My Lords, with permission, I will repeat an Answer to an Urgent Question asked by Sir Gerald Howarth MP in the House of Commons earlier today. The Statement is as follows:
“As part of an ongoing investigation by the Police Service of Northern Ireland into the events surrounding Bloody Sunday in Londonderry in 1972, a former soldier was arrested for questioning on 10 November 2015. He was subsequently released on bail.
Criminal investigations and prosecutions are a matter for the police and prosecuting authorities, who act independently of government. The Government cannot therefore comment on an individual case.
This Government are committed to the rule of law. Where there is evidence of wrongdoing, it is right that it should be investigated.
We remain unstinting in our admiration and support for the men and women of the police and Armed Forces whose sacrifice ensured that terrorism would never succeed in Northern Ireland and that its future would only ever be determined by democracy and consent.
Whether the current investigations will lead to criminal prosecution is a matter for the police and prosecuting authorities in Northern Ireland. The overwhelming majority of armed services personnel carried out their duties with courage, professionalism and integrity. This Government will never forget the debt of gratitude that we owe to them”.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Answer given in the other place. As my honourable friend Vernon Coaker said there, it is only right and proper at this time to pay tribute to our Armed Forces, who are at this very moment engaged in defending our freedoms and are in harm’s way. They operate to the very highest standards and we should always remember the difficult circumstances in which they serve. That is why it is always difficult to criticise our Armed Forces if they fall below these high standards, but we cannot and must not fail to do so if evidence of wrongdoing should exist. The Saville inquiry of 2010 was clear. As the Prime Minister said at that time in his Statement to the House,
“there is no doubt; there is nothing equivocal; there are no ambiguities. What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong”.—[Official Report, Commons, 15/6/10; col. 739.]
He also apologised on behalf of the British Government. The whole report makes very uncomfortable reading for all of us, and none of us should ever forget the victims and families of those who were killed both on Bloody Sunday and throughout Northern Ireland on so many other occasions.
Can the Minister confirm that evidence given at the Saville inquiry is precluded from being used in any court proceedings against a particular individual? Can he confirm that the arrest of Soldier J was based on evidence gathered since January 2014 by the PSNI, which has announced a new investigation? The PSNI has said that there will be no further arrests until the results of a judicial review brought by other affected soldiers has concluded. Can the Minister tell us when he expects this judicial review to be concluded? Can he also tell us what work the Northern Ireland Office is undertaking pending the outcome of that judicial review?
I thank the noble Lord for his words and will take each of his points in turn. Yes, I can confirm that evidence given to Saville cannot be used to incriminate the person who gives it; the evidence is protected. On the specific case, it would not be appropriate for me to comment; it is a subject of an ongoing criminal investigation and the question of arrest is a matter for the PSNI. With regard to the ongoing legal proceedings, again, I do not think that it would be appropriate for me to comment, but I understand that the PSNI is committed to not making any further arrests in relation to Bloody Sunday until the outcome of those legal proceedings.
I have two points to make, First, I had a private meeting with Martin McGuinness soon after the Prime Minister’s apology to find out how the apology had gone down in Londonderry. He assured me that it had been very welcome and had been accepted. Secondly, Bloody Sunday—I was living there at the time—was very early in what we loosely call the Troubled times. There had not been much time for training and briefing of soldiers. The Paras are briefed and trained as an aggressive attack force. It was just very unfortunate that they were committed to Bloody Sunday.
My Lords, while it is of course important in any case to follow the evidence wherever it takes the authorities, and even though the mills of justice often grind exceeding slow—in this case, we are talking about events of almost 50 years ago—does the Minister agree that it is extremely important in these circumstances for the police, the press and people generally to understand that an arrest is not a conviction? We have the experience in recent times of a whole series of arrests by the PSNI which led to a political crisis we are still trying to find our way through in Northern Ireland, and all of those arrested have been released without charge. Is it not important to point out that the same is the case in respect of this soldier—that an arrest is not a conviction and assumptions should not be built on it until the proper processes are proceeded with?
My Lords, I draw the Minister’s attention to a potential anomaly. I am not talking about this individual’s case. If, out of all of the proceedings of the Saville inquiry, any charges are brought and a conviction obtained, the person convicted will not be able to apply for early release under the terms of the Belfast agreement. I do not know why the authorities, in drafting that scheme, put a starting date of after 30 January 1972. It was never a matter of discussion and I was not aware of it until long after the agreement. However, it is there and I am making this point because, if this anomaly arises, steps should be taken to ensure that the person is treated in the same way as other persons convicted of criminal offences during the Troubles. It would be wrong to treat people in similar cases to this person’s case in a worse way.
My Lords, I endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, said. One other aspect worries me. I understand that the witnesses to the Saville inquiry were promised anonymity. On this occasion, three police cars turned up at this man’s house in Antrim to arrest someone who had indicated that he was willing to go to the police station of his own accord and give evidence. I hope that this matter is taken up because it is obviously worrying and may be extremely dangerous for him and his family.
My Lords, as a Member of this House from Londonderry who lived through some of the difficult years in that city, it is important to say that we have now moved on to a better place. Sometimes when an atrocity such as this once again raises its ugly head, we forget where we have come from. I believe that in the city of Londonderry we have moved on from issues that were difficult many years ago. I agree that we should never forget the sacrifices of the security forces in protecting the people of Northern Ireland through a bloody terrorist campaign.
There was a clear belief when the Prime Minister apologised to the families of the victims of Bloody Sunday that that would more or less draw a line under it and we could all move on. Obviously that has not happened. I agree that no one should be above the law and that the police should be allowed to do their job irrespective of who the person may be.
Does the Minister agree that the new Stormont agreement announced yesterday is an important turning point for Northern Ireland? There have been five attempts to resolve the legacy issues of the past but, for whatever reason, all political parties in Northern Ireland are finding it difficult to get a resolution to the past. While we cannot get that resolution at this minute in time, it creates problems in legacy cases such as this and in dealing with the past. Will the Government and the parties continue to try to resolve this issue because, if we can, we can move Northern Ireland forward to a better place?
The agreement that was reached yesterday was a significant achievement. I am sure the whole House will wish to congratulate all the Northern Ireland parties on reaching that deal. It has broken an impasse and created the opportunity to develop devolved institutions that work for the people in Northern Ireland. As the Minister in the other place said, it is a matter of regret that legacy was not part of the deal. We must find ways to take these matters forward and give victims and their families closure and see justice served. The Government stand ready to play their part in that process.