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Legacy Issues: Northern Ireland

Volume 618: debated on Tuesday 13 December 2016

[Nadine Dorries in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered legacy issues arising from cases in Northern Ireland.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I think all of us agree that the Northern Ireland peace process has surpassed all expectations. Who could ever have dreamt 20 years ago that we would see in the Northern Ireland Administration both Democratic Unionist party Ministers and Sinn Féin Ministers? It is in everyone’s interest that the peace process continues and endures.

I will say something about the legacy. I remind colleagues that 3,500 people were killed. Of those, 2,000 were killed by republican terrorists, 1,000 were killed by loyalist paramilitaries and 368 were killed by security forces. In total, 722 members of the security services were killed, which includes 477 serving British soldiers. The overwhelming majority of those deaths were fully investigated. The vast majority of wrongdoers were brought to justice. A very small number remain unsolved, and I understand the desire of some of those victims’ relatives for closure. However, we have to be cautious. We simply cannot get away from the obvious fact that these events took place many, many years ago, and much of the evidence has disappeared.

In 2010, the Police Service of Northern Ireland set up the historical inquiries team to look at various cases. I understand that it completed investigations into 1,615 cases. It then set up the legacy investigation branch in January 2015 to look at the remaining 923 cases. Of those, 379 were republican cases, including 228 so-called on-the-runs, 230 were loyalists, and 283 were security forces. The active caseload is eight republican cases, one loyalist and five security forces. That means there are 911 cases outstanding. This could go on for many years. So far, the cost has been £33.2 million.

The cases are split pretty evenly between republicans, loyalists and security forces. However, I believe strongly that there cannot be any parity or moral equivalence between paramilitaries and terrorists and members of the armed forces. Those brave members of the armed forces were doing their duty, wearing the uniform of the Crown and working to keep the peace. We should not forget that the Army was originally called into Northern Ireland to restore order and to protect Catholics. The vast majority of those soldiers were young people, conducting themselves invariably to the highest possible professional standards and following the Yellow Book. The terrorists and paramilitaries, on the other hand, had one simple plan and aim in life: to kill and injure.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He clearly outlined the case for British soldiers who courageously, energetically and within the law did their job to an exemplary standard. Does he share my concern, as many people in Northern Ireland do, that at 60 or 70 years old, these men are thrown to the wolves? Does he think that should happen?

I will come to that in a moment. Dragging veterans—people in their 70s and 80s—out of their retirement to face trial when most of the evidence has long since disappeared is a fundamental breach of the military covenant.

In that context, may I mention Corporal Major Dennis Hutchings? He served in the same squadron as a very dear friend of mine—an extremely brave soldier. A terrorist was killed in an incident in which three soldiers were involved. He is the only one who is still alive. How can he ever have a fair trial?

My hon. Friend anticipates what I am coming on to.

In the Province, 1974 was an incredibly difficult year. A large number of people—just under 300—were killed. It was a very tough and challenging year indeed, with a number of serious incidents. Colleagues will remember the M62 coach bombing, when 12 people were killed by the IRA. They will remember the Provisional IRA bomb that exploded outside the Houses of Parliament, injuring 11 people and causing extensive damage. They will remember the Guildford bombings, carried out by the IRA, and the Birmingham bombings. During that summer in the troubled Province, the Life Guards—one of the most senior regiments of the British Army—were deployed to Armagh, Dungannon and Cookstown. They had a very tough tour, with predominantly young soldiers on the frontline who were under a great deal of pressure but at all times behaved with the utmost professionalism.

I want to look at the Army report of some incidents that took place around that time. The report states that the threat level against the Life Guards in the areas around Dungannon and Armagh was particularly high. All patrols had been warned to take special care. A number of shooting incidents involving the Life Guards had occurred close to Eglish, and it was generally believed that the unrelated non-fatal shooting of a soldier from the Life Guards on 4 June was in direct retaliation to an arms find in that area. The same day, a Life Guard foot patrol surprised a group of young men who were in the process of transferring weapons into a car in the village of Eglish. The patrol was fired upon, and an exchange of fire took place. Three men were arrested, and a quantity of arms and explosives were recovered. At least three gunmen escaped.

During that particular incident, Corporal Major Dennis Hutchings, to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier) referred, was mentioned in dispatches for his exemplary bravery and leadership. Two days later, Dennis Hutchings led a patrol of four men in a follow-up operation aimed at locating further arms caches near the village of Benburb. They chanced on John Pat Cunningham, who was challenged to give himself up—he was behaving in a suspicious manner. The patrol believed they were threatened. They opened fire and, as we know, John Pat Cunningham was tragically killed. It transpires that he was not a terrorist but an innocent civilian. It was a tragic case of mistaken identity.

That incident was investigated fully by the Life Guards. It was investigated by the military police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Director of Public Prosecutions. The four patrol members were completely exonerated and cleared, and the regiment believed that was the end of the matter. If we fast-forward to 2011, Dennis Hutchings was staggered and flabbergasted when he was investigated by the PSNI historical inquiries team. A comprehensive investigation took place at the time. He co-operated fully and was told, after a short period, that no further investigations would take place because there was no case to answer and the whole matter could be closed. He specifically asked whether that was the end of it and was told that it was, so he went back to his retirement, to his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and got on with his life.

We now fast-forward to April 2015, when there was a dawn raid on the corporal major’s house in Cornwall. By then he was in very poor health. He was arrested, taken to Northern Ireland for four days of questioning and then charged with attempted murder—of course, a charge he vehemently denies. After 42 years, there are no witnesses left. The three other members of the patrol have died. There is no forensic evidence. There are no weapons left.

I was certainly taught at law school that one of the key tenets of criminal justice is the need for credible, current and corroborated evidence. It is beyond belief that he has been charged. There is no conceivable way he could ever receive a fair trial without proper evidence. These charges fly in the face of all the basic rules of criminal justice. We are seeing an outbreak of revisionism. We cannot simply revisit cases from 42 years ago and try to reinterpret them through the prism of the 21st century, with its emphasis on human rights.

The hon. Gentleman might take comfort from the Secretary of State’s words last week at Northern Ireland questions, when he said that

“the system is heavily focused on the 10% rather than the 90%, and the balanced, proportionate measures that I put forward will assist in changing that.”—[Official Report, 7 December 2016; Vol. 618, c. 199.]

That gives me a certain amount of comfort.

What has changed? There is no new evidence, but what has changed is that the DPP in Northern Ireland is now Barra McGrory, QC—the same person who represented Martin McGuinness in the Saville inquiry. This is the person who is prepared to move away from credible evidence to political decision making, which I find very worrying. It has to be stopped. There are potentially 278 more cases involving the security forces. I do not want any more veterans to be dragged out of their retirement homes any more than I want Sinn Féin councillors to be dragged out of council chambers.

Has the hon. Gentleman not hit the nail on the head? This is not about opening cases to find out who is guilty or not guilty. It is about political revisionism, rewriting history, and trying to move the blame from the terrorists to those who served their country faithfully. The Government ought to get a grip on this now and say, “No more.”

I agree entirely. I will quote what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said back in October. She said that

“we will never again in any future conflict let those activist, left-wing human rights lawyers harangue and harass the bravest of the brave, the men and women of our Armed Forces.”

Furthermore, in a letter from my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces, dated 15 November, to my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray), he said that we

“‘will always salute the remarkable dedication and courage of the RUC and our Armed Forces in defending the rule of law and in ensuring that Northern Ireland’s future would only ever be determined by democracy and consent. We will never forget the debt we owe them…we will also never accept ‘equivalence’ between the security forces and those who carried out acts of terrorism’.”

I submit in conclusion that we have to find a way forward. We have to draw a line under this. We have to see the scrapping of the legacy investigation branch. I suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister that he look at what happened in South Africa. If he does not want to scrap the legacy investigation branch and put a line under this, could he look at something along the lines of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and amnesty committee that South Africa set up so successfully? The alternative does not bear thinking about. It would represent a betrayal of our armed forces and a tearing up of the military covenant, and could imperil the entire peace process.

I represent the home of the British Army and have constituents in their 70s and 80s who still await a potential knock at the door. My hon. Friend has made a powerful speech. Does he agree that what is being done will seriously damage the morale of British troops? If they feel that their Government are not prepared to stand by them, they will think, “What is the point in putting my life on the line for my fellow citizens?”

I fear that if we do not draw a line under this, we will be not just undermining the morale of our armed forces, but betraying veterans. We could also imperil the entire peace process.

Thank you, Ms Dorries. I am very pleased to be speaking in the debate, and that the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham) initiated it and put the argument so eloquently. I must declare that I was a Household Cavalry officer a long time ago and therefore I have a great deal of interest in this case. When I heard about it, I wrote to every Lord and every MP, to the Secretary of State for Defence and to the Minister for the Armed Forces, and I have spoken with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on two occasions and to the Minister, who I am glad is here today—but all to no avail. All I have really had, all the way through, is the straight bat: “This is an ongoing investigation. Sorry, we can’t speak about it,” or “It’s all part of a future legacy deal.”

I sometimes think that society has gone mad. On 11 November every year, we remember those who died in conflict as their fellow soldiers, sailors and airmen march along, thinking of the horrors and the great heroic moments that they shared, past cenotaphs throughout the United Kingdom. That is what we mark on that day, yet cynically I look at that now and think, are they all walking past and wondering when their day is coming—when will there be that knock on the door, when will they be called to answer for something they did when they were doing their duty?

I would like to remind everyone that the British Army went to Northern Ireland to keep the peace and, in time, found itself fighting the most vile and horrendous conflict with terrorists. We are thankful to all who served—I said that in my maiden speech—and we must remember them, and all the work that they have done, all the time.

We have heard that more than 3,000 people died between 1969 and the Belfast agreement in 1998, but many people out there still want closure and, at the same time as all this, we must find a way of getting closure for them. Our sympathy must go to all those who have lost loved ones and especially to the Cunningham family, whom we are talking about today.

The Secretary of State said in September that the approach to legacy should be fair, balanced, impartial and, crucially, proportionate. It is vital that no one is above the law, whether they are security force personnel or paramilitary, and many people feel that there can never be an amnesty of any kind.

What we are concerned with is that the approach to the past is disproportionately focused on state actions. The basic facts that we have heard are that 90% of the deaths during the troubles were a direct consequence of terrorist groups and only 10% were the responsibility of the state. I have heard in a response from the Assistant Chief Constable that out of the 2,538 cases being investigated, 88% are republican or loyalist and 315 are security force cases. We asked about the detail, and we have already heard the numbers. Going through at the moment are 14 cases: eight republican, one loyalist and five security force cases. That is 36%, not 10%, so it is not proportionate. Of those referred by the DPP—four of them—all, 100%, are security force cases, and one of those is that of Corporal Major Hutchings. Do we really think that that is proportionate?

The Hutchings case is one example of where scrutiny has been applied to the security forces in a way that has not been allowed for others. John Downey was able to blow up the Household Cavalry in 1982. He was given a comfort letter and let off. That is completely wrong. We seem to have lost our sense. Lady Justice Hallett said that this was a clear distortion of our justice system, so the justice system knows about it. We must do things better and find a better way of going forward.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham) on securing the debate and on a passionate speech. I also congratulate the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) on his contribution.

It is evident that for many people, the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past continues to cast a dark shadow over the present. I am conscious that in approaching this issue we need to recognise the terrible loss suffered by so many people during the troubles, in Northern Ireland and in other parts of the United Kingdom. As has been pointed out, over the period of the troubles— broadly, from 1968 to 1998—more than 3,500 people were killed, mostly, though by no means all, in Northern Ireland. Many of those were members of the armed forces, killed in the line of duty protecting the public and maintaining the rule of law. Thousands were also maimed or injured during the terrorist campaigns.

This Government have always been clear that we wholly reject the suggestion that there is some equivalence between the security forces and those who carried out acts of terrorism. Terrorism was and is wholly wrong. It was never and could never be justified, from whichever side it came, republican or loyalist. No injustice, perceived or otherwise, warranted the violent actions of the paramilitary groups. The terrorist campaigns caused untold misery and suffering, and the terrorists left lasting scars, physical and psychological, in the wake of every atrocity that they carried out. We will never agree—I repeat that we will never agree—with a version of history that seeks to legitimise that.

The Government have also shown that where the state has got things wrong, we are prepared to face up to and account for what we have done. I say this as someone who has served in Northern Ireland. As a proud member of the British Army, I witnessed at first hand the remarkable dedication, professionalism and courage of the armed forces and the officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Does the Minister not see that with the hounding of individual members, whether in cases in Northern Ireland or what we see with soldiers who face enemy fire in Afghanistan and Iraq, that is exactly how soldiers perceive it—that they are not stood up for by their own Government?

I will come to the issue around proportionality, but I went to Northern Ireland to maintain law and order. I said I saw people acting bravely and professionally, but if I saw somebody doing something wrong, I would expect the state to challenge those individuals and bring them to account. We cannot have one set of rules and have another set of rules for another set of people. Proportionality, which the hon. Member for South Antrim raised, is really important. I will come to that in a second.

More than 1,000 members of the security forces lost their lives over the period of Operation Banner, which was the longest continuous deployment in our country’s history. Over 7,000 awards for bravery were made and, quite simply, without the dedication and self-sacrifice of the security forces in keeping people in Northern Ireland safe, the circumstances that enabled the peace process to take root would never have happened.

I will briefly talk about the case of Dennis Hutchings. First, I recognise that Dennis Hutchings was a senior NCO in Her Majesty’s forces. I met the proposer of today’s debate last month after he raised the case of Mr Hutchings in Northern Ireland Question Time in October. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk on that day:

“Criminal investigations and prosecutions are a matter for the police and the prosecuting authorities, who act independently of Government and politicians.”—[Official Report, 26 October 2016; Vol. 616, c. 270.]

I cannot, therefore, comment on this individual case.

Forgive me, but that is simply an unacceptable answer from a Minister of the Crown. I am sorry, but this is what we hear. We heard in the previous debate that it was an operational police matter. We are now told that this is a matter for the Police Service of Northern Ireland. This is a matter of public policy. We have heard that Corporal Major Hutchings was told that the matter was closed. Now, in his dotage, it is being reopened. Ministers cannot pass this responsibility to the police force. This is a matter of public policy and the people of Britain—particularly those with whom the Minister formerly served in the armed forces—will expect Ministers to stand by it and not simply pass the buck to the police.

May I respectfully say that I am not going to get into the debate over Mr Hutchings? Actually, the process of law in this country is that politicians and Government do not get involved. There is a department for prosecutions, a criminal process to go through and a police service that must be allowed to pursue its inquiries. We cannot create one set of rules for one part of society and another for another part of society. I will briefly address the issue of proportionality, which is the most important.

Does the Minister understand that many people in Northern Ireland and elsewhere are perplexed and confused about the fact that the PSNI is pursuing people, such as the gentleman who was mentioned, in a disgraceful way, yet senior members come on the radio and cast aspersions about all sorts of people, saying they are involved in criminal activity, and yet do nothing about it? They are talking about active people. Is that not the dichotomy? Is it not disgraceful that people who served their country are being pursued, while police say they know all about the activities of others and are doing nothing about it?

I recognise the right hon. Gentleman’s point. This issue of proportionality is really important and that is why the Secretary of State and others have sought to find a mechanism, because the present situation creates the challenges that people are talking about at this time. We need to find another way that brings proportionality to the system and enables people to feel justice on both sides of society.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has been generous in taking interventions. I welcome his last statement about looking for a new way forward, but does he accept that although the decision to prosecute is independent, the manner in which it is carried out—raiding the house of a great-grandfather with police cars, thus giving away his address and all the rest of it—can be commented on? Indeed, we just had comments on the Met from our right hon. Friend, the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service, a few minutes ago in another context.

I expect the police to always maintain a high standard when they go to arrest somebody, and I am sure that every Member here would as well.

I want to talk about proportionality. As has been pointed out, 90% of victims were as a consequence of terrorist interventions. The proposals that are out there, which the Secretary of State would like to consult people on, are around how we ensure that those accused, from both the state side and the republican side, are brought before the courts and examined in a proportionate way. The proposals are that each case would be examined chronologically. There will be a conclusion within a period of five years, to give people some closure and some idea of timescale.

From what the Minister said, I assume he accepts that there is not proportionality within the legacy investigation branch at the moment, given that for places like Enniskillen—the explosion in the poppy day bombing—there is not one police officer investigating that case.

The next line that I was going to read states that the almost exclusive focus on the actions of the state is disproportionate and must be challenged and redressed if we are to deal with the past in a way that is fair and balanced and allows victims and survivors to see better outcomes than the current piecemeal approach. That is why the Government continue to believe that the Stormont House agreement institutions remain the best way forward in dealing with Northern Ireland’s past.

I believe that these proposals will make the situation better for victims and survivors, and will be the only chance we have of prosecuting terrorists who murdered soldiers and police officers along with other innocent victims. I believe that the historical investigations unit, a body proposed under the Stormont House agreement, has a number of important advantages over the current system. I reiterate that it will investigate deaths in a chronological order. The HIU will not focus on the deaths caused by soldiers, as the investigations systems in Northern Ireland do today. Instead, it will take each case in turn and will investigate the many hundreds of murders caused by terrorists, including the murders of soldiers. Honourable Friends, it is estimated that without reform of the current mechanisms, around 185 murders of soldiers, not to mention the many murders of RUC members, will not be investigated. There will be a statutory duty for the HIU to act in a balanced, proportionate, transparent, fair and equitable way. The HIU will be time-limited, as I said, with an objective to bring to an end all investigations into the past in five years.

I have outlined the reasons why the Secretary of State announced his intention to move forward into a public phase on legacy bodies, and why he and I have been engaging extensively with political parties and victims groups to find a way forward in these outstanding cases. I believe that this approach has the potential to build greater confidence in the new bodies and to resolve the remaining issues. It is clear that the status quo is not working well enough for victims and families, and it is time that progress is made. This should create a more proportionate approach in dealing with the past and ensure that the balance of investigations is rightly on the terrorists who caused so much pain and suffering, rather than disproportionately on the brave soldiers and police officers who sacrificed so much to protect us.

Question put and agreed to.