Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I first thank the usual channels for making time for this short but important debate; I also thank the Minister in advance for answering it.
The most depressing aspect of the subject under discussion is that we have to have this debate at all. After the shameful investigations and allegations of misconduct by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan, one might have thought that the appetite for further investigations into the conduct of members of the Armed Forces in other conflicts might have diminished. Sadly, this is not so. Despite the Iraq Historic Allegations Team looking at over 3,500 allegations, the only case that has come to court has been that of a bent investigator. Yet attention has returned, this time to Northern Ireland.
Many noble Lords will have seen the powerful intervention if the media by Field Marshal the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall. The noble and gallant Lord focused on the 2010 Saville report into Bloody Sunday and opined quite correctly that Saville should have been the end of Bloody Sunday. On publication of that report, the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, apologised for the actions of a very small number of soldiers and the residents of Londonderry seemed to accept that apology. But now the case of Sergeant “O”, one of those who gave evidence to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Saville, has become prominent eight years later—some 46 years after the incident itself. There is a horrible suspicion among veterans that the non-self-incriminatory basis on which they gave evidence to Saville has been broached, and that some soldiers now stand liable for further investigation and in fear of a knock on the door. I would be grateful for a categorical assurance from the Minister that the confidential nature of the evidence given to the Saville Inquiry has not been used in subsequent investigations. There is considerable scepticism in the veteran community on this point.
The case of Sergeant “O” is not unique. The case of Corporal Major “H” is also worrying. He was questioned over the case of a young man with learning difficulties, who was shot dead on 15 June 1974. However, after a joint investigation by the civil and military police, within a year, the Ministry of Defence was informed that there would be no prosecution. I have seen a copy of that letter. Nevertheless, the Historical Enquiries Team, set up in September 2005 by the Blair Government, decided to look once more at the Corporal Major “H” case but concluded in 2013 that there was no basis to reopen it formally. After the Historical Enquiries Team was closed down in 2014, a new legacy investigation unit returned to the “H” case, leading the Police Service of Northern Ireland to arrest the corporal major on 21 April 2015 and deport him to Northern Ireland for interview. He was interviewed 26 times over the next four days—16 more times than Harold Shipman—and was charged with attempted murder on 24 April 2015. A complicated court case is still ongoing. The corporal major is now over 75 years old and a sick man.
That knock on the door is not confined to elderly retired paratroopers, riflemen and cavalrymen. On my last day as Chief of the General Staff on 28 August 2009, the final scheduled appointment in my diary, before I left the Ministry of Defence for the last time in uniform, was with two investigators from the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s Historical Enquiries Team. They had travelled from the Province to London to quiz me about the killing of a young man in Belfast some 36 years before. Having explained the circumstances of the day in question, I assumed that the matter was closed. This was not so, as one of my corporals—now 76 years old—was subsequently questioned, with the police finally accepting that events in our statements, nearly 40 years before, were an accurate account of a hostile attack which had been responded to professionally within the terms of the yellow card and within the law.
Time precludes description of other high-profile cases similar to those of Sergeant “O” and Corporal Major “H”, but there are troubling issues with them all. First, while the Army kept extremely good operational records, the terrorists did not. This makes a very uneven playing field on which to conduct these retrospective investigations.
Secondly, all allegations were investigated by service and civil police at the time and statements were taken. It therefore raises the question of why revisiting whatever evidence that may still exist 30 or 40 years later is likely to bring any greater clarity.
Thirdly, of the 2,547 cases referred to the PSNI Legacy Investigation Branch, 2,265 are deemed terrorist cases and only 282 to be British Army/Royal Ulster Constabulary cases—just 10%. But the reality is that 90% of cases that were killings by nationalist and loyalist terrorists were murder by any description of the word, while the 10% attributable to the security forces were deaths brought about by troops and policemen who, in the vast majority of cases, were doing their lawful duty. There is a very strong suspicion that, for the reasons I have just outlined, the low-hanging fruit of security forces cases are being plucked first and, on past evidence, are likely to be so by the proposed historical investigations unit.
Fourthly, while over 500 prisoners convicted of terrorist offences were released on licence as part of the Belfast agreement, another 365 royal pardons were handed down over the last 35 years and over 300 on-the- run letters were issued. In the same period, just four servicemen were convicted for murder, while another 10 were prosecuted and acquitted. Does this not speak volumes about the integrity of the Army?
To move to the present, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley, has launched an open consultation entitled Addressing the Legacy of Northern Ireland’s Past. In the preamble to the consultation, she says that the legacy proposals should be,
“balanced, fair, equitable, and crucially proportionate”.
From what I have described so far, historical and current activity is demonstrably not,
“balanced, fair, equitable, and crucially proportionate”.
Furthermore, from a military veteran’s point of view, this consultation is already flawed in that it has precluded at the outset the introduction of a statute of limitations ending these historical investigations. However, I am aware that, in pursuit of the objective to be “equitable”, there is a concern that a statute of limitations to protect former members of the security forces would mean that terrorists would, in effect, be given an amnesty as well.
So the Army is caught in the crossfire between the Sinn Féin nationalist agenda to rewrite history and paint the IRA as having fought some form of just war against their self-styled oppressive state, and the Democratic Unionist Party and Ulster Unionist Party’s insistence on bringing predominantly nationalist terrorists to justice. It is also worth remembering that the proposed historical investigations unit will examine only fatalities, ignoring the 40,000 people—including 6,000 soldiers—injured during the Troubles, without investigating those responsible for over 15,000 explosions in the Province during that time. Is this “equitable”? What is to be done?
First, it should be recognised that the British Army is a national institution which should be regulated under the authority of the Westminster Parliament and not allowed to become victim to the intrigues of Stormont, whenever that Assembly might reconvene. The welfare and duty of care towards servicemen and military veterans should clearly be championed by the Secretary of State for Defence and not left to the outcome of a consultation by the Northern Ireland Secretary.
Secondly, it should be remembered that incidents in which members of the security forces fired their weapons were fully investigated by the military and, where appropriate, the civil police at the time. In the vast majority of cases, a decision was made that lethal force had been used within the prevailing rules of engagement and no further action was necessary or appropriate. I submit that those investigations should be confirmed now as legal, binding and final. Furthermore, I submit that any subsequent reinvestigation breaches the principle of double jeopardy.
Thirdly, if the principle of double jeopardy is accepted, it would be quite appropriate for a statute of limitations to apply to those cases and individuals that had already been investigated. This would protect policemen and soldiers who were doing their duty in pursuit of the sovereignty of the Crown’s right to rule over the whole of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland but, crucially, it would leave exposed to the full rigours of the law those terrorists who have never been exposed to investigation. That, I submit, is,
“balanced, fair, equitable, and crucially proportionate”.
In conclusion, I add that to many soldiers fighting in the Province during the 1970s and 1980s in particular, it felt like a war zone, although the IRA insurgency was never branded as such. Indeed, we should not forget that in 1972 alone, 102 British soldiers lost their lives fighting in the Province. Of course, the peace process since the Good Friday agreement has brought better times but the continuation of that peace cannot—and must not—be at the expense of more soldiers’ lives ruined.
Soldiers fully understand von Clausewitz’s classic dictum:
“War is but a continuation of politics by other means”.
But to paraphrase Clausewitz, perhaps Miss Bradley in the Northern Ireland Office might reflect on the reverse: a peace process should not be a continuation of war by other means. The nationalist agenda to divorce Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom is as alive today as it was throughout the 38 years of the Troubles. The British Government must not sleepwalk into that agenda.
My Lords, all speakers bar the Minister should heed the point on timings: as soon as two minutes appears on the clock, speeches should be concluded immediately. If not, the cumulative effect will undoubtedly squeeze the Minister’s remarks.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, on securing this very important debate. Our Armed Forces and security services served heroically and valiantly during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. These ex-servicemen put their lives on the line daily to defend us against the evils of terrorism and many hundreds of them paid the ultimate price for doing so. The courage they displayed in protecting us and upholding democracy and the rule of law must never be forgotten. We should not tolerate the rewriting of Northern Ireland’s history by those who wish to legitimise the actions of murderous terrorists; nor must we allow a campaign to take hold where veterans are continually persecuted in order to appease a narrow agenda. There can be no moral equivalence between unapologetic terrorists or those accused of terror offences and people accused of having committed offences when they were members of the Armed Forces, trying to protect us from the terrorists.
The April 2017 report by the House of Commons Defence Committee, Investigations into Fatalities in Northern Ireland Involving British Military Personnel, referred to a proposed statute of limitations. My party, the Democratic Unionist Party, is open to consideration of a UK-wide statute of limitations for soldiers and police officers who face the prospect of prosecution in cases—this is very important—that have previously been the subject of full police investigations. No one should be above the law. Let me be clear: we are talking about cases that were previously the subject of rigorous police investigations. It is wrong that our veterans are sitting at home wondering whether a third or fourth investigation will take place into their case simply because some “make a quick buck” human rights lawyer thinks it is a good idea to reopen their case. Any consideration regarding a statute of limitations should apply not to Northern Ireland alone but be part of broader reflection on other military deployments. This would not be an amnesty, as each case will have previously been the subject of a thorough investigation; rather, it is an appropriate and necessary measure.
Finally, I believe that such an issue will always be for Westminster to determine, rather than the Northern Ireland Government, on a UK-wide basis.
On 19 December 2013, two senior DUP representatives, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Emma Little-Pengelly, came to persuade my party to support their idea for investigating the legacy of the Troubles. The historical investigations unit was the centrepiece of their plan. They expected that it would give victims a better experience. These proposals became part of the Stormont House agreement and, subsequently, on 28 September 2015, Sir Jeffrey said:
“The Stormont House Agreement provides a good deal for victims and survivors”.
As my colleague Mike Nesbitt pointed out recently:
“The fatal flaw with the HIU is that it excludes many more victims than it is designed to include. Specifically, it is proposed it will investigate only 1,700 of the 3,500-plus Troubles-related killings and none of the 47,000 injured”.
Sir Jeffrey was wrong to include survivors as no survivor will have access to the HIU. Imagine if the chief constable said that the PSNI will investigate only crashes in which someone was killed and ignore cases where six people suffered life-changing injuries—there would rightly be uproar.
The former Justice Minister, David Ford, made clear his assessment of the likely effectiveness of the HIU. On 7 October 2015, in answer to a question on the likely prosecution rate of the HIU, he said that,
“the HIU might at best produce one or two prosecutions”.
The Government seem to be driven by a false interpretation of how to be compliant with Article 2 of the European convention and have done nothing to challenge this.
Most victims see these proposals as another pay-off to Sinn Féin, to help it rewrite history and hound retired police and soldiers, using records from Kew, assisted by 300 investigators recruited to the HIU, which will become a parallel police force. Terrorists have no records and they will not tell the truth. The Government’s commitment to release records is not matched by the Irish Government, who reserve the right to redact documents.
I call upon the Democratic Unionist Party to withdraw its support for these proposals and not subject those who loyally served the state to a decade of anxiety and anguish as they wait for a knock on the door.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, on introducing this very important debate. Even though I am allowed only two minutes in which to give my views, I want to make it absolutely clear that I think a completely fresh approach is now needed.
I lived through some pretty troubled times during my time in Northern Ireland. I certainly saw atrocities of all kinds, serious ones, which many of your Lordships will remember. There was a couplet that stuck in my mind:
“To hell with the future and long live the past
May God in his mercy look down on Belfast”.
I worry about this legacy and the idea of reliving it the whole time. I want to see reconciliation, rather than this endless regrinding of old grievances, going on and on. Some of your Lordships may have seen on “Channel 4 News” Cathy Newman interviewing somebody who has made a film called “The Ballymurphy Precedent”. He said, “I did it because I want the British Army to learn the lessons so that it does not happen again”. The lesson the Army is supposed to learn was 47 years ago and the idea of regrinding all this is a disaster. It is hugely expensive.
Of course I do not condone unlawful killing. We saw the idea established by the Bloody Sunday inquiry, costing £200 million—how much better could that have been spent on helping the cause of reconciliation and helping some of those who suffered from the Troubles in that time, rather than all the expensive lawyers at Central Hall discussing these issues in the Bloody Sunday inquiry.
This is not a very helpful comment to the Government but I think we have to change completely the processes we have been following, which are quite unsatisfactory. The Defence Select Committee said that they were quite unacceptable. We need to stop and say, “Is it really sensible to keep going back over all this old ground? Should we not instead concentrate on what is important, which is establishing reconciliation and spending on reconciliation the funds that would otherwise be wasted on these legacy issues?”
My Lords, it is incumbent upon the whole House to put on the record our admiration for and thanks to the service men and women who served in Northern Ireland with such effectiveness. Their role was to establish order, the rule of law and trust. That is why it is vital that we pursue transparently, openly and convincingly any issues which may raise doubts and anxieties about things that could have happened. But we must be careful how we do that because we cannot simply load all the responsibility on to service men and women who were serving in impossible conditions.
Northern Ireland is not in a good place. We still do not have a Stormont. We are hurtling towards March 2019 with no hard evidence of how we are going to reconcile the problems of the border.
I just make this point: what has led to reconciliation and peace in Northern Ireland owes a great deal to ordinary people in both communities who have worked tirelessly at building trust and confidence. The importance of the EU charter of rights cannot be overestimated. It was vital because it gave confidence to both communities that there was a setting of commitment to justice. In the current situation, the term “justice” becomes more important than ever, but let us remember that this has high significance for building a sense of shared responsibility between both communities.
My Lords, I too commend the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, for highlighting this disgraceful, dishonourable treatment of veterans. Yes, PSNI should seek to uphold the law, but the investigations are a travesty of justice, jumping from the failure of the Historical Enquiries Team to the failed Legacy Investigation Branch, both now superseded by the Historic Investigations Unit—HIU. It is odds on that HIU will fail and collapse. To be charitable, the failure is more to do with mission impossible than those who tackle it. It brings echoes of the equally discredited IHAT and its successors in Iraq. These protracted, expensive procedures fail. They are not fit for purpose and should not be perpetuated. They may claim to follow the law—piffle! They do not provide justice or fairness. There is weakness in leadership. What is needed is resolution. As Churchill might have noted, action this day. Will the Government act now?
For the future, the Armed Forces need a statutory limitation on investigations of combat operations. Invoking Section 10 of the Crown Proceedings (Armed Forces) Act 1987 has been mooted. Surely we can do better and have in the Armed Forces Act a clear statement of limitation with no requirement to legislate on this vital issue in haste or confusion at the time of conflict. Those on live operations must know where they stand, free from worry in the heat of battle that their decisions and actions then will become the domain of a section of lawyers seeking to adduce criminal conduct years, even decades, later. Promises have been made by this and previous Administrations. All have stalled or petered out. This Government must do better.
My Lords, in an article in the Daily Telegraph last month, the Northern Ireland Secretary said:
“This Government wants to do the right thing by our brave veterans and ensure that they have all the support they deserve”,
so I hope she will do what she can, by whatever means, to prevent ex-servicemen being hauled through the court in their old age, having previously been investigated and cleared of any wrongdoing, particularly when there is a perception that terrorists are being treated more favourably than former soldiers.
When I served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, the article of faith was that if we did the right thing and followed the rules of engagement, the system would always back us up. This was essential in inspiring confidence—often a soldier had only a split second to make a decision, as was faced by Corporal Major “H”, who was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt. The Government sent me and others to Northern Ireland to support the police in upholding the rule of law in mostly very difficult circumstances. In the interests of justice and even-handedness, I do not believe that the Government can now wash their hands of the responsibility for what is happening to those who were their soldiers. I very much support what my noble friend Lord King said about reconciliation.
My Lords, in view of the time pressures I will seek to make rapid progress, but regrettably I do not think the Government have been making rapid progress. It is new 20 years since the Good Friday agreement. I remember when I was in the Security Service I received a delegation of retired RUC officers who were very concerned about this issue. That was 12 years ago. I engaged with the Consultative Group on the Past 10 years ago, and we now have a consultation document from the Government which does not seem to move the story forward very far. My view is that we need to make rapid progress and that the current consultation fails to achieve that. It suggests that the Historical Investigations Unit might aim to complete its work in five years. I think the chance of it completing its work in five years is virtually zero. I would be very surprised if it completed its work in 10 years.
In view of this, the Government need to show leadership and to accept a degree of risk. They need to decide that there will be a statute of limitations. I would even accept one which covered both the security forces and the terrorists. Although that is a very unattractive idea, we need to draw a line under this. If we do not, we will be having a similar debate in 10 years’ time and it will be a disgrace.
My Lords, I very much welcome the debate in the House this evening. The legacy of the Troubles still haunts Northern Ireland. Failure to agree on how to deal with the past has left many victims angry and marginalised. Questions that are important to victims about why things were allowed to happen are left unanswered. For Northern Ireland to move forward, we need a balanced approach in how we deal with the legacy of the Troubles. The current arrangements for dealing with the past are totally unacceptable. There is a clear imbalance, with disproportionate focus on the activities of our Armed Forces and the police. This includes the work of the Legacy Investigation Branch of the PSNI, the various ongoing inquiries, the police ombudsman, the Public Prosecution Service and the so-called legacy inquests that are demanded on a daily basis by the republican movement.
There is a great push in Northern Ireland today in the republican movement to try to rewrite the past. It is something we must vigorously oppose. When you talk to former members of the security forces who served in Northern Ireland, they believe that they have borne the brunt of those investigations. A stream of negative stories has been devised and highlighted to undermine the credibility of the Armed Forces and the police. The truth is that our Armed Forces should be praised for their sacrifice and service in extremely difficult circumstances. Our party holds veterans of our Armed Forces and those who have served in the police not only in Northern Ireland but across the United Kingdom in the highest esteem. I believe that we will not move Northern Ireland forward until we find a way through to an agreement on the past.
My Lords, in the two minutes available to me, I can only summarise my conclusions rather than set out the detail of my reasons. I do not want to see members of the security services prosecuted or, indeed, sued in respect of any killing or wounding which they were involved in during the Troubles and prior to the Good Friday agreement. I do not think that it is possible politically or in law to make a distinction between the security services and former terrorists or, indeed, within those classes, and I therefore conclude that there should be a statutory bar on all Trouble-related killings or woundings committed prior to the Good Friday agreement. That should be statutory, not administrative, and could take the form of a statute of limitations, an Act of oblivion or a statutory amnesty and it should apply to both criminal and civil proceedings. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, when he says that it is likely that members of the security forces would be targeted for legal proceedings to a disproportionate extent. I would find that deeply offensive.
I also find it unconscionable—indeed, an abuse of process—that members of the security forces could be prosecuted or sued, while former terrorists now either hold or have held prominent positions in the political life of Northern Ireland and have participated in the Administration of that Province. It is for those reasons that if a Bill is brought forward, I shall certainly vote for a statutory bar of the kind I have identified and, if necessary, I will trigger such a vote.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, for raising the legacy issue but somewhat frustrated by the time limit. This issue should long ago have been raised by the Government, who have recently lumbered us with a succession of Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland who have had one thing in common, in that they have consistently, systematically and actively ignored those of us who actually know what we are talking about.
I came to Parliament in 1983, having been a principal schoolmaster for 23 years and having served in the Ulster Defence Regiment for 12 years; and both prior and subsequent to coming here, I have survived 10 confirmed assassination attempts. From 1994 until 1998 I was part of the Belfast agreement team of the noble Lord, Lord Trimble. Noble Lords might believe that at almost 81 years of age, I would be enjoying some respite but, although it is too long to read, I have here a letter dated 1 July 2015 from an IRA lawyer, Kevin R Winters, giving notice that a brother of two of the three Ballygawley bus bombers who murdered eight soldiers 30 years ago has instructed him to claim damages from me. That was because I shared their names with Prime Minister Thatcher and, a few days later, they were ambushed as they sought to carry out yet another attack on a member of the security forces.
I seek only to set the scene as to what the people of Northern Ireland suffered at the hands of the provisional IRA between 1969 and 1994, so that our Government can be persuaded to look at the legacy catastrophe over which they actively preside and can perhaps reconsider a process that threatens 70 and 80 year-old ex-soldiers with ongoing prejudice and revenge for defeating the IRA.
Time forces me to conclude, but as one who could never take his children in his own car to church, Sunday school, youth organisations or music, I have paid the price, as many other soldiers have done. Finally, in my 12 years’ service, I never had a complaint made against me or any soldier under my command.
My Lords, like my noble friend Lord Dannatt, whom I congratulate on obtaining this important debate, I had the privilege of commanding troops in Northern Ireland during the Troubles: first, my battalion in West Belfast for four months in 1974-5, and then the Belfast Brigade from 1978-80.
Internal security operations are the most difficult that an army can be asked to undertake because, rather than operating on a battlefield against other armed forces, individuals are required to make instant life or death decisions involving civilians. All ranks must be carefully trained in the circumstances in which they may open fire, confident that if they act in good faith and within the law, they will be supported by the authorities. In Northern Ireland these were listed on a yellow card and, on every occasion when a member of the security forces opened fire, the circumstances were investigated on the spot by what was called a “flying lawyer” service, with those found to have broken the law being immediately charged.
The Romans had two words for war: bellum, the justifiable use of force between states, and guerra, the unjustifiable use of force within a state. The then Government committed their security forces to guerra in Northern Ireland in 1969, but I well remember the confidence engendered by feeling that it was behind all efforts to restore law and order—a confidence that is so vital to the motivation and morale of members of the Armed Forces. Sadly, I am not confident that the Prime Minister fully understands the importance of this to members of the Armed Forces, whom she may commit to war. Of course, they must act within the law, but I call on her to stand up to those authorities in Northern Ireland who are threatening legal action against some former servicemen, particularly those who, after investigation, have been given to understand that such action would not follow.
My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, for initiating this debate. I agree with everything that he said. The Corporal Major “H” case appears to be even more unfair than I thought hitherto.
Many noble Lords have talked about the statute of limitations, and I strongly support that. One proviso is that we need different provisions according to the circumstances. The most important consideration is: was the relevant incident reported and investigated properly?
There is a very serious risk attendant on these historical inquiries. The military needs prudent risk-takers and decision-makers. However, they may be deterred from joining the Armed Forces because neither Ministers nor the chain of command appear willing and/or able to protect service personnel and veterans from unfair treatment. Who wants to have imprudent risk-takers in the Armed Forces?
This is not divisible business, but the next quinquennial review of the Armed Forces Act is, I think, in 2020—not that far away. If any noble Lord tabled a suitable amendment on the statute of limitations, I would support it, no matter what my friends in the Government’s Whips’ Office said.
My Lords, much has been said tonight that is critical of the Government. I think we have to accept one thing: they are in a difficult position. They are caught and linked in to the hard-won Stormont House agreement. At this difficult moment, the Government will not walk away from the only semblance of an agreement between the parties, the Irish Government, and so on. However, we will be where we are now for several months.
The Secretary of State, in talking about the legacy arrangements, has made the point that above all we must promote reconciliation. That is impossible in these particular arrangements. I note, by the way, that one of the key people in the Democratic Unionist Party has already moved away in public from the key paragraph 34 in the legacy section of the Stormont House agreement.
Some movement is now going on. I do not know where the chips will fall, but these arrangements will not bring about any form of reconciliation. I draw the attention of noble Lords to Dr Maguire, the police ombudsman, who is no stooge of the British state. He is causing a great deal of irritation to many people retired from the services. He said recently that we are stuck and are making no progress towards resolution. He makes the very important point that in two of his investigations, in which he decided that there was no collusion, the families would not accept that and could not come to terms with it. It made no difference, so he carried out an investigation. He is well known for being, to say the least, critical of the security forces at times. He says to the families, “Sorry, there is nothing there”, and they do not accept it. Why are we then considering a huge set of institutions to just reproduce this experiment into the future?
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, that dragging long-retired military police and security officers out of retirement to pursue prosecutions is unjust when it is much easier than discovering evidence against paramilitaries. Proposing a quasi-amnesty or statute of limitations must be done for all, or not at all—a point ably made by the noble Lord, Lord Evans. Currently, we are witnessing a massive diversion of resources into investigating old crimes with no prospect of a successful outcome, with many old citizens—notably retired soldiers and police officers—being stressed out by protracted inquiries.
Then we had the politically destabilising farce of one of the key architects of the peace process, Gerry Adams, being arrested in May 2014, detained for several days with media speculation on an intense scale and then predictably released. Where is all this getting us? Meanwhile, there is no proper compensation or recognition for the victims. As the noble Lord, Lord King, said, we have to draw a line and prioritise victims and reconciliation and allow the police to prioritise current crime, not history.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord on securing this extremely important and timely debate and for his, if I may say, deeply moving speech. In the two minutes available, I shall limit myself to a few brief remarks on this highly complex subject. There is just too much hurt and too many demands for truth and justice to simply draw a line under the past in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland must be able to deal with its past in a manner that promotes reconciliation and is consistent with the shared future.
The vast majority of those who served in the Armed Forces during the Troubles did so to uphold the law and operated entirely within the law. They acted with honour and integrity and we pay tribute to their courage and sacrifice. We would be doing a disservice to these soldiers if we introduced a procedure that is contrary to the rule of law and our human rights obligations. As such, we would have concerns that an amnesty could inadvertently undermine the contribution of the vast majority of those who served so honourably. But justice must be—and must be seen to be—even-handed. Can the Minister reassure the House that nothing in the consultation and proposed legislation will give rise to a fishing expedition among former members of the Armed Forces? Can he also say whether those in the security services against whom prosecution is being considered will be offered ongoing support and advice as well as effective legal representation, and how that assistance will be funded?
My Lords, I of course pay tribute to the Armed Forces and all their work over 30 years. I also understand the feelings of victims across the board in this matter but, after spending seven years of my public life as either a Minister, shadow Minister or Secretary of State in Northern Ireland, I have now come to the conclusion, like the noble Lord, Lord Evans, and my noble friend Lord Hain, that we must draw a line. The issue is how we do it, when it is done, where it is done and, of course, whether it can be accepted right across the community in Northern Ireland—which it must be for it to be effective.
This debate has been important in highlighting this issue. The matter now rests with the Government. They have decided that they want a consultation process on the legacy of the past, and I hope that what has been said in this important debate will be taken into account by the Minister and Secretary of State in dealing with what now is the most difficult issue facing people and their political leaders in Northern Ireland.
My Lords, this has been an important and I must begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, for bringing it before us this evening. Let me stress that the Government are consulting and the consultation will be extended until 5 October. Let me also say that legacy is a constant companion to all those who have lived in Northern Ireland and indeed to all those who have served there. We can be under no illusion: they will carry that legacy until the day they die.
There are currently many organisations in the Province of Northern Ireland responsible for investigating historical legacy issues, each constituted under slightly different arrangements and each with slightly different approaches. The reality is that, as the noble Lord stressed, there appears to be a very clear skewing of those investigations towards those who have served inside the military and the police services. This widespread view has been echoed tonight. There is no doubt that it is a tragedy that those who served with honour in Northern Ireland, who sought to uphold the rule of law, have found themselves in their retirement years struggling with a legacy that they are unable to respond to and are unclear about when it will end. At the moment, inquests into the Troubles seem primarily focused on former soldiers and police officers. That is under the current arrangements.
The reason that we are consulting today and have brought forward an indication of how we might move this in a different direction is that the current arrangements do not work. It is the current arrangements that have brought us to the situation that we find ourselves in, and that is why we need to think afresh. There needs to be a different approach. We cannot have a situation in which the state, which necessarily records the actions of all those who perform a service for that state, is therefore more likely to be pursued than those who belonged to paramilitary organisations which—as many noble Lords have pointed out—simply did not keep records. We need to recognise that reality. We cannot those who have served this nation being prosecuted simply because it is easier to prosecute them. Justice must be served, but justice must be blind.
I am also aware that in this consultation, as raised by a number of noble Lords, we have focused only on fatalities. It is of course right to strengthen the point that the number of those who were injured is an order of magnitude greater. I would welcome—in fact, I would strongly urge—those who hold that view to make it very clear to the Government that injuries also need to be considered in the wider approach as we seek to bring this consultation towards a conclusion.
It is important to remember certain aspects that we have not touched on as much this evening, such as that the police ombudsman, by its nature, will investigate only those who are former police officers and, by its nature, 100% of the investigations will necessarily affect only the police services. That is why, in looking at the new institutions that should emerge from this consultation, we need to see how we can address the very issues with which we are so familiar and have heard so much about this evening.
There is no easy answer. If reconciliation were achievable by simply asserting it, we would have made greater progress. But that cannot be done. The question then of a statute of limitations, or indeed of an amnesty, is a challenge that we must confront foursquare. The issue is: shall we now draw that line and say that, before a particular date, all shall therefore be left behind, whereas after that date we shall act? It is not the policy of the Government to move forward with an amnesty but, as has been pointed out, an amnesty could not apply only to one side; it must apply equally to all. Again, I would welcome from noble Lords strong representations to the Government on this, so that we may hear very clearly those points being made; we would therefore need to understand where the will of the House rests on this issue. Importantly, we cannot overlook the reality of what the Troubles meant for those who lived through them and experienced those tragic circumstances. As the noble Lord, Lord Bew, reminds us, to some extent, nothing that we can do could ever truly satisfy those who have been bereaved and those who have experienced the trauma and tragedy of events. I do not believe, if I am honest, that anything that can be achieved from this particular consultation could deliver that satisfaction.
I am aware from listening to a number of contributions this evening, not least from my noble friend Lord King, of the cost of these investigations, what that money represents as a loss, in truth, to the wider Province of Northern Ireland, and how that money could perhaps have been spent on other aspects. Again, as we look at the responses to the consultation, we must hear that, if indeed that is a view that is expressed very strongly.
It is necessary, as we begin to consider what will emerge from the consultation, to see whether we can secure what I hope will be a consensus in moving forward. I suspect the challenge will be that that consensus will be absent. It will call therefore on the Government to lead, to determine what that policy that we will move forward with needs to be. We have, as noble Lords will be aware, adopted the Stormont House agreement, which was hard-fought. It sought to draw on the knowledge and experience of a wide breadth of participants in public life in Northern Ireland. It also sought, again, to explore the views of a wider constituency beyond that. It is upon that Stormont House agreement that we seek to make progress through this consultation.
It has taken too long. Of that there is no doubt. We should have been making progress on this matter when the momentum was with us and the wind was in our sails, but that has not been the case. It would be too easy for me to say, as I have said on so many occasions, “If only we had a devolved Executive. They could just sort it all out”. Unfortunately, this is a bigger challenge than just saying, “We must wait for that Executive to be in formation”. That is why, in putting forward this consultation, and ultimately depending on what emerges from it, we seek to determine a course of action that can bring about each of the elements that we, I believe, all wish to see. Among them is the wish that justice be done; that those who serve with honour do not continue to be persecuted and prosecuted over a lengthy period, as a number of noble Lords have mentioned this evening; and that those who have served their country, be it in the police service or in the Armed Forces, are able to experience a retirement without threat or fear of continued persecution through this process.
The Stormont House agreement gives us a foundation on which we can work, but it will not solve all the problems. We must ensure that those institutions that are developed are able to deliver almost the impossible, which is to satisfy those who have lived through the Troubles, to address those who would seek justice, and to address those who believe that justice simply cannot be served. We must also make sure that those who serve in the military, those who have served in the military and those who might serve will not be victims of an ongoing persecution that will continue long after they have resigned their commission or retired from the services.
We are asked, as a Government, to do a great deal. In formulating a new Historical Investigations Unit and in seeking to recognise that thus far the previous incarnation of that entity has sought to gather the low-hanging fruit, we need to recognise that it is only fair and proper that the future activities of such an institution address each fairly, that justice be served blindly and that we do not simply cast our eyes to the horizon and say, “This will never end”. It will continue for as long as it must continue. In limiting it to five years, we recognise the challenge that that represents, but we also recognise the near impossibility of delivering within that. None the less, there must come that time when a line is drawn. The line will be drawn either by the Government or in due course by the passing on of all those who have experienced tragedy or have been in the Troubles.
I do not believe the Government can easily answer those questions, but they must try. They must do so irrespective of whether a new Executive are formed, because the time is slowly but surely trickling through the hourglass. As well as the Historical Investigations Unit, the Government have put forward three other institutions for consideration. One is a commission on information retrieval, which will be an independent institution established by agreement between the UK Government and the Irish Government to enable victims and survivors in the UK and Ireland to seek and privately receive information about the Troubles-related deaths of their relatives. That will be an important step forward. Another is an oral history archive—again, independent—enabling people from all backgrounds to share experiences and narratives related to the Troubles. The third is an implementation and reconciliation group, again an independent institution to promote reconciliation and to review and assess the implementation of the aforementioned institutions to deal with the past. Those are anticipated within the overall consultation. However, I stress again that the key, beating heart of this is the belief in the fairness and transparency of the actions, and that this too will come to an end—because it must. We do not wish to see hundreds of millions of pounds spent trying to achieve the impossible. None the less, we wish to see a move forward that gives satisfaction to those who have lived through the Troubles in whatever capacity they themselves did.
I therefore say to the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, that the current system does not work. It has been a prosecutorial system which has sought to gather the low-hanging fruit, and that has been intrinsically unfair. There have been a number of difficulties in trying to prosecute and pursue those guilty of terrorist atrocities. Just because it is hard does not mean that it should not be pursued with the utmost rigour. Justice must be done and must be seen to be done. It would be patently unfair for the perception of skewing to manifest itself in any way as a reality.
I know noble Lords will be offered an opportunity to revisit this as the consultation itself concludes, but before we get to that stage it is critical that the views that noble Lords express, which represent a large constituency of various interests, are part of the consideration of that consultation. We must make sure that what emerges from that consultation works, because the current arrangements do not. We must make sure that there is confidence in those arrangements—that there is fairness, honesty and integrity and, ultimately, that justice is served by them. Perhaps hardest of all, we must also recognise that this consultation and the institutions it may yet deliver will not themselves salve the wounds of those who were harmed or hurt in the tragedies. None the less, they may serve as a final attempt to address the concerns expressed by those pursuing justice, as they have done over the years.
It will not be an easy outcome. The Government are fully aware of how difficult it will be to satisfy each of the constituent elements, some of whom have spoken this evening. However, two things must stand above all else. First, the British Armed Forces served with honour in Northern Ireland. There have been occasions, as inevitably there will be in any comparable situation, where difficulties will have arisen, and they need to be pursued to the fullness of justice. But equally, justice cannot focus only on the state actors, which is why we must move forward on both.
On the notion of an amnesty, which many of Lords have spoken of—again, I strongly urge noble Lords to make those points clearly in the consultation itself—it is not the policy of my party or of the Government to believe that we are in a situation where we can overlook those crimes of the past. We believe that they must be pursued to the fullness of justice: that is what we ultimately wish to do. We must also recognise, however, that old men forget and that, with the passage of time, it becomes ever more difficult to find the truth and gather the evidence, and ever more trying to bring yourself into a situation in which you can secure that which I believe all would wish to see: justice done and justice served.
A number of noble Lords have stressed how important it is that this be a sensible solution, and that we should not simply believe that by casting further hard-fought money into a procedure we can achieve the ultimate ambition of salving the wounds of all who grieve. We cannot do that. But we must be in a position where the Government have been seen to do their job, which is to recognise that those in Northern Ireland who seek justice are in a position to believe that justice has been done. We must also be in a situation in which those who have served the state in Northern Ireland do not find themselves enjoying, one would hope, their twilight years while always finding themselves pursued to the point of ill health.
It would be easy for me to simply say, “It’s a consultation—let’s wait and see”. But the reality remains that we must act and must do so on the basis of consensus, which we hope we shall draw ultimately from this consultation. This has been a worthy debate, which has made me think very carefully about many different aspects of it, so I thank your Lordships very much.