year 1973 was a watershed. That was when the investigatory process in Northern Ireland was fundamentally changed because the impartiality or the suitability of investigations had been questioned. The state can have confidence that where there was an investigation post-1973, that process was robust and article 2 compliant. I acknowledge that the Ballymurphy massacre predates that, and I do not stand in the way of any victim who seeks to pursue justice for their loved ones.
It is wrong to say that a statute of limitations would have to be extended to both state and non-state actors. We propose a statute of limitations on the basis that the state has discharged its duty. This is not immunity. This is not state immunity. This is not protection for a class of people. This is the state saying, “Where there has been an investigation and nothing came of it, we will move on after a defined period of time.” That is why looking through the prism of Northern Ireland is wrong in this context. This will apply in four years’ time to Afghanistan, and in five or six years’ time to Iraq. A 20-year statute of limitations could apply to armed conflicts throughout the world, provided we do not deviate from international standards. I do not accept that this has to be all-encompassing.
I draw a distinction: the Government in London created conditions that were preferential for the perpetrators but seemingly did nothing for the protectors. If we are looking for equivalence in the system, we need to look further than the two-year early-release scheme, although that is a key part. There is a distinction. Two serving members of the security forces were in prison at the time of the Good Friday agreement and did not benefit from the two-year release scheme. The perpetrators of heinous paramilitary acts in Northern Ireland kept no records, have no files and provide no honesty or truth in a process that could lead to justice for the loved ones of their victims, be they members of the security forces or not. That is another clear disparity.
If you had asked the Northern Ireland parties to agree to an on-the-runs scheme, they would have asked you to run on, but the Labour Government did produce an on-the-runs scheme. They went out of their way to give comfort to those who had committed heinous paramilitary acts that they would not be pursued for prosecution. Our state—this country and its Government—has given no protection to the people it asked to engage on our behalf. It has given no protection to security forces personnel who served in Northern Ireland or in other conflicts, but it was prepared to give odious on-the-run letters to paramilitaries in Northern Ireland.
John Downey is a famous example. He killed 11 members of our security forces in Hyde Park and seven horses associated with their work. When he was brought to the Old Bailey, he produced an on-the-runs letter and said, “I have an assurance from this state that I will not be prosecuted for my actions.” John Downey walked. There is no parallel between the way our state protects the people we ask to protect us and its casual, laissez-faire protection of paramilitaries.
The legal evidence that the Committee received was interesting and compelling, but most importantly—albeit there are different views, ambitions and perspectives on the Northern Ireland issue—our expert witnesses agreed that it is entirely in the UK Parliament’s power to enact a statute of limitations. We call on the Government to do so as a matter of urgency in the next Parliament. That is the nature of our report. That is what we ask for from our Government. Although there will always be different ambitions, different tactics and different approaches in Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland is but one part of this process. The Government must decide whether they are prepared to redress their approach to legacy issues and to our service personnel and start protecting those who protected us.
That speech by the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) was astonishing and deeply moving. Thank you.
This is personal to me. I am one of the 300,000 soldiers who served in Northern Ireland. I completed seven tours there as an infantry officer. I spent three years there. I first went in the early months of 1970 as a 20-year-old second lieutenant. To be honest, I was utterly shocked that on my first tour I was operating on the streets of my country with weapons. That was not the sort of soldiering I had expected. After all, I had been at Sandhurst since 1967. We withdrew from Aden in 1967, we had a year of peace in 1968, and then the British Army was sent into Northern Ireland in 1970. I was very uncomfortable about it.
When I went to Northern Ireland just after the start of 1970, we were deployed to Londonderry, principally to protect the Catholics. I even had a Catholic girlfriend for a time. I was unmarried. [Laughter.]
I thank the hon. Gentleman; he always gets me.
In my seven tours, I certainly witnessed bombings and fatality shootings involving military personnel. I want to centre on how we felt and how we approached it. Our approach started with our instructions, which were called, “Instructions for Opening Fire in Northern Ireland”—the so-called yellow card. I have mine here. This is the 1980 version. It is meant to fit into a pocket, so that soldiers have it with them the whole time. The problem is, when a soldier is in contact, they cannot get the card and think, “Oh, what can I do?” It has to be remembered. It has to be built into a soldier what he or she should do in a case where they might use firearms. It has to be instinctive.
So that people understood the rules, there were huge instructions on pre-operational tour training. The rules were clear and pretty precise as to what a soldier could and could not do. Let me read them, because they are on one piece of paper. This had to be in a soldier’s mind: we were to use minimum force in all situations, and open fire only as a last resort. No live rounds were to be carried in the breech, unless we were ordered otherwise or were about to fire. Challenges were always to be given before firing, unless to do so would increase the risk of death or grave injury to us or anyone we considered was being engaged by terrorists. Challenges were to be clear: “Army. Stop or I fire!” We were ordered to open fire only if someone was committing an act likely to endanger life and there was no other way to stop them.
There are examples on the yellow card of when a soldier can open fire:
“Someone firing or about to fire a weapon; someone planting, detonating or throwing an explosive device, including a petrol bomb”.
in the early 1970s, petrol bombs on William Street in Londonderry put a third of my platoon in hospital with burns before any firing took place. We did not fire; we did not even consider it. We did not even draw our batons.
The next example is
“Someone driving a car at a person, and there is no other way to stop him.”
Some hon. Members may be old enough to remember the case of Corporal Lee Clegg, who was convicted of murder in 1993. He fired at a car as it approached him, and as it passed by he turned around and shot through the window. The yellow card is precise: he was not in danger any more, so he should not have fired. I will return to that.
The examples continue:
“Only aimed shots were to be fired; no more rounds than necessary were to be fired; and be careful not to hit anyone who is innocent.”
Those rules were put into all of us. We practised them. We spent ages in a classroom learning them. We also practised scenarios in exercises, and were judged on whether we had done the right thing.
To decide whether to open fire was an enormous decision, and often—I saw it several times—indecision and worry about whether to open fire resulted in it not happening until it was too late. Fire could have been returned. We all knew that shooting incidents would be investigated, and we had to justify what we had done.
My hon. and gallant Friend is giving moving first-hand testimony on soldiering in Northern Ireland and the issues surrounding that. He is describing a situation where something has happened. What impact does that have on the soldier concerned?
Soldiers were frightened sick of going to court. They would much prefer to be in the field than to face some sort of judicial procedure. In 1986 I was the lead Army witness in Belfast Crown Court for the Ballykelly bombing. I had a string of my men going into court behind me, and although they had not opened fire and they had not done anything wrong, they were absolutely petrified about going to court. Luckily, in the end, I gave evidence, we had lunch and the plea was changed. My men did not have to give evidence, but in answer to my hon. Friend’s question, they were petrified and loathed it, simply because it is so far out of their ken.
The trouble is, decisions to open fire had to be made in seconds. That is against the background of a poor soldier, sometimes only 18 years old, having to think all the time, “Am I making the right decision? Is this right? I don’t want to kill someone.” We are human beings. Soldiers are not brutes. If they are, they should be out of the Army.
Those questioning soldiers’ decisions to open fire always have the luxury of ample time to examine what has happened, normally from a warm, comfortable room rather than an operational situation. So often, soldiers who open fire are frightened sick and having to make a decision very quickly. Of course, they are often in real danger of losing their own life.
In all fatality shootings that I was involved in, the soldiers had to prove that they acted within the law—often in court. The Army, and the special investigation branch in particular, were not nice to them. There was no cosying up. The interrogations—that is what they were— were not cosy. In 1978, I remember telling two soldiers that they were to be investigated and possibly charged with manslaughter. They had just saved their own lives by using their pistols to extricate themselves from a deadly situation, and they were shaking from the experience. They accused me, their officer, of abandoning them, and they used pretty ripe language about me. I felt rotten, as I totally understood how they felt. I explained that they had to be investigated to prove that they had acted legally and that the matter would then be over forever.
I believed then that that was right, but in recent years I have become increasingly worried in case I was wrong. In that case, I let my men down badly by what I said at the time. As politicians, we have a duty to ensure that soldiers such as my two men in 1978 are protected from retrospective investigation, especially into events that we believe were fully investigated at the time and are long in the past.
Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak on this matter, Sir David. I thank hon. Members who have spoken, and in particular my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). He is a friend, and we share a bit of banter on many occasions, but we have also had the opportunity to serve in uniform, and that is something we both recognise. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), who made one of the best speeches I have heard in a long time—one that resonated with all of us, because it was straight from his heart. Well done to him.
I also thank those who produced the report. Its high quality and the hard work that has gone into it are evident, and on behalf of the right-thinking people of Northern Ireland, and those who served Queen and country there, I thank the Committee for investigating with an impartial eye, for not being swayed by propaganda, and for seeking to do right by those who laid their physical and mental health on the line for the safety of every corner of this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
I declare an interest, having served in the Ulster Defence Regiment for three years and in the Territorial Army for 11 and a half years as a part-time soldier. I was pleased to serve in uniform; it was something I wanted to do since I was a young boy, and when the opportunity came when I was 18, I did it. The report is clear that between August 1969 and July 2007, over 300,000 soldiers served in Northern Ireland as part of Operation Banner, the longest continuous campaign in the history of the British Army. Those soldiers were deployed to support the Royal Ulster Constabulary and other security forces, and at the height of the campaign more than 27,000 military personnel were operating out of bases in more than 100 locations across the whole Province. I am proud to have been one of those men in part-time uniform. Operation Banner resulted in the death of 1,441 serving personnel, 722 of whom were killed in paramilitary attacks. Over the same period, British soldiers were responsible for the deaths of around 300 people, some of whom were civilians. That fact sets the scene very well.
Imagine that all around you, your brothers in arms are being blown up, trapped or beaten to death. You are under command and order, and you know that the only way of surviving is to keep your head down and follow orders. You do that. You see the unbelievable and touch the untouchable, and 30 years later, you have flashbacks of the unforgettable face of death and destruction. You rebuild your life, raise your children and grandchildren, and try to return to civilian life and forget what you have seen. You get to your state pension and settle into retirement. Then, one day, you get a knock on the door: someone is preparing a case to prosecute you for following those orders.
If they asked for a description of your colleague’s last seconds as he gasped for breath in your arms, having been blown up, you could easily describe that; it is irrevocably, indelibly imprinted on your mind. However, asking for details of individual outings and cases will be very different. You followed orders; that was the only detail you really needed to know. The hon. Member for Beckenham outlined exactly what a soldier does, in case we needed real, live evidence of that. He put it succinctly: soldiers followed orders. They did not question an order or ask for a brief on it; they followed it. That was the job they did.
By interviewing these men, we are not seeking justice but allowing a minority of people to seek vengeance, not against specific perpetrators, but against anyone who dared to wear a uniform. That was the only crime: being British and serving the Queen. To this day, that is enough for some people to want to destroy someone. The question is why some people are facilitating that, and how we can stop it. Figures show that investigations into former Army personnel account for a minority of legacy investigation branch cases, but that is still a disproportionately high number—some 30%—given that the total level of Army involvement in killings stands at 10%.
I have asked before in this Chamber why the life of someone killed in a skirmish with the Army is worth more time, effort and money than the life of someone killed by a unrepentant republican terrorist, who is walking around with a mayoral chain around his neck. We all know cases where that has happened; I named a very clear one in the House of Commons in the last term. That life is not worth more; it should not be. We must cut off the ability of those with a litigious republican agenda, who are determined to rewrite history, to weave a web of conspiracy theory and collusion, and make it seem like it was ever okay to bring workmen out of a van, let one of a certain religion run, and murder the rest in cold blood. The Kingsmill massacre has been very real in many people’s minds over the last period of time.
Those are the people whom some seek to appease through this continued attack on service personnel. It has to end. For the sake of real justice it has to stop. By all means, if soldiers lured civilians into an area by means of a honey trap and murdered them, let us investigate that, regardless of the uniform. But that is not the way it was; it was the other way around for those three Scottish soldiers. I tabled an early-day motion for them just a short time ago. I ask: where is their justice? There is not a level playing field, and it needs to be levelled.
Lexie Cummings’s family, from Strabane in West Tyrone, need the closure that has been given to those who sought the investigation into Bloody Sunday. My cousin Kenneth Smyth’s family mourn still. Do they not deserve the time that has been wasted on dragging old men out of their beds on the mainland and asking them questions that were above their pay grade, when they simply followed orders in a country where possibly half the people despised them for their uniform, and perhaps half of those people were willing to do something about it?
I want to pick up on one point that the hon. Gentleman— my very good friend—said. He said that soldiers followed orders. The decision to open fire was an individual matter; in the vast majority of cases, soldiers did not open fire because someone ordered them to. I cannot think of any cases where people opened fire on an order. They opened fire because they made the decision, based on the yellow card.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Clearly, the yellow card was given by the British Army for guidance on what to do, and soldiers followed that, so the soldiers on the ground followed the rules. There was not a man over their shoulder saying, “Right, fire now.” They made the decision based on the rules, which were clearly laid down for them. I had a yellow card myself, and I still keep it—as a bit of a keepsake, if for no other reason.
I will say it again: if soldiers stepped beyond their role and knowingly and willingly committed offences, then that is very different from what is happening here. I ask everyone to please see the difference.
I support the Committee’s recommendations, and appeal to anyone with any sense of decency and natural justice to do the same—except for a few minor parts that my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East and others have mentioned; for that reason, we would not endorse everything that the Chair of the Committee, the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), said.
The Government need to act. I appeal to them to respond to those who wore a uniform. As one who still lives under threat—not of prosecution, but because of my British service life, as other gallant and very gallant hon. Members have said—I ask the Government to please make best use of their resources. That means not persecuting—I use that word deliberately—men who did no more than wear their uniform and follow orders while under guerrilla and open warfare. Minister, decent people have had enough. People who were in the RUC, Prison Service, UDR or British Army and their families have been traumatised enough. I ask him to please stop appeasing the minority of people who cannot be appeased until they get what they wish for and we are wiped from their sight, and to do what is right and honourable for those who so honourably served Queen and country.
I apologise, Sir David, for the fact that I shall shortly have to retire; I have already asked permission of you, the Minister and the Shadow Minister.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I would like to pay tribute initially to my dear friend and late constituent, Surgeon Captain Rick Jolly. Many people will know of his work in the Falklands and the heroic work he carried out there, but some may not know that he served as the medical officer of 42 Commando and was deployed in Belfast early in his career.
I welcome the Defence Committee report. I want to tell a story—it is a true story about another of my constituents. I first met this gentleman many years ago when I worked in a local village as a doctor’s receptionist in the NHS. One day we had a power cut, and this kindly man from across the road came over bearing a kettle of water so that we could make a cup of tea. Over the years I worked at that location, I got to know my kindly neighbour. His name is Dennis Hutchings. He is now in his late seventies and is not a fit and healthy man: he has incurable chronic kidney disease.
More than 40 years ago, Dennis was a gallant soldier doing his job in the very difficult sphere that was Northern Ireland. In his own words, “It was a war zone.” He served for 26 years in the Life Guards with distinction. During his time in Northern Ireland, he and another soldier were involved in a shooting. I understand that the situation was investigated at the time by the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the soldiers were told that they would face no further action.
I now come to the present day—more than 40 years down the road. One newspaper reported that a couple of years ago Dennis was
“arrested and interrogated 25 times by police investigating”.
It went on to say that he
“was held for almost 85 hours before he was charged with attempted murder and on one day he was quizzed ten times over 11 hours.”
This gentleman was told that there would be no further action at the time of the original investigation. A different newspaper outlined the information available, saying that
“there is no forensic evidence, no weapons from the time and all the witnesses are dead”.
Many have described what is happening as a witch hunt. This is the real face of these investigations—a kindly, elderly gentleman being hounded by the authorities for years just because he did his job more than 40 years ago to the best of his ability and as he was ordered to do by his country, and served in Northern Ireland.
The Government say in their response to the Defence Committee report:
“The Armed Forces Covenant is a promise from the nation that those who serve and have served in the Armed Forces, and their families, will be treated fairly”.
I welcome that, as the mother of somebody who serves in the armed forces. However, I do not think that Dennis Hutchings is being treated fairly. Over the years, he has become my friend, and he is my constituent. What is happening to him is wrong. I do sympathise with the families of the victims. I know what it is like to lose a loved one—to have them snatched from you prematurely—so I can speak with authority. Dennis Hutchings is my friend and my constituent, and what is happening to him is wrong. If the armed forces covenant is to mean anything, this attack on Dennis Hutchings must stop now.
It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. This has been a very interesting and thoughtful debate on the fatalities in Northern Ireland involving British military personnel. I am grateful to the chair of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), for his detailed explanation of the Committee’s deliberations. It would need the wisdom of Solomon to come up with a true solution to this problem, and I do not envy the Minister, who has to sum up the debate.
We have heard many examples of how stressful the process has been for the individuals and families involved. Many have been left in limbo while investigations drag on. As we know, the legacy investigation branch of the Police Service of Northern Ireland is currently reviewing all deaths attributable to the security situation that occurred in Northern Ireland between 1968 and the Good Friday/Belfast agreement in 1998. Any decision by the legacy investigation branch to prosecute is of course referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland. That is an independent process, without UK Government involvement.
We must have confidence in the institutions of the police and the judiciary in Northern Ireland to serve the people. It is for Stormont to reform them if they are not serving them well, and I certainly hope that we can see Stormont functioning again fully in the future. That said, none of us wants former or, for that matter, current members of the armed forces to be treated unfairly when accusations of wrongdoing are made. We all know that the huge backlog of cases with the Iraq Historic Allegations Team meant that serving and former service personnel faced extended periods of uncertainty over the accusations that had been made. We must have adequate resources for investigating allegations so that that does not happen again, or in this case. We all support the idea of justice being done, but that includes fairness to our armed forces personnel, who are entitled to due process in answering allegations made within a reasonable timeframe.
The Select Committee has very helpfully suggested to the Government four possible options and has itself made a recommendation in favour of option one, namely enacting a statute of limitations. I note that the Committee did not recommend the fourth option, which is to cease investigations into former service personnel and stop complying with the European Court of Human Rights interpretation of our obligations under the European convention on human rights. It is important for me to state the Scottish National party position on this question. We fully support the Human Rights Act 1998 and will oppose any attempts to abolish it. Any derogation from article 2 of the European convention on human rights as a response to the situation would blur rather than define the high standards that we rightly expect and overwhelmingly see delivered by our armed forces, so I am grateful that the Committee does not recommend that course of action. It would send entirely the wrong message to the rest of the world about our commitment to human rights.
In conclusion, our service personnel should rightly be held to the high standards of behaviour that we expect, but they should also be fully supported by the Ministry of Defence when allegations are made.
It is indeed a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I start by paying tribute to the Chair of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), and to the members of the Committee for their work in producing the report. This is an extremely important and profoundly serious issue and wholly deserving of the Committee’s attention. The Chair of the Committee made a very considered and thoughtful opening contribution to the debate. He outlined the Committee’s approach and, obviously, the need to consider all views.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) talked about the delicate nature of the issues that we are discussing—delicate for families and for armed forces personnel. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) made his contribution with the added knowledge from his military service. From the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), we heard a very moving reflection on the troubles. He reminded us of the complex and delicate nature of the issues that we are discussing. From the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), we heard a personal reflection on his time in uniform, as we did from the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who as a young infantry soldier served in Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) gave an account on behalf of one of her constituents and talked about the links to the armed forces covenant.
The past presents many difficult and unanswered questions to families and individuals in Northern Ireland, as well as to those across Britain, including our armed forces veterans who served in Operation Banner. In all communities, there is a desire for truth and clarity about what happened to loved ones, and the quest for answers has not diminished with the passage of time. Like many hon. Members across the Chamber, I am of a generation that vividly remembers the troubles, as well as the anguish and conflict that that period represented. It is always worth reminding ourselves of the good work that led up to the landmark achievement of the Good Friday agreement. We are all committed to a future for Northern Ireland that guarantees peace and security for all citizens.
The report deals specifically with the issue of fatalities involving British personnel who served in Northern Ireland. We rightly expect the highest standards of conduct from our service personnel, and we know that members of our armed forces are keenly aware of that. Where there are allegations about improper or unlawful behaviour, they must be investigated fairly and thoroughly. Of course, there have been cases where investigations have, regrettably, not been fair. The Opposition welcomed the closure of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, because that forum relied too heavily on referrals from one discredited law firm and was simply not working.
[Ms Karen Buck in the Chair]
On the separate issue of fatalities in Northern Ireland, we are clear that the best means of dealing with this is through the full implementation of the Stormont House agreement and the institutions that that agreement provides for. The Stormont House agreement addressed many important issues relating to legacy, including providing for an independent historical investigations unit to take forward outstanding investigations into deaths relating to the troubles.
I know that there is deep frustration on all sides about the lack of progress towards fully implementing the agreement. One of the many groups eager to see progress is the Ballymurphy families, who earlier today met the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith). I know that their desire for progress is shared by all parties. The frustration at the lack of progress is also a point that the Committee’s report makes only too clearly. I fully recognise the Committee’s view that the status quo is simply not sustainable.
We all want to see progress made in resuming power sharing in Northern Ireland as soon as possible. As my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said recently, we need the Government to come forward with a clear path to rebuild trust between the parties and restore power sharing. That should involve the enlisting of an independent chair to manage the talks. Only then, and with the implementation of the Stormont House institutions, can we make the progress that we all so badly want to see, and ensure that those affected by the violence of the troubles get the answers and the truth that they deserve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. I remind the House of my interest as a member of the Army Reserve, although Northern Ireland is one of the few places where I have not seen operational service. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) for his Committee’s thoughtful report on a sensitive and complex issue, and for securing this debate. I am also grateful for the incredibly powerful contributions made this afternoon. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) focused on people. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) has been such a champion in this area. I am particularly grateful to him for his concern about my health. I have not been laid low with man flu, but I tell him gently that if I were, as a fine Royal Engineer I probably would not seek the sympathy of the House; I would just man up and get on with it.
The hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) gave a really passionate speech. The attention he got from the Chamber was well-deserved. He highlighted many of the challenges that we all face. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) gave such a passionate speech about his experiences and the pressures placed on our security forces. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who had to go and speak in another debate. My hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) gave a passionate plea on behalf of her constituent Dennis Hutchings. If she would like a meeting with me, we can discuss the matter in more detail. That is the best way that we can move that forward.
Around 250,000 service personnel served in Northern Ireland as part of Operation Banner between 1969 and 2007. Our armed forces played a vital role in providing safety and security, and in bringing about the conditions for peace. As the then Bishop of London, Dr Richard Chartres, put it at a service to mark the end of Operation Banner,
“Force cannot in the end resolve social conflict but it can offer a vital breathing space in which the normal processes of democratic debate and decision making can re-assert themselves. Military intervention can hold the forces of chaos at bay while people learn again how communities with different histories and aspirations can live together and do business with one another. Operation Banner kept open that vital pass”.
I pay tribute to all those who served, especially the more than 1,000 security personnel who sadly lost their lives in doing so, as well as all those who were injured and killed. In total more than 3,500 people were killed during the troubles, with terrorists responsible for 90% of those deaths. The arrangements for investigating those deaths have, over the years, been subject to increasing criticism. There is broad agreement in Northern Ireland that the current systems and structures are not delivering enough for victims, survivors or wider society.
The closure of the Historical Enquiries Team in December 2014 has left more than 1,000 cases outstanding, the vast majority of which are terrorist killings. The Northern Ireland courts risk being overwhelmed by the demands placed on them by historical inquests; there are 50 inquests currently open into almost 100 troubles-related deaths. Where criminal investigations are taking place, they are on a largely ad hoc basis, feeding the concern felt by some that there is an imbalance in the mechanisms in place, which results in a disproportionate focus on those deaths that in some way involve the state. The Government are clear about the problems with the status quo.
After 11 weeks of intensive talks, the Stormont House agreement in December 2014 reached a broad political agreement to establish four institutions to address what is sometimes described in Northern Ireland as the legacy of the past. We continue to seek the implementation of the legacy institutions set out in the Stormont House agreement as the best way to address Northern Ireland’s past in a way that is fair, balanced and proportionate.
The key institution relevant to today’s debate is the proposed Historical Investigations Unit. The HIU would be an independent body responsible for completing outstanding investigations into troubles-related deaths. It would be required to act in a manner that is fair, impartial, proportionate, effective and efficient, and designed to secure the independence of the HIU and the confidence of the public. The HIU would be required to work through its case load in chronological order and to complete its work within five years.
It is clear that action is needed on so-called legacy inquests. For example, in 2013 only two legacy inquests were completed and both have subsequently had their conclusions appealed, one successfully. None was completed in 2014. Better progress has been made since, and the Government support the work of the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland in putting together a reform plan for the legacy inquests for the Northern Ireland Executive. I hope that a new Executive can be formed soon, so that they can reach a view on how this element of the package of legacy reform can be taken forward.
The Government are committed to the Stormont House agreement and believe that the next phase is to consult publicly on the details of how the new institutions could work in practice. A public consultation will provide everyone who has an interest with the opportunity to see the proposals and contribute to the discussion on the issues. The consultation will include a draft Bill, which I am sure all hon. Members here will want to scrutinise in detail.
The consultation will also do something else. The Defence Committee’s important report, and indeed today’s debate, demonstrate that some people believe that the time has come for Northern Ireland to consider an alternative approach to dealing with the legacy of the past—an approach other than the pursuit of further criminal investigations. The Committee recommended
“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.”
A cross-party letter to the Prime Minister signed by my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East, who is the Committee’s Chairman, along with the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) and my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View, went further. The letter drew on expert evidence that a statute of limitations would fall foul of international law if it applied only to servants of the state, and recognised changes that the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 made to sentencing for offences related to the troubles. In the light of that, the letter argued that the time had come for a statute of limitations that covered all, including paramilitaries. I know that many, both inside and outside this place, agree with that position, while others, as we have heard, will not.
As there are a range of views, and recognising the view of the Committee, the Government have decided to include within the legacy consultation a question on alternative ways of addressing the legacy of the past, such as a statute of limitations or amnesty. While the Government are clear that in their view the best way forward is to proceed with the Stormont House agreement institutions, in the spirit of meaningful consultation, all views will be considered carefully to inform the next steps.
My right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East asked whether the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act applies to members of the security forces as well as paramilitaries. Yes, it does, provided the eligibility criteria set out in the Act are met. In practice, no former members of the security forces have been convicted of relevant offences since the passing of the Act, so it has not yet been used in this way.
The hon. Member for Belfast East mentioned that two members of the security forces were in prison at the time of the Good Friday agreement and did not benefit from early release under the scheme. The soldiers in question were released under licence by the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who had been considering their case before the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act became law. That case does not demonstrate that members of the security forces are debarred from making use of the provisions of the Act.
Going back to the consultation, while all views are important, I am particularly keen that armed forces veterans be given an opportunity to have their say, so I will ensure that the consultation, once published—I hope that will be soon—is distributed to veterans, including through our network of excellent regimental secretaries.
Finding a better way to address Northern Ireland legacy matters is a priority for the UK Government. The Defence Committee’s report is an important contribution to the debate on how best to do that. Now is the time, through the forthcoming consultation, for everyone with an interest in addressing Northern Ireland’s past to have their say.
It only remains for me to express my gratitude to everyone who has taken part in the debate. I hope that any onlookers will realise and accept that we are dealing with the most difficult of issues, and are trying to do everything that decent people with good intentions can do to arrive at a fair conclusion.
I am grateful to those who have spoken today. I am grateful to colleagues such as my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who have been highly active in this field in the past but could not be here today, for writing in support. I am grateful to the Minister, not least for making crystal clear that the sentencing Act does indeed apply equally to the military and to terrorists going on trial.
That said, it remains absolutely unacceptable that service personnel will have to go through the sort of ordeal that Dennis Hutchings is going through. It seems to me that there are only two ways to prevent that: getting rid of the international law that requires such matters to be investigated in the way that it does, and having a statute of limitations. The international law, namely the Human Rights Act, says that if we have a statute of limitations, it must apply to everyone. I see my good friend the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) dissenting from that proposition, but that is the testimony that we were given by legal experts. If there is a way in which we can do what the report does—that is, support a statute of limitations for service personnel and analogous organisations, such as the police and the security agencies—without incurring a breach of international law, I would like to know what it is, because the evidence that we were given was that we could not.
I realise that it is probably improper for me to start a new debate during a concluding speech, but it depends on whether there has been an article 2-compliant investigation or not. If there has not been, the right hon. Gentleman is right; but where there has been, the option of a statute of limitations is open.
As I say, we sought advice, and the advice we got was that a statute of limitations can be brought in, but there has to be—or have been, as the hon. Gentleman says—an investigation. There has not always been such an investigation, so unless or until we can bring in such a statute, or can get out of the provisions of the Human Rights Act—no one seems to want to do that—we face the prospect of people like Dennis Hutchings being forced to go through a process, at a late stage in their life, that most fair-minded people would regard as unacceptable and that is unlikely to lead to a conviction.
I did not expect for one moment that we would solve this problem today, but I hope that we have clarified the issues, and have focused the Government’s attention on what needs to be done, so that we do not end up with our soldiers having to worry about not only warfare but lawfare.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Seventh Report of the Defence Committee, Investigations into fatalities in Northern Ireland involving British military personnel, Session 2016-17, HC 1064, and the Government response, HC 549.