I beg to move,
That this House acknowledges the service and sacrifice of the armed forces and police during Operation Banner in Northern Ireland as well as in other theatres of conflict in Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan; welcomes the recent decision to close down the Iraq Historical Allegations Team; and calls on the Government to take steps to ensure that current and future processes for investigating and prosecuting legacy cases, whether in Northern Ireland or elsewhere, are balanced and fair.
On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I am delighted to move this motion in the name of the Democratic Unionist party. Let me say at the outset that 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. We have always sought to use our parliamentary time to raise issues that are of concern to those people; I am glad to do so again today. I welcome the opportunity for this debate, and I thank all Members present, including the Ministers from the Northern Ireland Office and the Ministry of Defence.
Although policing and justice issues are now devolved to the Northern Ireland Executive, the legacy of our troubled past remains a matter for this Parliament and the UK Government to deal with. Our motion refers to other theatres of conflict, including Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan, and I pay tribute to all those who served in each of those operations, especially to those who died in the service of our country. I know that other right hon. and hon. Members will wish to refer to those people. I hope the House will forgive me if I concentrate mainly, and with good reason, on the situation in Northern Ireland.
I remind hon. Members that Operation Banner was the longest-running military operation in the history of the Army. During the period known as the troubles in Northern Ireland, there were more than 3,500 deaths, of which more than 2,000—some 60%—were murders carried out by republican paramilitary terrorists, mainly from the Provisional IRA, while more than 1,000—some 30%—were carried out by loyalist paramilitaries. British and Irish state forces were responsible for 10% of the deaths, almost all of which occurred as a result of entirely lawful actions, when soldiers and police officers acted to safeguard life and property and uphold the rule of law. In fact, a member of the security forces in Northern Ireland was three times more likely to be killed than a member of the IRA. If we contrast that with Iraq, for example, where terrorist insurgents were three times more likely to be killed than members of the armed forces, it sets the Northern Ireland situation in context.
Let me restate for the record that paramilitary terrorists were responsible for some 90% of the deaths in Northern Ireland—on both sides of the border, that is—whereas 10% of the deaths are attributable to state forces. Those deaths include more than 3,000 unsolved murders arising from our troubled past. What a terrible legacy that is—one of pain, loss and a deep sense of injustice on the part of the victims and their families.
Let me be clear that there can be no moral or legal equivalence between our police or armed forces and those who were members of illegal, criminal terrorist organisations. Let us contrast how the two have been treated. It is a well accepted principle that in a democracy no one should be above the law, yet—as will become clear from my remarks—there appears to be one rule for those who serve our country and another for those whose objective is to destroy it. Unfortunately, the legacy issues were not adequately addressed, never mind resolved, in the deeply flawed Belfast agreement of Good Friday 1998. Instead, in that agreement the Government of the day agreed to release early from prison those prisoners sentenced for offences linked to the troubles in Northern Ireland and who were members of a terrorist organisation on ceasefire and supporting the peace process.
In effect, the terrorists, who were found guilty of crimes including murder, were released from prison after serving only two years in jail. They included, for example, the notorious Shankill bomber, Sean Kelly, from the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). Kelly was sentenced to nine life terms in prison for the murder of nine innocent civilians on the Shankill Road. He served just seven years in jail—less than one year for each life he destroyed.
In addition, in September 2000, beyond the terms of the agreement, the then Secretary of State, now Lord Mandelson, announced that the Government would no longer seek the extradition of those Provisional IRA prisoners who had escaped from prison, including several who had escaped from the Maze prison in my constituency in 1983. They included convicted terrorists such as Dermot Finucane, brother of the late Pat Finucane and former head of the Provisional IRA southern command, and Kevin Barry Artt, who had been convicted of the murder of the deputy governor of Maze prison, Albert Miles, who was shot in front of his wife. What an appalling atrocity! They also included Liam Averill, convicted of the sectarian murder of two Protestants, who escaped from the Maze prison dressed as a woman in 1997. Their extradition was not sought by the Government of the day. In addition, perhaps up to 30 Provisional IRA terrorists have been granted the royal prerogative of mercy and allowed to go free.
In 2001, the then Labour Government sought to extend the concession further so that an amnesty would be introduced for all members of terrorist organisations on ceasefire. In a letter dated 4 May 2001, the then Secretary of State, Dr John Reid, wrote to the Prime Minister, Tony Blair:
“In the Hillsborough statement of 8 March we accepted publicly for the first time that it would be a natural development of the Early Release Scheme to discontinue the prosecution of pre-Good Friday Agreement offences allegedly committed by supporters of organisations now on ceasefire.”
In the same letter, Dr Reid made it clear that the legislation to provide for that amnesty
“should exclude members of the security forces from the amnesty arrangements, though we should not underestimate the difficulty of holding this line in Parliament in the face of an inevitable press campaign.”
You bet, Dr Reid! We opposed it vigorously and stopped it in its tracks. I am confident that this Government would never consider such a concession to those who have committed murder on the streets of Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
Note that an amnesty was offered—an amnesty was put on the table for terrorist organisations while members of our security forces were to be excluded, just as they were excluded and ignored in the agreement of 1998. Dr Reid was certainly right about the opposition that he would face to such a reprehensible scheme.
But things did not stop there. A secret deal was then done between the Northern Ireland Office and Sinn Féin, to the benefit of Provisional IRA terrorists who were still on the run—fugitives from justice. They were wanted for questioning about serious terrorism-related offences, including murder. Letters of comfort were issued by the Northern Ireland Office to each of those terrorists, sometimes delivered by the postman Gerry Kelly from North Belfast, informing them that there were no warrants in existence and that they were not wanted in Northern Ireland for arrest, questioning or charge by the police. The issuing of those letters by the Northern Ireland Office resulted in the disgraceful situation of an alleged IRA member, John Downey, being able to escape conviction in the courts in London for the murder of four soldiers in the Hyde Park bombings of 1982. I could go on, but it is important that we focus now on the sacrifice of the security forces—of those who served our country.
According to the Sutton Index of deaths during the troubles in Northern Ireland, 520 members of the regular Army, Royal Navy, Royal Air Force and reserves, and veterans, were murdered by terrorists during Operation Banner. In addition, 243 members of the Ulster Defence Regiment and Royal Irish Regiment, and veterans, were murdered by terrorists. Some 325 members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and other constabularies, and retired police officers, were murdered by terrorists. Twenty-six prison officers and former prison officers were murdered by terrorists. That amounts to 1,100 men and women in the service of the Crown who were murdered by terrorists, and countless others seriously injured and left to bear the mental and physical scars of this reign of terror.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way; he is speaking powerfully about the victims of terror. One of the victims who is not counted is my uncle, who now sits in the other place. He was attacked brutally by IRA men while representing our country in Brussels. I understand why the right hon. Gentleman mentions the statistics, but they hide so many scars. Victims are hidden because they are not listed, yet they bear those scars today, even if they were unharmed physically.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. As I said, countless others were seriously injured and left to bear the mental and physical scars of this reign of terror.
It is evident that little effort has been made to bring to justice those responsible for the heinous crimes committed by the terrorist organisations responsible for 90% of the deaths during the Northern Ireland troubles. Yet enormous resources—hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money and countless hours of valuable police time—have been devoted to hounding the security forces: to vigorously pursuing investigations against veterans of the armed forces and retired police officers.
The Chief Constable did establish the Historical Enquiries Team that sought to re-examine the unsolved murders in Northern Ireland, but it could review only the previous police investigations and lacked full police powers to renew the investigation of these killings. It was eventually wound up, and the Police Service of Northern Ireland established a new Legacy Investigation Branch as a temporary measure until wider agreement could be secured on the legacy issues.
Today, the PSNI Legacy Investigation Branch devotes a wholly disproportionate level of its resources to the investigation of killings linked to the security forces and hopelessly inadequate resources to the thousands of unsolved terrorist murders. Recently, two retired veterans of the Parachute Regiment, aged 67 and 65, were charged with murder in connection with the shooting of IRA commander Joe McCann in Belfast in 1972. That follows the decision to prosecute a 75-year-old veteran of the Life Guards who has been charged with the attempted murder of a man in County Tyrone in 1974.
While the families of thousands of innocent victims, including the police officers, soldiers and prison officers involved in more than a thousand murder cases, wait in vain for some action to be taken to investigate those crimes, the police are devoting resources to investigating the small number of killings linked to the state.
I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way; I apologise for not having been here at the start and for not being able to stay for the whole debate. I salute him and his colleagues in the Democratic Unionist party for securing this hugely important debate.
The right hon. Gentleman has just mentioned the disproportionate number of investigations of former soldiers and police officers. Is he aware that the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland has issued what is effectively a fatwa to news organisations across the United Kingdom? If they have the temerity to make any criticism of Mr McGrory, they will be served with legal proceedings. Does that not illustrate the attempt being made by some in Northern Ireland to ensure that they get a soldier in the dock for something that happened 45 years ago? It is completely immoral.
It is important that we all recognise and respect that we do have freedom of the press in Northern Ireland. The facts, some of which I have outlined, speak for themselves. Many in Northern Ireland wonder why the justice system is so focused on what the state did, and devotes so little of its energy and time at what the terrorists did.
I am following the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks closely, as ever. Does he agree that the end result of all this is that Sinn Féin is winning the war, by which I mean that it is managing to shift public opinion so that, somehow, the troubles become an issue to do with the actions of the British state and not to do with the murderous barbarism of terrorism during that period? Would he also say that it is having some measure of success in that endeavour?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Although the IRA did not win the war in Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin is trying to win the propaganda war and rewrite the history of the troubles. Let me absolutely clear that, for our part, it will not be allowed to rewrite the history of the troubles in Northern Ireland.
As I have said, it is evident that the current resources devoted to legacy investigations are heavily skewed towards investigating what the police and the Army did, and that not enough is being done to address what the terrorists did, despite the fact that they were responsible for more than 90% of the deaths in Northern Ireland and other parts of the UK. It is wrong that the full powers and finances of the state are devoted to prosecuting the men and women who stood on the frontline in the most difficult of circumstances to defend the entire community and uphold the rule of law.
My right hon. Friend is delivering a powerful speech. A number of veterans groups have been organising events over the past few weeks to highlight the problems that we are highlighting today. One group attempted to organise a peaceful demonstration and the peaceful laying of a wreath in Londonderry only a couple of weeks ago, but it was forced to cancel as a result of threats from dissident organisations. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that compounds the problems that he is highlighting today in Parliament?
There are some in Northern Ireland who talk much about respect, equality and discrimination; yet the same people were silent when it came to the violent threats made against some veterans who simply wanted to exercise their civil liberty to march to the Cenotaph in Londonderry and lay a wreath in remembrance of their comrades—some respect and equality there. Some people in Northern Ireland politics speak with forked tongue.
When we add to all these things the fact that legacy inquests and investigations by the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland are laying bare the modus operandi of the counter-terrorism operations by the Army and the police that brought the terrorists in Northern Ireland to their knees and helped to secure the relative degree of peace that we enjoy today, we should all be concerned. Our national security and the security of every UK citizen is put at risk when we allow the operations of the security forces to be exposed in this way through the legal system. We must bear in mind that there is a continuing threat. A police officer was targeted by Republican terrorists in County Londonderry yesterday, and another was shot while in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North. That terrorist threat remains, yet we are exposing how the security forces counter that violent extremism and terrorism. We can be sure that putting soldiers and police officers in the dock while the terrorists walk free is an expediency that will cost us dear in years to come if we do not do something about it now.
The right hon. Gentleman is highlighting a critical issue that I hear about from young and older armed forces personnel and from those who consider joining. The pressure and risks of serving our nation and the long-term impact that that could have on personnel and their families decades down the line is preventing people from signing up and encouraging others to leave earlier than they otherwise would.
I thank the hon. Lady for her timely intervention. She is absolutely right that this is not only affecting the morale of those who serve at present but acting as a huge disincentive for recruitment to our armed forces. Who wants to put themselves in the frontline in such circumstances, whereby these young men and women will be betrayed a few years down the road because of so-called human rights lawyers? It simply is not right, as is being realised—rather belatedly—with the welcome decision to close down the Iraq Historic Allegations Team. Consider the damage to the morale of our armed forces and the consequences this has had, with a marked downturn in recruitment and retention. While so-called human rights lawyers get rich with the lucre of returns such cases can bring—mainly from the public purse—the men and women defending our country on the frontline find it hard to avoid a sense of betrayal. I have heard that from many of them. All right-thinking people should rail against this.
The Stormont House agreement reached between the Government and political parties in Northern Ireland made it clear that there would be no amnesty for terrorist-related crimes, and it proposed a new set of institutions to deal with our troubled past. Let me be clear that this party stands by the Stormont House agreement. We stand by our commitment not to accept an amnesty for the terrorists. We endorse the institutions proposed under the agreement, including a new historical investigations unit that would have full police powers, and would take over the work of the PSNI’s legacy investigation branch and the responsibility for reinvestigating the unsolved murders linked to the troubles in Northern Ireland. We welcome and support that. The sooner we can get that new institution up and running, the better for everyone, especially the innocent victims. However, the Stormont House agreement has not yet been implemented due to an impasse that has arisen between the Government and Sinn Féin over national security.
It is a ridiculous state of affairs that the political party linked to the largest terrorist organisation that is responsible for the most murders during the troubles has a veto over the implementation of a policy that would give the innocent victims access to proper investigation and the prospect of justice. In a democracy, this is surely not right. It cannot be right that Sinn Féin is being handed a veto over a proper investigative process into the murders of the people who were killed by the Provisional IRA. It is a nonsense. Sinn Féin talks about respect and equality. Well, then, let us have some respect and equality for the innocent victims of the IRA, and let us see the Stormont House agreement taken forward and Sinn Féin’s veto swept aside.
I apologise that I will not be here for the end of the debate, as I have to attend a constituency event this evening in memory of the Enniskillen bomb victims. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is a need to build into the proposed historical investigations unit a process that allows an investigation into the cases that have already run through the Historical Enquiries Team, otherwise those people will be left with nothing other than a review, and not a new investigation?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support for the institutions proposed under the Stormont House agreement. At present, in fairness to the victims and families who have waited a long time, the proposal is that the historical investigations unit would pick up where the historical inquiries team left off in chronological order. It would be wrong to go back to the beginning and start again, leaving the people who have already waited many years having to wait even longer. Nevertheless, if there is new evidence or there are new evidence-gathering techniques with the potential to lead to a prosecution in the cases already reviewed by the HET, of course we believe that the HIU should examine them. We have no objection in principle to that happening. We believe that all innocent victims in Northern Ireland should have access to justice and be treated equitably and fairly.
It is important that the Government now proceed with the Stormont House agreement and get on with publishing the draft legislation to give innocent victims and others the opportunity to comment on the proposals, so that at last we can begin the process of implementing what has been agreed and the focus will no longer be solely on what the state did. That will shift the focus and address the issues already raised in the House about the attempt to rewrite history, because the IRA and the other terrorist organisations will be put under the spotlight. What they did will be examined and brought to the fore.
It is wrong that our retired veterans of the military and the police have to spend their latter days looking over their shoulders, still waiting for the knock at the door, while the terrorists who skulked in the shadows and destroyed countless lives on the streets are left without a care in the world about the prospect of being pursued for their crimes. That simply is not right. The terrorists must be pursued and held accountable for their crimes. We will therefore vigorously oppose any attempt to grant an amnesty to any terrorist organisation. The time has come for the Government finally to do something to protect the men and women who served our country. They were not provided for in the 1998 agreement, while the terrorists were. Special provision was made for the terrorists in 1998, in the form of the early release scheme, and other concessions have been made since, as I outlined earlier, but nothing has been done for those who served the Crown. That is wrong and needs to be addressed.
The Government must therefore give urgent consideration to introducing a statute of limitations for soldiers and police officers who face the prospect of prosecution in cases that—this is very important—have previously been the subject of full police investigations. Let me clear about that: we are talking about cases that were previously the subject of rigorous police investigations relating to killings and deaths that occurred before 1998. The Government need to look at this. 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 hot, fast-thinking, “make a quick buck” human rights lawyer in Belfast thinks it is a good idea to reopen their case. That is what is going on.
We believe therefore that this matter has to be addressed. We can no longer ignore it. Certainly, we on these Benches have not been ignoring it. We believe not only that a statute of limitations should apply to Northern Ireland and Operation Banner but that consideration should be given to other military deployments, including in Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan. This is not an amnesty, as each case will have previously been the subject of a thorough investigation; rather it is an appropriate and necessary measure to protect the men and women of our armed forces from the kind of witch hunt years after their retirement that has left many feeling that their service to their country is neither respected nor valued.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his generosity in giving way. I hope that he will forgive me for mentioning that I published a paper with Policy Exchange, entitled “The Fog of Law”, in 2013 that addressed many of these issues, of which he is touching on the essence. We are talking here about human rights. What really do they mean? Surely, they are the rights of people to live in peace and dignity, not the rights of some to persecute those who have tried to protect others.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his valid intervention. He is absolutely right, and we appreciate the work he has done in this field and his commitment to his former comrades.
Just to clarify, would the right hon. Gentleman’s proposed statute of limitations cover police officers in Northern Ireland as well? I should have said at the start that I welcome this debate and thank him for bringing it to the House.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. The answer is yes they certainly would be, because the police are not covered by the provisions in the 1998 agreement or the concessions made to the terrorists—and neither should they be. We see no moral or legal equivalence between the armed forces and the police and illegal criminal terrorist organisations. We do not want them to be treated the same. We believe that our police officers, soldiers and veterans should be treated fairly, but they are not being treated fairly.
I repeat what I said in a recent debate in Westminster Hall, when I referred to terrorist atrocities committed in Northern Ireland and across this United Kingdom. They include the Kingsmill massacre, McGurk’s bar, the La Mon hotel bombing, Bloody Friday in Belfast, the M62 coach bomb, the Birmingham pub bombings, the Narrow Water atrocity, where members of the Parachute Regiment were cruelly cut down in cold blood, Droppin’ Well, the Grand hotel in Brighton, where the Provisional IRA attacked our very democracy, Newry police station, the Enniskillen war memorial, the Lisburn fun run, the Ballygawley bus bomb, Shankill road, Greysteel, Loughinisland, Canary Wharf, Omagh and many others that I will not list but that were equally atrocious. No one can ever sanitise this horror and inhumanity. No rewriting of history will allow the exoneration of the evil men and women who went out to commit these atrocities in cold blood. These were acts of terrorism, and they can never be regarded as anything but.
I support the efforts to bring a real and lasting peace to my country. My comrades and colleagues here, some of whom served in our armed forces and some of whom have seen constituents cut down in cold blood, want to see a meaningful, lasting peace in Northern Ireland. We want that for the next generation, as well as for our own, but as a former soldier of the Ulster Defence Regiment, proud to have served in that regiment, the largest regiment of the British Army, which fought alongside other military units, alongside the Royal Ulster Constabulary, with great courage and at a huge cost, during the longest-running military operation in the history of the British Army, Operation Banner, I believe we owe it to those men and women to protect them.
Is my right hon. Friend disturbed by the comments attributed to Justice Weir, who is looking at some of these legacy cases, in which he talked about the UDR as having been set up simply to prevent its members from doing worse things in society?
I am a former member of the UDR. My father served for over 25 years in that regiment. My brother also served in it. Comrades I patrolled alongside were cut down in cold blood by the Provisional IRA. I feel deeply insulted by the suggestion from a Justice of the High Court of Northern Ireland that somehow the raison d’être of the UDR was to keep people out of trouble. My only motivation was to stop trouble, to bring to book those engaged in trouble and to protect the community, including Mr Justice Weir and all those who were the targets of terrorism.
My party is not prepared to stand back and see our former comrades vilified. We are not prepared to stand back and see the security forces and the police hounded for serving their country. Standing in the gap between democracy and tyranny, they defended us; now, we must defend them.
I appreciate the opportunity to speak in this important debate. Let me be clear from the outset. Operation Banner, as the House is aware, lasted for nearly 30 years. It was the longest single continuous deployment of the armed forces in British military history. During that period, over 250,000 people served. The armed forces and the RUC combined lost over 1,000 men and women to terrorism. There were over 7,000 awards for bravery, and the Royal Ulster Constabulary was rightly awarded the George Cross. As this Government’s Northern Ireland manifesto at the last election made clear,
“we salute the remarkable dedication and courage of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and our Armed Forces in defending the rule of law and in ensuring that the future of Northern Ireland would only ever be determined by democracy and consent.”
Quite simply, without their contribution, what we know today as the Northern Ireland peace process would never have happened. All of us across this House and throughout our United Kingdom owe them a huge debt of gratitude, just as we owe them an enormous debt for the work they have done and sacrifice they have made in other parts of the world referred to in the motion: in Kosovo, in Iraq, and in Afghanistan.
Wherever they operate, we quite rightly regard our armed forces as the best in the world. The Government ask them to put their lives on the line in order to defend us and our way of life. In return, they rightly expect the fullest support from the Government, and this Government, through my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary and his colleagues, are determined to provide it.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that that support should extend to the provision of the costs of engaging a solicitor to advise those who have been sent letters by the Ministry of Defence inviting them to unburden themselves about the events of 30 or 40 years ago in order to assist the police with their inquiries? I am sure that he would not want those individuals inadvertently to incriminate themselves or those they were operating with all those years ago. If he is correctly suggesting that we should be properly supporting our veterans who served in Op Banner, then that must surely extend to finding the cost of engaging solicitors to advise those individuals properly and appropriately.
The Government have always acknowledged their ongoing duty of care to our former soldiers. Our policy is that where veterans face allegations concerning actions they took in the course of their duties, taxpayer-funded legal support, including counsel where appropriate, will be provided for as long as it is needed. In addition, I am advised that the Ministry of Defence can assist veterans with welfare support, either directly or in partnership with other agencies such as Combat Stress, depending on the veteran’s individual needs and circumstances.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
I am grateful, because this is very important. My right hon. Friend says, in effect, “if allegations have been made”. These letters, as I understand it, contain no allegations but will be disturbing nevertheless to the predominantly elderly gentlemen who receive them, who will need proper advice on whether to unburden themselves in the way that is suggested or whether to ignore the letters. I think that that advice can come only from a solicitor. My question is whether the MOD will provide the costs of the provision of that legal advice.
I will certainly take my hon. Friend’s point away and discuss it with colleagues from the Ministry of Defence to seek clarity for him and for those who may be in receipt of those letters.
I must also be clear to the House that we will never accept any kind of moral equivalence between those who sought to uphold the rule of law and terrorists who sought to destroy it. For us, politically motivated violence in Northern Ireland was never justified, whether it was carried out by republicans or loyalists. We will not accept any attempts to place the state at the heart of every atrocity or somehow to displace the responsibility for actions from where it may lie. I want to underline that we will not accept attempts to denigrate the contribution of the security forces and to give any kind of legitimacy to violence.
I agree wholeheartedly with the point that the Secretary of State is making. Yesterday at the Dispatch Box, the Prime Minister outlined what can only be described as the new gold standard for investigations. She made four commitments. She said that the system will reflect the fact that 90% of all killings were carried out by terrorists. She said that it would be
“wrong to treat terrorists more favourably than soldiers or police officers.”
She said that the investigative bodies have a
“duty to be fair, balanced and proportionate”.—[Official Report, 22 February 2017; Vol. 621, c. 1014-1015.]
She said that no disproportionate investigations will take place. How will the Government give effect to that gold standard, which we welcome?
The points that the hon. Gentleman raises are very much embodied in the Stormont House agreement and the legacy bodies and institutions referenced by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson). If I may, I will come on to those issues in greater detail later.
Being the best in the world means operating to the very highest of standards. We expect nothing less, and I know that our armed forces would not have it any other way. As the noble Lord Stirrup put it in a recent debate in the other place:
“The need to act lawfully is not a side consideration for the Armed Forces; it is an integral part of the ethos and training.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 24 November 2016; Vol. 776, c. 2076.]
We believe in the rule of law, and the police and armed forces are charged with upholding the law. They cannot operate above it or outside it. Where there is evidence of criminality, it should be investigated without fear or favour. In our view, however, what characterised the overwhelming majority of those who served was discipline, integrity, restraint, professionalism, and bravery—and we should be proud of them.
Soldiers were of course subject to the rule of law, including, notably, the sergeant and platoon commander in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders who were charged with the murder of two civil rights campaigners, Michael Naan and Andrew Murray, in 1981 and convicted. Many were investigated and some were actually prosecuted and convicted.
My hon. Friend makes that point about the upholding of the rule of law. I will come back to what we judge are the right next steps in terms of balance, proportionality, and giving effect to new arrangements to deal with the legacy issues embodied in the Stormont House agreement.
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear in the House yesterday, it is appalling when people try to make a business out of trying to drag our brave troops through the courts. In that context, the motion welcomes the Government’s decision to wind up the Iraq Historic Allegations Team following the solicitors disciplinary tribunal hearing and the consequent decision to strike off Phil Shiner. This called into question the credibility of a large number of IHAT’s remaining case load, which will now revert to the Royal Navy police. To be clear, the Government have a legal obligation to ensure that criminal allegations against the armed forces are investigated, but we remain determined to ensure that our legal system is not abused, as it clearly was by Mr Shiner, falsely to impugn the reputation of our armed forces. We should all support the decisive action taken by my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary in that case.
My right hon. Friend, who is himself a solicitor, is making an essential point about the rule of law as it must be practised by honourable members of the legal profession. He is highlighting the important role that the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal played in finding this man guilty of deception of the most abject kind. Will he comment on how the shadow Attorney General can possibly continue to defend that extraordinary individual and yet claim that she will represent Her Majesty’s Government should the Labour party ever be elected?
It is important to underline that the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal’s hearing resulted in a decision to strike off Phil Shiner, and the credibility of a large number of IHAT’s remaining case load has now been firmly called into question. It is important that we respect, recognise and uphold that determination by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal.
The Secretary of State is touching on the very important point of transparency and fairness in all of these investigations. The public prosecutor in Northern Ireland was formerly the solicitor for Sinn Féin. He handed in the names of the on-the-run people on behalf of Sinn Féin, and the Government dealt with that matter. Of course, that was brought to the attention of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee when it investigated the on-the-run case. Does the Secretary of State agree that, given the perceived conflict of interest that the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland has in his knowledge of senior republicans and their involvement in very serious and organised crimes, he should resile from involvement in all further parts of this matter?
I am afraid that I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. The Public Prosecution Service of Northern Ireland has pursued prosecutions against a number of individuals for serious terrorist crimes during the troubles, and it continues to do so, as well as pursuing other cases. It is wrong to suggest that the PPS is in some way only applying itself to one side. I know that there are strong feelings in that regard, but it would be wrong to personalise the matter in this way. It is important, in terms of upholding the rule of law, that we should also uphold the independence of the police and of prosecutors. It is important to frame the matter in that context, but I acknowledge that people may have strongly held views.
Will my right hon. Friend convey a message to this individual and say that sending out letters to organs of the press in this country, saying that any criticism of him will be met by legal action, is completely unacceptable? He is publicly accountable and publicly paid, and if we want to criticise him, we will do so and he will not resort to law to try to shut down newspapers that report our criticism.
There is always the right of complete free speech in this House and, clearly, the right, which we uphold as a democracy, of the freedom of the press. However, we need to be careful in our comments when we seek to personalise matters. We know the consequences of that from the past. I acknowledge that there are strongly held views, but I underline the independence of the prosecution service and of the police. That is something that we should absolutely treasure, while of course holding people to account and being able to comment publicly. The freedom of our rule of law is important, but equally the press and this place have the freedom to debate matters robustly and vigorously.
I know that many Members want to contribute to the debate. I will take further interventions, but I want to make progress.
May I just ask something about that point?
I will make some progress.
As right hon. and hon. Members are well aware, addressing the legacy of the past has been one of the most difficult issues since the Belfast agreement nearly 19 years ago. What is clear today, as this debate highlights, is that the current structures in place are simply not delivering for anyone, including victims and survivors on all sides who suffered most during the troubles. The rawness of the continuing pain and emotion of families and survivors is stark, and yet the need to make progress is absolutely clear.
The legacy of the past continues to cast a shadow over our society in Northern Ireland. It retains the ability to destabilise politics and it has the capacity to be used by those who wish to fuel division and promote terrorism to achieve their objectives. Of course, people are always going to retain their own views of the past, which will be shaped by their own experiences of it. I acknowledge that the Government’s view of the troubles will not be shared by everyone, or vice versa; but we should strive to reach consensus on the structures needed to address it, and in a way that helps move Northern Ireland forward.
The inquest system was not designed to deal with highly complex, often linked cases involving large amounts of highly sensitive material. The office of police ombudsman has to deal with historical allegations of misconduct, rather than focus on cases today. The Police Service of Northern Ireland has to devote substantial resources to dealing with legacy cases when I know that it would prefer some of them to be spent on policing the present. Taken as a whole, I recognise concerns that the current mechanisms focus disproportionately on cases involving, or allegedly involving, the state, leaving many victims of terrorism feeling ignored as a result.
None of that is to criticise any individuals, not least the police and prosecuting authorities, all of whom uphold the law independently of Government. I support them in their difficult work. The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley mentioned earlier the shocking case of a police officer, who was about to go to work and serve their community, discovering that a device had been planted underneath their car. The consequences of that could be absolutely horrific. That underlines the bravery, determination and sheer public service that PSNI officers and others show day in, day out to uphold the rule of law and keep our communities safe, and the shallowness and evil of terrorism that seeks to undermine that. I know that the House will absolutely underline that strong message of support to them and the work that they do.
My comments are a recognition, which is widely accepted, that we need new and better structures for addressing the issues. The status quo is not sustainable. The Government have a duty to seek better outcomes for victims and survivors, and we need legally robust mechanisms that enable us to comply with our international obligations to investigate criminal allegations.
The Stormont House agreement was arrived at in December 2014, following 11 weeks of intensive cross-party talks with the UK Government, the five largest parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Irish Government on matters falling within their responsibility. The agreement contained the most far reaching set of proposals yet for addressing the legacy of Northern Ireland’s troubled past, including the historical investigations unit, the independent commission for information retrieval, the implementation and reconciliation group, and an oral history archive.
A number of different options were discussed during those talks. Amnesties were quickly dismissed by all the participants and are not the policy of this Government. We believe that the so-called legacy bodies set out in the Stormont House agreement continue to provide the most effective way to make progress on this hugely sensitive but hugely important issue.
Delivering the Stormont House agreement, including the legacy bodies and reforming legacy inquests, was a key Northern Ireland manifesto pledge for the Conservative Government at the last election, and we remain committed to that. In doing so, however, I am also committed to the need to ensure that former soldiers and police officers are not unfairly treated or disproportionately investigated. That is why any legislation we introduce will explicitly set out that all of those bodies, including the historical investigations unit, will be under legal obligations to operate in ways that are fair, balanced and, crucially, proportionate.
The House will be greatly reassured by the concern of the Secretary of State and the Government about the lack of proportionality on the part of the authorities in Northern Ireland, but can he not understand that the disparity between the two is overwhelming? One side were a bunch of terrorists hiding in the shadows, dressed not in military uniform; the other side were trying to enforce the Queen’s peace in Northern Ireland. All the incidents involving the latter are meticulously recorded. One cannot go to the National Archives in Kew and find the IRA’s records of the people it brutally murdered.
I absolutely recognise the sense of justice, and the sense of the need for justice, on all sides, which underpinned what my hon. Friend said. Yes, there are meticulous records. There are meticulous records of the investigations of terrorists, which should be looked at properly. That is part and parcel of what I am saying about the establishment of the historical investigations unit. The terrorists were responsible for 90% of all deaths in the troubles, and any investigative processes have to reflect that.
Does my right hon. Friend, who is being most tolerant in taking interventions, accept that if 10% of the people who were killed were killed by the security forces—bearing in mind that the other 90% of killings were all murders—even if as many as one in 10 of the killings by the security forces were murder, which is exceptionally unlikely, the proportionate rate would be one in 100, not one in 10?
That is exactly why the Stormont House agreement had at its heart the messages that I have already delivered of fairness, balance and proportionality.
The case load of the historical investigations unit will contain some of the most notorious atrocities that resulted in the deaths of our armed forces, such as those at Warrenpoint in 1979 and Ballygawley in 1988. The HIU will look at cases in chronological order, meaning that each case will be investigated in the order in which it occurred, so that there is no prioritisation of some cases over others.
Any legislation that establishes the HIU will include specific tests that must be met in order that a previously completed case is reopened for investigation. Specifically, that will mean that new and credible evidence that was not previously available to the authorities will be needed before the HIU reopens any closed case. We are also looking at ways to ensure that when prosecutions do take place, terrorists are not treated more favourably than former soldiers and police officers. The bodies will be time-limited to five years to ensure that the process is not open-ended, thereby helping Northern Ireland to move forward.
Turning the Stormont House agreement into detailed legislation has been and continues to be a long and necessarily complex process, but a great deal of progress has been made in building the consensus that is necessary to bring legislation before the House. I believe that with hard work on all sides, the outstanding areas of disagreement are entirely bridgeable.
In September, I signalled my intention to move the process to a more public phase. I had hoped that that would have taken place by now, but a continuing lack of consensus and then the political situation at Stormont have delayed it. However, I remain committed to giving the public a say on the proposed bodies and to building confidence in them from across the community. I want to take that forward as soon as possible after the Northern Ireland Assembly election a week today, so that we can make progress quickly.
Any approach to the past must be fair, balanced and proportionate; it must have victims and survivors at its heart; and it must be consistent with our obligations to those who served and, in so many cases, sacrificed so much to bring about the relative peace and stability that Northern Ireland enjoys today.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on an impassioned presentation. I think he spoke for all of us in this House and outside; his words were right, powerful, important and proportionate.
Today we may be speaking of the past, but the issues we are discussing have not gone away and there are still problems today. Yesterday’s incident in Ardanlee, which has been referred to, with a bomb exploding in the Culmore area, reminds us that what we do today has relevance. We are not just looking backwards. We are looking at the current situation, and we have to look forward to the implementation of Stormont House to ensure that there are no more incidents like that. The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) was right to enunciate that terrifying litany of horror and place it on the record. We must never, ever begin to approach that scale of terror and horror again. All of us, surely, are united in that. Yesterday, Debbie Watters said that the police officer had a “very lucky escape”. That was the reality of it. Today people are still wearing the uniform and putting their lives on the line, and we have a bounden duty to support them.
That is why the Opposition welcome the DUP’s motion. Its wording is very sensible. How could we argue with the call that all
“processes for investigating and prosecuting legacy cases…are balanced and fair”?
We do not oppose that; we support it. We think it is absolutely right. Far be it from me to criticise the wording of the DUP motion, but I think it was significant when the Secretary of State added the word “proportional”.
It is important that we raise these matters on the Floor of the House. There is still a tendency in some parts to believe that what happens in Northern Ireland goes on in the wings, rather than centre stage. There are still some people who think that Northern Ireland is settled, over and finished—that it is a small part of the United Kingdom and a long way geographically, politically and economically from us here in Westminster. I give credit to all right hon. and hon. Members who bring Northern Irish business to the Floor of the House—it must be done. We have an absolute duty to consider these matters at every opportunity. On many occasions, I have heard speeches in the House on this subject that would stand the test of any of the great parliamentary speeches we have ever heard—the issue is that crucial.
Today is an odd day in that the eyes of the political establishment may be on other places, such as Copeland or Stoke. People might even be thinking of 2 March. It is almost irresistible to draw the House’s attention to the extreme irony of today’s Times of London newspaper, which describes the renewable heat incentive as wasting £450 million in Great Britain—
A year, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says.
Far be it from me to further impugn the reputation of Chris Huhne, but the temptation is there, and it cannot be denied that he was the Minister who came up with the idea. I have to say that those of us here have our own share of responsibility for not making more of an issue of it at the time. I think we can begin to understand why it was so attractive in Stormont at that time. I also see from today’s Times that Mr Huhne is now the European chairman of
“a US supplier of wood pellets.”
I leave those words hanging in the air, slowly smouldering in the Drax power station, as tons and tons of Canadian forest are chipped up, pelleted and brought over here.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the revelation in today’s Times, outlandish as it might seem, has not led to a crisis of government here and has not led to in-depth investigation teams at the BBC trying to establish guilt before any investigation has taken place? For whatever reason, some broadcasters seem to have double standards when dealing with the waste of public money.
Oh, Madam Deputy Speaker, how tempting it would be to follow the hon. Gentleman down the primrose path towards which he leads the innocent parliamentarian, but I have known him for longer than both he and I have been in this House and am able, on this occasion, to resist his blandishments.
On the subject of resistance, I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.
Will the hon. Gentleman note that when the same scheme came to Northern Ireland, 120 words, which was the cap, were taken out of it, and that is the whole reason why Stormont is now falling apart?
I crave the House’s indulgence and apologise for diverting us from an extremely important issue. Given that we are talking about Northern Ireland and 2 March is crucial, and that there is clearly a causal link, it was reasonable to mention the subject. It is equally reasonable to move on.
The Opposition will not oppose the motion. We will obviously support the wording, with which we agree, but let us try to get some facts right. An enormous amount of statistical evidence has been thrown about. Yesterday, the Prime Minister made comments at the Dispatch Box about the various percentages, proportions and numbers. This morning, the Police Service of Northern Ireland said that it is currently investigating 1,118 cases, of which 530 are attributed to republican paramilitaries, 271 to loyalist paramilitaries, 354 to security forces and 33 to unknown perpetrators. That gives a security forces percentage of 32%. However, in many ways that is not the issue. One of the key points is not just that 55 detectives in four teams are working on the matter, but that, if we try to break such things down and say that one side is more responsible than another—we can make such points and, as politicians, we have the duty and the responsibility to do so—we must bear in mind that the past has to be looked at objectively and with utter clarity. We have to investigate every aspect of it.
The hon. Member for Canterbury (Sir Julian Brazier) said that a tiny percentage of murders may have been committed by people in uniform—that was his analysis—horrifying though that sounds. If that is the case, with the higher duty that people who wear the Queen’s uniform have, each one must be investigated. That is key: everybody and everything must be investigated. There can be no concealed errors and no untouched dark corners. We have to look into every part of the past 30 years.
The shadow Minister will accept that one of the only cases in Northern Ireland of a miscarriage of justice, which resulted in people who had been charged with murder being released and exonerated, involved three former Ulster Defence Regiment soldiers—it is known as the Armagh Four or the UDR Four. That case alone removed from the books some 25% of the allegations against the UDR. That, too, should be reflected.
I bow to the hon. Gentleman. He knows far more about the subject than me. He lived through it in a way that I cannot even claim to have approximated. However, that is not necessarily the issue. We are not considering whether removing a group of people from a particular list equals a particular statistical anomaly. That is not what we are on about.
Today, we are talking about, first, a fair and proportionate investigation into every aspect of the troubles and, secondly, how best to progress matters to implement the Stormont House agreement. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we are discussing how to build on a peace process that has as an essential component—
I appreciate that it is not me who is popular, but the words that hon. Members have to say, which need to be heard by the House. Can we please try to concentrate on building on the peace process? That is why the Opposition endorse and support the words in the DUP motion.
The hon. Gentleman is right that there needs to be fairness. However, does he understand that there is a widespread and growing feeling in the House that the investigations in Northern Ireland are not fair and that they are disproportionate? My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that we have a free press in this country, but the law firm of Campbell and Caher is sending out letters to newspapers in this country saying that if they report anything that it perceives as criticism of the impartiality of the authorities in Northern Ireland, legal proceedings will ensue. Therefore, what I am saying in the House is not reported in newspapers in my constituency because of fear of prosecution. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if fairness is to be seen to be done in Northern Ireland, criticism of the conduct of the investigations must be tolerated?
The hon. Gentleman has already ventilated those points. He has made them again and, as ever, his voice will be not denied but heard. However, we are here today not to kick the legal profession, although that is also tempting, but, hopefully, to move on. On the issue of the individual who has been named, that was then. Today we are talking about something far more important: moving forward.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the most pressing issue is not only the need for temperate language, but that, on the far side of the election, we will have political institutions up and running and there will be parallel negotiations to reach a conclusion on this matter? The one thing that victims want is closure. Too many people are in pain in Northern Ireland. Young people want to move on to deal with health, education and the economy, because those are the pressing issues that face us daily.
Not for the first time, the hon. Lady speaks an enormous amount of good sense. Her comments should be our watchword for the rest of the debate.
There cannot be progress to the future without completely settling the issues of the past. There has to be closure, investigation and the disinfectant of sunlight, to coin a phrase. We have to move on, certain in the knowledge that we have done everything to investigate the past.
There are many hon. Members from whom I want to hear. I close by saying that the Opposition have great respect for those who serve and have served in our armed forces, and who take pride in the work that they have done. On the very few occasions when there might be a possibility of action outside the law, those claims must be investigated fully. It is crucial to say that those who wear the uniform would want such cases to be investigated. No one wants an exemption for members of the armed forces.
A great deal of sense has been spoken today, and doubtless there will be more. Let us try to get through 2 March. I greatly hope that the new Assembly will be up and running and that the Stormont House agreement will be implemented. I hope that we will have debates about the great and glorious future of Northern Ireland in which we will talk about a prosperous economy and people who have pride in that extraordinary part of the world. I hope that we will look not backwards but forward to a glorious, sunlit future. Every single person in Northern Ireland deserves the right to peace and prosperity. They have earned it, and I hope that the House will give them a fair wind and our support.
I congratulate the Democratic Unionist party on the motion, and particularly the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) on an impressive speech to open the debate. I thank the Secretary of State for his comments and, as always, it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound). His emphasis on the peace process and the future was welcome.
The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley mentioned the figures involved, so I will not repeat them. He also made the point that there can be no legal or moral equivalence between what the terrorists did and what happened to the military, who were deployed in support of the police, acted under the rule of law and were subject to tight military controls and codes, including the yellow card. They were mainly young men and some women who never asked to go to Northern Ireland but were deployed there and showed incredible professionalism, and huge restraint when they were under great stress and provocation. At all times, they held their nerve, and, consequently, the reputation of the British military was enhanced around the world.
Every incident that involved killing or injury by the military was fully investigated at the time. There were regimental investigations and investigations by the military police, and in almost every case there were investigations by the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the civilian authorities.
I do not think that the armed forces of any other country in the world would have shown the restraint and professionalism that our armed forces showed. When mistakes were made, they were called to order. In the case of the killing of the two civil rights campaigners Michael Naan and Andrew Murray, three sergeants and one officer from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were charged. Two sergeants, Sergeant John Byrne and Sergeant Stanley Hathaway, were charged with murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. A third sergeant, Iain Chestnut, was charged with manslaughter and sentenced to four years. The officer in charge of the platoon, Captain Andrew Snowball, who was not actually present at the farmhouse where the killings of the two civil rights campaigners took place, covered up what happened. He was subsequently charged and given a suspended sentence. He resigned his commission. The case shows that where the military stepped out of line it was investigated, and if charges were appropriate, charges were brought.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making this point. It is absolutely essential that the record of this House reflects the fact that under Operation Banner the Royal Ulster Constabulary and Her Majesty’s Crown forces in Northern Ireland acted with the highest human rights-compliant record in any dispute anywhere in the world. That is without any challenge whatever. Some 30,000 officers carrying personal weapons and a minimal amount of illegal discharge from those weapons—that is a miracle given the provocation, with murders daily in our Province.
I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. I shall now remove a couple of paragraphs from my speech, because he has said what I was going to say.
Let us fast-forward to the current situation. The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley outlined the flawed process, in particular the arrest of veteran soldiers as part of the DPP’s vendetta against them. I referred to the case of Dennis Hutchings in a debate I secured on 13 December 2016. He was deployed to Northern Ireland with his regiment, the Life Guards. They were in an area, Dungannon and Armagh, where levels of disturbance were particularly high. All patrols were told to take special care. The regiment had suffered a number of shooting incidents, although none had been fatal. On 4 June, a patrol was ambushed by a group of young men who were in the process of transferring weapons to a car in the village of Eglish. The patrol was fired on and fire was exchanged. A number of people were arrested and a quantity of arms recovered.
On the following day, Corporal Dennis Hutchings, who was mentioned in dispatches for his exemplary bravery and leadership, led a patrol back into the area. The aim was to try to locate further arms caches near the village. The patrol chanced on John Pat Cunningham, who was challenged to give himself up. He behaved in a way that was suspicious. The patrol believed they were threatened and opened fire. We know there was a tragic outcome, because John Pat Cunningham was killed. This was investigated fully by the Life Guards, the military police, the RUC and the DPP. All four members were completely exonerated.
What happened next beggars belief. In 2011, Dennis Hutchings was called in by the PSNI Historical Enquiries Team and fully investigated. A comprehensive investigation, with which he co-operated fully, took place. He was told at the end of the investigation that no further action would be taken and that he could get on with his life, look after his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and enjoy his retirement.
In 2015, there was a dawn raid on the corporal major’s house. He had been in very poor health, but he was arrested, taken to Northern Ireland for four days’ questioning and charged with attempted murder. He of course vehemently denied the charges. After 42 years, there were no witnesses left. The other three members of the patrol have died and the forensic evidence has disappeared. How can he get a fair trial now? He cannot receive a fair trial in these circumstances. The first thing I learned at law school was that any criminal case depends critically on credible and corroborated evidence.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on all he is doing for Corporal Major Hutchings and on being very clear about his case. Does he agree that it is greatly concerning when we are told there are new ways of looking at evidence? Rather than trying to find new evidence, people are trying to find new ways to research it. Does he not think that that is wrong?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman and I will come on to that in a moment.
The key point about the Hutchings case is that it was fully investigated at the time. It was looked at by every available authority and organisation, and closed down at the time. Reopening cases now is revisionism. It is an attempt to rewrite history. It is trying to look at what happened then through the lens of 2017, when we have a whole new emphasis on human rights and different standards. It is perverse, wrong and completely unacceptable.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, which complements entirely the one made by the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie). She is absolutely right that we have to move on, but in moving on we have to allow those who have served to move on. In a case like this, where it is so obvious and so clear that justice has not only been done but been seen to be done multiple times, surely the moving on can be done actively.
Let us look at what happened to the IRA and the paramilitaries. Their sole aim was to murder, maim and kill, and to disrupt communities. They did not investigate their own crimes and murders. They celebrated the killings they took part in. They were not subject to the Geneva convention or any other rule of law—or the British law on torture.
What about Captain Robert Nairac, the military intelligence liaison officer, who was abducted in County Armagh in May 1977? He was brutally tortured and killed. He was posthumously awarded the George Cross. He is one of nine IRA victims whose body has never been recovered. What about Corporal David Howes and Corporal Derek Woods, who chanced on an IRA funeral in March 1988? They were dragged out of their car, tortured and murdered. One of the most extraordinary pictures from the troubles is that one of Father Alec Reid administering the last rites to those two corporals. What about the Free Scottish privates who were abducted from a pub in 1971? They were off duty and unarmed; they were abducted and tortured, and no one has ever been convicted.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not give way, because I am going to draw my remarks to a conclusion.
We have to try to find a way to move forward. The only way to move forward is for the Secretary of State—I welcome some of his remarks and I welcome too what the Minister said—to make it absolutely and categorically clear that these military cases, all of which have been investigated, will now be closed, subject to the arrival or discovery of brand-new compelling evidence. Anything less than that would be a betrayal of the military covenant. The hon. Member for Ealing North gave the figure of 370 veterans under investigation, and anything less would be seen as a betrayal of those veterans and an appalling scar on Her Majesty’s Government. We have a way forward, and I urge Ministers to take it.
May I put on record right at the start the Scottish National party’s acknowledgement and appreciation of the efforts of our police and armed forces personnel wherever they serve? Our safety is a luxury bought with their dedication to duty and constant vigilance.
I can appreciate that my opinion on that is not always shared by everyone and that there are people in many places who feel that they have good reason to disagree with those sentiments, but may I say at this point—this has been mentioned—that the planting of a bomb outside a police officer’s house is completely unacceptable? Not only was the officer’s life threatened yesterday, but the lives of others were touched by it, too. Given the nature of the area in which the officer lives, I expect that children play in that street, and it is beyond unforgivable to haunt a bairn’s life.
I cannot get inside the mind of anyone who wants a return to violence in Northern Ireland, and I cannot believe that there will be any great support for such people anywhere. Great praise is, instead, due to the politicians and community activists who have brought Northern Ireland away from those dark shadows and headed it towards a better future. Many I will not have heard of, and some are no longer with us, but it must have taken great courage for enemies to lay aside their greatest enmity and begin the co-operation that we see now.
I have huge respect for those I have met who serve here, those I have met who serve in Stormont, and the few I have met who are councillors and community leaders, who have the courage, the vision and the belief in the future to be able to say to their opponents, “I know what you have to do and where you have to stand to serve your community, and I appreciate that you give me the same courtesy. Where can we find common ground?” There is a future to be had when the people’s servants have that attitude—not that everyone is lovely to each other, I hasten to add, but they are leaders enough to know where that fertile future lies.
I think there is a certainty that the people and the politicians of Northern Ireland can craft a future that will stand as a testament to the courage shown and the personal risks taken in the past couple of decades. In that vein, I think that the SNP’s position is clear. We believe that the people of Northern Ireland have the capacity, the intelligence and the gumption to make a better fist of things there than we can. We have confidence in the institutions of the police and judiciary to serve the people, and confidence in Stormont to reform them if they are not serving well. We also have confidence in the people of Northern Ireland to reform the pants off of any politician who does not have the ability, courage or energy to serve them well.
I appreciate why the motion is before us today, and I certainly appreciate the concerns of soldiers who served in Operation Banner and are now retired. There is no form of polite words, trite phrases or empty platitudes that will put any of this nicely to bed. The resolution to those concerns lies in the institutions in Belfast.
The Ministry of Defence has a duty—which I think it has promised to live up to—to ensure that any of its current or former employees who face legal action as a result of what they did during their service are adequately represented. I was pleased that the Secretary of State was able to reassure us that the commitment given by the MoD at the end of last year remains in place, and I welcomed his assurance that taxpayer-funded legal support will be provided when it is needed.
The hon. Lady mentioned the institutions in Northern Ireland. Does she accept that had it not been for the bravery and the sacrifice of British troops throughout the Operation Banner period, who helped, in effect, to hold the ring so that one day a peaceful solution could be arrived at, those institutions would not be available to us today?
I placed on record at the beginning of my speech our acknowledgement and appreciation of the tremendous efforts made by police and armed forces personnel wherever they serve, and their contribution to peace has certainly played a big part in where we are today.
The investigation of incidents in other theatres is a matter for service law and for courts martial, and I have no particular knowledge of those systems, but the duty to ensure fairness and impartiality lies with the MOD. I welcomed the Secretary of State’s comments about legal requirements for fairness, balance and proportionality. The duty to ensure fairness and impartiality in any proceedings in Northern Ireland will lie with the new Stormont Ministers, with the Attorney General, and with judges who sit in the courts there. We must trust them to take due cognisance of all the circumstances in which they find themselves and of the evidence presented to them, and we must trust them to make decisions that are in the best interests of the people whom they serve. If we do not trust them, we will be denying the legacy of all those who worked and laboured to craft a better future for Northern Ireland, and to drag the communities there away from the violence that had plagued them before.
I congratulate the Democratic Unionist party on their motion. I particularly congratulate the right hon. and gallant Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), not only on his eloquent words but on his gallant service—along with several of his parliamentary colleagues—as a part-time member of the Ulster Defence Regiment, which was far the most dangerous regiment in the British Army in which to serve.
I am deeply conscious of the pressure of time and the fact that so many Members wish to speak, so I shall be very brief. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham) presented such a strong case in making points that I wished to make that I shall briefly echo two or three of his points before dealing with the other aspect of the motion.
Corporal Major Dennis Hutchings, when he served in the Life Guards, was by chance in the same squadron as a close friend of mine, an officer commanding one of the other troops. My friend says that Dennis Hutchings was one of the best senior NCOs with whom he had ever served, and he is absolutely astounded at the way in which this man has been treated. A constituent of mine, who has written to me in the last fortnight, is being investigated in connection with events that occurred in 1976, 41 years ago.
I listened carefully to what was said by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I have huge respect for him and I understand the considerations that he has to balance here, but I ask him to understand that while there is no Conservative Member who does not believe in the rule of law—we all believe in it—integral to the rule of law is confidence in the criminal justice system. The problem with trying to pursue soldiers in the same way as we pursue former terrorists is that, in most cases, there is no prospect of finding new evidence after all these years. Key witnesses have died.
The point about parity is not just the fact that it is morally repugnant to compare killings by the security forces, unless there is real evidence that they were criminal, to killings by terrorist organisations, but, as several other Members have pointed out, the practical fact that the other organisations we were up against—the paramilitaries on both sides—did not keep records, so there is not the same scope for pursuing them.
I firmly believe—my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk made this case so strongly that I shall not waste the House’s time by repeating it at length—that the only way to resolve this situation is to establish a transparent mechanism that will ensure that no case can be pursued to the point of charge without clear proof that new evidence has been uncovered. Unless that new evidence has been uncovered, it should not be possible to raise fresh cases after all these years.
My hon. and gallant Friend is making a great speech, and I thank him for letting me intervene. I am increasingly worried, because 38 years ago I gave my word to two men under my command who had been involved in a fatal shooting that if they went to court having been charged with manslaughter and were found not guilty, they would never hear anything again. I gave my word, and it looks as though my word may not be worth a fig if this continues.
I am grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend. Many Conservative Members share the view that a transparent procedure to show that fresh evidence has emerged should be required for any case of this kind to be pursued.
Let me now say something about the other aspect of the motion and about some of those other operations. The difference between the operation in Northern Ireland and the other three operations to which the motion refers is that we were in Northern Ireland as aid to the civil power. In Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan, at many points there was very little civil power; in fact, at some points there was none at all.
My right hon. Friend the Northern Ireland Secretary stressed, just after mentioning IHAT, the importance of upholding the law. We have to be clear, however, what we mean by the law when dealing with these other operations. The fact is that when a force has just captured a city, as we had in Basra, there is no civil law, as was the case then. In conflicts throughout the 20th century, it was always accepted that only one law matters on the battlefield: humanitarian law, grounded in the Geneva convention. In the past 15 or 20 years, there has been a creeping process whereby a second form of law—human rights law—has started to be introduced into the picture. When I served on the Select Committee on Defence, a number of organisations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, deprecated that. They made it clear that humanitarian law, which is tried and tested for protecting the interests of the vulnerable, should be the law that applies.
On IHAT, I ask the House to think about two questions. First, why did no other country—all countries in the west claim to uphold the rule of law—choose to set up a body like IHAT? Secondly, what exactly did we expect our soldiers to do in the very dangerous circumstances that applied in a number of the cases, which are likely to survive the IHAT process and go forward, in those months after we captured Basra, when, effectively, there was no police force and no rule of law? We had large numbers of dangerous people around, and we were dealing with rioting, looting and so forth. Some colleagues might have read the recent account of how the Americans dealt with one looting problem: they shot two or three of the looters and a potential riot was supressed. There was never any question of any follow up for that.
We have to realise that in such circumstances, while we can have humanitarian law in the background and rules of engagement and so on, a young officer with a very small number of soldiers in a dangerous situation and seeing vulnerable people threatened might have to make split-second decisions that would not stand up in a court of law in any context anywhere within the United Kingdom. Trying to retrospectively establish such rules, with human rights law being substituted somehow or other into the picture for the old, very clear and simple principles of humanitarian law, has exposed members of our armed forces in a way that many of us find unacceptable.
I want to end by making two points. First, while I was delighted by the way my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland stressed the importance of Mr Shiner being struck off as a lawyer, it seems to me to be extraordinary that there has been no criminal prosecution. When we look at what the Solicitors Regulation Authority—which I have hitherto regarded as the most toothless of all professional bodies, from my own constituency casework—has found against him and realise what that implies for our armed forces, it is extraordinary that he has not been charged, and I very much hope that he will be.
My final point is about the operations that our armed forces are involved in today. The Government made a pledge that if we were involved in further combat operations, we would derogate from the Human Rights Act, and we are now engaged in two operations. We are increasing the number of soldiers in Afghanistan, where the mission has turned from a purely support mission back towards increasingly being a combat one. At the same time, we are very heavily involved in the bitter fighting in Iraq and we have airmen regularly bombing areas. We have the most accurate bombs and the most failsafe systems—civilians sheltering in an area being bombed by the RAF are safer than those sheltering in areas where any other air force might be operating—but the RAF’s activities in the attacks on Mosul and so forth could nevertheless threaten civilians. We do not talk about it in this Chamber, but some members of the special forces are also involved. What protection is in place? Why have we not derogated from the Human Rights Act for those two theatres?
I want others to have the opportunity to speak, so I will end by saying that I wholly support my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk and those Members on the Opposition Benches who are calling for an end to the pursuit of veterans unless serious new evidence emerges in Northern Ireland, and I believe we owe more to the troops engaged in operations elsewhere today.
I am very pleased, as always, to follow the hon. Member for Canterbury (Sir Julian Brazier), and I thank him for all that he has done in his service to his country both here and in operations. I also pay tribute to everyone who has spoken thus far. My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) powerfully set out the case, which is reflected in the country at large, on the approach to these issues. I thank the shadow junior Minister, the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), for his words, too. In particular, I pay tribute to the Government for the fact that not only is the junior Minister present, along with representatives from the Ministry of Defence, but the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has contributed to this debate. That is appreciated by Democratic Unionist party Members.
I should have done this earlier, but may I apologise for the absence of my colleague my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson)? He is on a train somewhere in the north-west.
May I also, most importantly, pay tribute to the members of our security forces—those who have served and those who continue to serve? As the Member for Belfast North, I am only too well aware of the enormous sacrifice made over the years by the members of the security forces in protecting life and limb and property in my constituency and across Northern Ireland. The recent example where a police officer was injured—thankfully, not seriously—in my constituency and what happened just the other day in County Londonderry, which has been referred to, show the continuing risks that members of our security forces face in the service of us all, and they deserve our admiration, pride and grateful thanks.
How we deal with legacy issues in Northern Ireland is important for innocent victims and their families first and foremost, but it has a deeper significance. How we respond to current feelings—they have been highlighted at length thus far—in the process will reflect our commitment to fairness and justice right across the United Kingdom, and there is a very real view and perception that those who defended our communities from attack are being investigated disproportionately and with greater zeal than those who brought terror to our land.
The facts bear that out; it is not just a perception. It has been amply demonstrated in the contributions thus far that there is substance to that perception. Many of our armed forces veterans have heard a knock on the door early in the morning and been hauled in by police for interrogation about events that took place many years ago. We have heard examples from Conservative Members of exactly that having happened—houses being invaded and searched, and reputations tarnished. We on the DUP Benches are not prepared to stand back and see those who have bravely served the people of Northern Ireland and the people of this country generally in their darkest hour be hounded and unfairly vilified.
We believe that investigations into historical cases must be balanced and proportionate. It is wrong that our former members of the security forces are subject to a different set of rules from those who sought to do them and us harm. My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley has set out how the provisions of the Belfast agreement gave special dispensation and special measures for paramilitaries and those who have been imprisoned but did nothing for our security forces. That is wrong.
Operation Banner was the longest military deployment in British history. More than 250,000 men and women served in the armed forces and in the Royal Ulster Constabulary during that time. It is right to emphasise the fact that more than 7,000 awards for bravery were made, and that more than 1,100 security service personnel were murdered in the course of their duties, with countless others bearing mental and physical scars from those days. Without their dedication to making people safe, as the Secretary of State rightly said, and without their sacrifice, terrorism would not have been defeated and the roots of peace could not have taken hold to get us to where we are today. Flawed and difficult as it is, we are in a much better place as a result of the work and sacrifices of our security forces. They defended us, and we must defend them. We must never forget that paramilitary terrorists, republican and loyalist, were responsible for some 90% of the deaths during the so-called troubles.
The way in which we address the legacy must reflect what actually happened. No one on these Benches is saying that people are above the law. The actions of the security forces must be held to the highest levels of professionalism and must of course be properly investigated. In saying that, we must also remember the difficult context in which people in the security forces and the police were operating at the time. They were operating in a climate of fear and terror created by terrorists who went out of their way to target and murder not only innocent civilians but detectives and others who were involved in investigating crime. Moreover, policing practices across the United Kingdom were far removed from those used today. To suggest that misconduct was rife is a deliberate distortion. It is a narrative of the troubles that is not justified by the facts, and we in this House must reject such revisionism. The hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) said earlier that there was a danger of the past being rewritten and the propaganda war being won. Yes, that is a danger, but we must not allow it to happen. We must ensure that the past is not rewritten in the way that the terrorists and their sympathisers would like.
On proportionality, does my right hon. Friend agree that significantly fewer than 1% of all the people who served in the security forces, the Army and the police in Northern Ireland down all those years were ever found guilty of, or even questioned about, breaches of law, while 100% of the terrorists were most definitely guilty of such breaches?
My hon. Friend makes an important point that bears emphasis in the House and further afield. It is important that these issues are made clear to people who might, as time passes and we no longer hear direct reports from Northern Ireland, begin to think that a different narrative had occurred there. That is why it is so important that the institutions that were proposed under the Stormont House agreement—my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley mentioned the historical investigations unit—are set up so that we can have a balanced, fair and proportionate approach to all this.
We need to highlight the fact that 3,000 murders remain unsolved in Northern Ireland and that acts of terrorism were carried out by people such as Sean Kelly, the Shankill bomber, and Michael Caraher, who was part of the south Armagh sniper team that murdered Lance Bombardier Stephen Restorick in 1997—one of the last members of the armed forces to die in that period. Michael Caraher received a sentence totalling 105 years, yet he walked free having served just over three.
My right hon. Friend has rightly detailed the efforts made by the then Labour Government, under John Reid and then Peter Mandelson, to go to extraordinary lengths to provide concessions to IRA terrorists with no regard whatever to any kind of proportionality or to doing anything for the security forces. Secret deals were done on on-the-runs, for example. Such concessions had a major debilitating impact on those who were facing down terrorism in Northern Ireland, and our duty now is to convince people that that will not happen again. I share my right hon. Friend’s view that this Government will not repeat those mistakes and that there will be no amnesty and no secret deals to allow terrorists off the hook.
In conclusion, it is important that we get the Stormont House agreement institutions up and running as quickly as possible, that we begin to get back some kind of fair and proportionate system for investigating legacy cases and that we do not—
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I apologise for interrupting his peroration. I congratulate him and his colleagues on bringing this important matter before the House this afternoon. Many references have been made to IHAT, and as parliamentarians we all need to learn the difficult lessons from what has happened in that regard. We also have to appreciate the effect that it has had on the armed forces and on our veterans. Surely, after all we have been through with IHAT and given the lessons that we must learn, the last thing we should sanction is a politically motivated witch hunt in Northern Ireland against our own brave servicemen.
I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman was able to make that powerful point. I agree with him entirely. The stakes are high, and there is a responsibility on us in this House to ensure that we build a society that values fairness, elevates justice, treats our veterans properly and upholds the proud traditions of our military and our commitment to democracy. We must go forward on that basis.
Order. Hon. Members have been very good in sticking to a self-imposed time limit, and I hope that I shall not have to impose a formal limit. If everyone who is about to speak takes no more than seven minutes, all colleagues will have a chance to make their voice heard. I am sure that I can rely on Mr David Simpson to do that.
It is good to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). I fully acknowledge the service and sacrifice of our armed forces and police throughout the world as they are placed in areas of conflict to protect the lives of innocent people. I often remember them and the sacrifice that they make, but I also remember their families.
I wish to focus on Northern Ireland, which has enjoyed relative peace for some 20 years. It has not been perfect, but before that we saw decades of brutal violence and the murder of 1,879 innocent civilians and 1,117 members of the security forces. First and foremost, we must agree that not everyone in Northern Ireland is a victim. Some would seek to claim that every person in the country is a victim, but that is an insidious concept for two reasons. First, it diminishes the genuine pain and suffering of those who were directly affected by the actions of terrorists during the troubles; and, secondly, it elevates those who engage in criminal acts to equal status with those whose suffering they caused in the first place.
The British Army was deployed to Northern Ireland under Operation Banner in 1969. Its role was to support the then Royal Ulster Constabulary by providing protection to police officers carrying out normal policing duties in areas of terrorist threat, by patrolling around military and police bases to deter terrorist attacks and by supporting the police against terrorists’ operations. The scale of the terror campaign within our Province was escalating, and at its peak in the 1970s the British Army was deploying around 21,000 soldiers. One of the most memorable days was 21 July 1972, when the IRA murdered nine people and injured 130 by planting and detonating 27 bombs throughout the city of Belfast.
As a result of the magnitude of this campaign, Operation Banner is still the longest continuous deployment in British military history and its legacy remains strongly in the hearts and minds of many, not least of those who came to protect us. Without the commitment of our security personnel, I have no doubt that the reign of terror in Northern Ireland would have led to the deaths of many more innocent people.
I want to quote from the first paragraph of the armed forces covenant:
“The first duty of Government is the defence of the realm. Our Armed Forces fulfil that responsibility on behalf of the Government, sacrificing some civilian freedoms, facing danger and, sometimes, suffering serious injury or death as a result of their duty.”
Let me say again that 1,117 members of our security forces made the ultimate sacrifice while serving on behalf of the Government to protect the innocent lives of the wider community in Northern Ireland between 1969 and 2010. That figure does not account for the many thousands of security personnel who were left badly injured and are still struggling today as a direct result of terrorism. My point is that the British Army was deployed to support the police’s role as protectors of the people of Northern Ireland and to uphold the rule of law and order. At times, that involved direct contact with illegal groupings, such as the Provisional IRA, which was the main opposition to British deployment. Tough and ultimately life-changing decisions were made by our security forces while they served this country and Her Majesty’s Government, and I am sure that there are Members present who know exactly what that level of combat feels likes. Her Majesty’s Government invests millions of pounds to deliver specific training, involving high-intensity battles, a significant part of which equips each officer with the skill to make level-headed and justifiable decisions under severe threats to life. We put our trust in them to do their job, and we must continue to trust the judgments they made in specific and unique circumstances in Northern Ireland.
I commend the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham) for his work and commitment to ensure that retired or active service personnel are not unduly questioned over their actions and the decisions that they took at the height of prolonged, vicious terror campaigns. As has been said, terrorist organisations accounted for 90% of the lives lost during the troubles in Northern Ireland. Our focus should be on bringing the perpetrators before the courts, not our security force personnel, and on delivering justice for the real victims in Northern Ireland.
This is an important debate. I will not go over all the statistics given by previous speakers, but we in Northern Ireland owe a great debt of gratitude to those who held the ring for 40 years in the face of a sustained terrorist campaign. It is wrong that as a result of republican attempts to rewrite the history of the troubles those people are now being subjected to a witch-hunt and being made the scapegoats for what happened during those 40 years. I warn the House that if Members think that what we have seen to date has been unfair, one can be absolutely sure that Sinn Féin will ramp up the pressure after the Northern Ireland election to ensure that more soldiers and policemen are dragged into the dock. The classified documents of the police and the Ministry of Defence will be open for scrutiny by smart lawyers in the courts—all of which is an attempt to rewrite history. The election is not about a failed heating scheme, as suggested by the shadow Minister; it is all about Sinn Féin thinking it has an opportunity to rerun the last election, to come out stronger and to put pressure on a Government who will be dead keen to get it back into government. Their price will be the sacrifice of policemen and soldiers in the courts through an unfair system.
Members are right to be concerned about what we have heard today. The system is already unfair because the cases have been disproportionately skewed towards those in the security forces. As has been asked already, why are those in the legal and justice system in Northern Ireland shouting so loudly, and trying to silence the press, about what has happened if they do not believe that if the decisions were looked at closely they would be seen to be disproportionate? From the Attorney General for Northern Ireland to the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland and right up to the Chief Constable of the PSNI, we have heard denials that the cases have been disproportionate. Yet the figures are clear: 30% of the cases being investigated at present involve the security forces, but only 10% of the people killed in Northern Ireland during the troubles were killed by security force action. The hon. Member for Canterbury (Sir Julian Brazier) made the point well that all the terrorist cases involved murders. As for the deaths caused by the security forces, few could be claimed to have been unlawful or even to look unlawful.
For the benefit of the House, I want to make it absolutely clear that I was not in any way implying that the Assembly elections on 2 March are solely the result of the RHI issue. They are indicative of a wider feeling of distrust, which in many ways is being addressed by this debate today.
I thank the hon. Gentleman.
The system is unfair in its approach. Let us look at how terrorists have been treated. They have been given letters that excuse them from ever having to be in court. When Gerry Adams was questioned about his covering up of his paedophile brother, he was given the opportunity to nominate which police station he wanted to go to and when he would like to be interviewed. His house was not raided. He was not hauled out of his bed. He was not dragged across the water to be questioned, unlike some soldiers based in Great Britain; it was done at his convenience. However, when it comes to the soldiers, I want to know who gave the instructions for early-morning raids on pensioners’ homes. Instead of police officers from Northern Ireland coming over to question people in their own town or local police station, these people had to be dragged to Northern Ireland and then restrictive bail conditions, which were never put on terrorists, were placed on them, so the system is unfair in its approach. Was that a result of direction by the Director of Public Prosecutions? Was it a decision made by the Chief Constable? Was it a decision by the police in the jurisdiction where the people lived? I have asked the Chief Constable for answers to those questions and have not been able to get them.
Finally, the system is unfair due to the inadequacy and imbalance of information. I do not accept the Secretary of State’s explanation that there will be plenty of information about the terrorists because we will have all the police files. Many of those files have disappeared, and many cases were never even investigated, but there will be detailed records of what the Army did. The only solution is to have a statute of limitations. Terrorists have had special conditions attached to them since the Good Friday agreement, and fairness should be attached to those who served in the security forces. People should not be dragged before the courts for things that happened 40 years ago, of which they have little recollection and for which even state records are difficult to turn up. I hope that this issue will not be forgotten and that we will sustain pressure on the Government to ensure fairness for those who served our country so well.
I acknowledge with deep regret the attempted murder of a police officer in Derry yesterday, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan). I apologise for my hon. Friend’s non-attendance today, and for the non-attendance of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell); they are both in Dublin at the Good Friday agreement committee. In fact, the Exiting the European Union Committee is meeting various Oireachtas committees in Dublin today on the issue of Brexit.
It is important that I, on behalf of the Social Democratic and Labour party, say that we always renounced violence from wherever it came, because violence was always wrong during all the period of the troubles, as it is wrong now. There was never any justification for that level of terrorism, violence and murder, because all it did was leave pain, destruction and mayhem—it took us so many years backwards— but there was an opportunity through the Good Friday agreement, which is perhaps where I disagree with Democratic Unionist party Members. We have come together, with respect for political difference, on power sharing and working together on the issues that matter to the people.
I hope that, on the far side of this election, there is an opportunity to restore the political institutions and that there will be parallel negotiations to deal with the outstanding issues that seem to drag us down and to give people excuses, both in Sinn Féin and the DUP, not to allow the institutions to be fully functional. I say to all of them that the people on the doorsteps over the past few weeks say, “We want political institutions. We want faith in those institutions. We want them working, and we want them delivering for us.”
Health waiting lists are spiralling out of control; education, budgets have not been agreed for schools on a rolling three-year programme; and we need investment in our economy, our jobs and our tourism. Young people want to see hope, they want to see a future and they want to see a reason for remaining in Northern Ireland.
The SDLP agrees that the processes on investigations, prosecutions and legacy cases must be balanced and fair. The way in which we deal with the past in Northern Ireland must be shaped and guided by terms set by victims and survivors, with truth and accountability to the fore.
All the parties in Northern Ireland agree that amnesty should not be the basis for dealing with the past—that was the subject of the Haass negotiations and the subsequent Stormont House agreement. There are a number of ongoing inquiries, but they are in the form of inquests, as opposed to the pursuit of possible prosecutions. Prosecutions, like inquests, bring closure and justice to families, as with the ongoing case of Loughinisland, which the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) mentioned. The people involved were my neighbours and friends, and some of them were indirectly related to me. They still await justice. The Police Ombudsman’s report has been published, and it refers to a significant element of collusion by the then Royal Ulster Constabulary. Those issues need to be addressed, and there needs to be closure for the families, because truth and accountability are particularly important.
I also think of the families of Whitecross—the Reavey brothers—and of Kingsmill, where many men were killed. All those people, right across the community, deserve justice. Many soldiers and many policemen were also killed, and I think of what happened to the Ulster Defence Regiment men on the Ballydugan Road in Downpatrick back in 1990—I remember well seeing the smoke rising from a large crater in the ground on that Monday morning, with some six men dead. I remember my predecessor going to the scene and, as with Loughinisland, what he saw should never be repeated.
I firmly believe that no one in this House, or outside it, should be above the rule of law, and we must remember that. The rule of law must prevail, which means that the Government have to be careful. I say to the Secretary of State and his ministerial colleagues, both in the Cabinet and on the Front Bench, that we must support the judicial system and ensure that it is respected.
The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), has mentioned the PSNI’s statistics, which I have seen, and I would caution that the assistant chief constable, Mark Hamilton, who has direct responsibility for the matter, said on 2 February:
“I do understand that there is a public perception that there is a disproportionate focus on military cases but they form part of what we are doing… I have a full team”—
the four teams—
“who are doing reviews against a list of cases, at the minute, none of those are military. I’ve a full team working on the On The Runs review and that doesn’t relate to the military at all.”
That is a cautionary word. We must take everything proportionately, and we must ensure that there is fairness and balance in everything.
Ultimately, we must ensure, as the Secretary of State said at oral questions, that the election campaign is conducted in a manner that allows for the speediest return to partnership government. I question—I say this also to the DUP—holding this debate during an election period. Does that impinge upon the purdah period? I see other elements, with Sinn Féin Ministers making announcements. I was once a Minister during an election period, so I know that making such announcements was not possible in previous years.
The timing of this debate was agreed with the Government Chief Whip long before there was any sense of an election in Northern Ireland, and long before the election date was set. As Members of Parliament, we should not be impeded in carrying out our duty to represent the people who elected us to come here because there is an election to a devolved Assembly, any more than the hon. Lady’s colleagues, who are in Dublin today to take part in political activity in another jurisdiction, should be impeded.
I note what the right hon. Gentleman says, but I will conclude because I realise that other Members want to speak. We respect and uphold the inquest system. We make no apologies for that, and we defend the current system when the Government make any attempt to move against it for their own convenience. I felt that the Prime Minister was particularly partisan yesterday, especially in an election period when we need to be even, balanced and fair.
I look forward to the other side of the election, when we have the political institutions up and running and when we have the parallel negotiations. We need no interregnum. Work needs to continue, and we need to be seen to be delivering for people with a sound Government.
As a former part-time Ulster Defence Regiment soldier, it is a pleasure to speak on this issue. I was proud to wear the uniform in days gone by, and I am prouder still of the friendships I made with those who put their life on the line for security and freedom. My constituency of Strangford has an exemplary history of service personnel in the Prison Service, the RUC, the PSNI and all the armed forces. I speak daily to the widows, children and family of those who were murdered while serving Queen and country. My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) set the scene so well; this debate resounds not only with those intimately affected by relationships with ex-service personnel or current service personnel but should do so for every man and woman in this Chamber, and further afield, who has had their right to life protected by people they will never meet but to whom they owe an eternal debt of gratitude.
On behalf of so many other Members, I pay huge tribute, which is not often said, to the politicians of Northern Ireland who have been under huge threat. They have been under just as much threat as members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary or the armed forces, and every day they continue to do their duty to look after their constituents. We pay tribute to you.
As always, the hon. Gentleman has a salient point to make in the Chamber. We thank him for the gallant service he gave in Northern Ireland. As a soldier, he made a magnificent contribution to the peace process we have in Northern Ireland, and we thank him for that.
Some people may not know this, but I am sometimes known to be a bit of a fiery person—I believe it to be the Scots blood I have in my veins—and of late it has taken great restraint for me to sit back and view the attempts by many in a so-called “shared society” to rewrite the history of the troubles of our Province. By doing so, they are blackening the name of men and women who deserve nothing other than praise. Most recently, we have seen the complete disregard that Gerry Kelly has shown for the family of local Strangford man James Ferris, who was stabbed while on duty during the night of the Maze break-out and subsequently died from his injuries. This disregard was vile and it should be roundly condemned by all right-thinking people; there is nothing romantic about the Maze prison break-out and the death of a prison officer. That this should be glorified by offering a so-called “prize” of a “Valentine’s gift” shows an appalling level of disrespect, insensitivity, offence and lack of remorse. The suggestion that a tale of how prison officers were shot, stabbed and beaten should be acceptable as a Valentine’s gift is vile to say the least. The bizarre world of Sinn Féin representation attempting to rewrite facts never fails to astound and wound the good people of the Province, especially those thousands who have been traumatised by IRA terrorism. I wish to remind people in this Chamber today of the real story there, which is that of a man who served Queen and country and had his life ripped away by unrepentant terrorists. We remember that sacrifice as well.
The latest declassified files have been opened, and am I the only one—I know I am not—who is sick, sore and tired of seeing personal opinions turn into attacks upon past serving soldiers, in this case the members of the UDR? As my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) mentioned, a scurrilous opinion about the UDR in 1989 has been recently recorded as fact, which is insulting in the extreme. I served in the UDR in 1974-75 and 1976-77, and every one of those part-time UDR soldiers whom I had the honour of serving with were wonderful people; male and female alike, they joined to stop terrorism, from whatever source it came.
Let me remind hon. Members of a few truths that are backed up by the facts. The facts are that the UDR full-time and part-time soldiers worked long hours, under massive threat, checking under cars and living in the eye of the storm daily, along with their entire families. The facts are that 197 soldiers were killed, the majority when off duty, and a further 60 were killed after they had left the UDR. These are some of the facts of the case and people cannot deny them. I, along with many in this Chamber today, and indeed with most upstanding moral people of the day, was horrified to learn that 1,000 former soldiers, many of whom are in their 60s and 70s, were to be investigated, in respect of 238 fatal incidents. We are talking about men who gave up their family life and their freedom, who witnessed horrors, who were subjected to horrific life-changing scenes, and who held dying comrades in their arms and searched the rubble for missing limbs of their team. Having dealt with all of that, while wearing the Queen’s colours, they are to be subjected to investigations.
I understand very well the concept of closure and wanting justice. I want justice for my cousin Kenneth Smyth, who was murdered by the IRA on 10 December 1971, and for the four UDR men killed at Ballydugan, three of whom I knew personally, yet no multi-million-pound investigation is available for that. So I resent the idea that seems to be promoted at present that one life is worth more than another—it is not, and it never will be. The grief of a mother does not change with the colour of her hair, the area she lives in or the church she attends—it never can do, and why should it? As the Member of Parliament for Strangford, I call on this Government to turn around and do the only thing they can do, which is to ensure that our people are given the credit and fairness that they deserve.
The investigation revealed that bogus claims were made in a concerted attempt to defraud the Ministry of Defence and destroy the reputation of our armed forces, and this can never be allowed to happen. Intimidation of individual soldiers and the impact on their families must be assessed, and support and apologies at least must be given to them all. There must also be an assurance that the disregard shown to soldiers and their families throughout this farce of a procedure will never be allowed to happen again. Action should have been taken more swiftly than this; credible claims should have been differentiated more quickly from the bogus ones, and “innocent until proven guilty” should always have been the fall-back position. With the greatest of respect, this failure by the MOD must be addressed at this moment in time. It has taken the investigations by the Defence Committee and the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) to make a difference, and I congratulate all those involved in that scrutiny. Because of that, I hope that the lessons will be learned by all of us: never should claims without evidence be progressed; never should service personnel be left out on a limb; and never should we leave a man behind as we have seen done here, facing a republican agenda that revolves around attempting to portray murder as freedom fighting and terrorism as the end of oppression.
I think the whole House is incredibly moved by the hon. Gentleman’s words. From what he is saying, so movingly and eloquently, I believe he would agree that as a House, regardless of party, we owe a huge debt to all these people. I am sure he would join me in saying that, and I wish to join him in sharing his views, which he is expressing so eloquently and movingly to this House.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which probably came just at the right time.
Democratic Unionist party Members and others today wish to set the record straight for future generations: the atrocities during the troubles, from whichever “side” they arose, were nothing more than evil murder. There is no glory found in taking the lives of 10 men in a van who were on their way to work. There is no honour in leaving wives without husbands, mothers without sons and children without a father. There is no rallying cry around bombs which took the lives of men, women and children within the wombs of women out shopping. There is no victory in the indiscriminate slaughter of people who were worshipping in their church on a Sunday morning. The glory is in the legacy of men and women who gave their all for freedom and democracy; the honour belongs to those who have lived their lives with the sorrow of great loss and yet chose not to retaliate. The rallying cry is for those who quietly ask that the memory of their loved one is not tarnished or decimated by lies or media spin. The victory belongs to the right-thinking people of Northern Ireland, who, despite having no reason to trust, love or forgive, have chosen to support the rule of law and justice, and now are waiting for us to give them the support they deserve in these dark hours. I finish with this point: we remember the truth, we stand to honour those who are fallen and we promise to protect their legacy.
What a moving speech we just heard from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—well done to him indeed. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) on his powerful speech, which set the tone for today. I am really pleased that this debate is happening. I had hoped that we would have one ourselves, but we were not allowed to do so until after the election, so these proceedings are very timely, and I congratulate everyone involved.
The whole point of this lies in looking for fairness and balance in how justice is served, but what I really want to get across is that this is not just a Northern Ireland problem; these were our troops, from the whole of the United Kingdom, and this is a problem that this House must embrace all the way through. We cannot just say that it relies on the legacy being sorted out at Stormont, although we have a huge part to play there and all of us want to see that happen. This is a call for unity, with everyone pulling together so that we come up with a solution. If a Stormont Government are not in place after this election, the duty will fall on this House and all of us to find the right way forward. Let us ensure that we do that.
I have always wanted to say a huge thank you to all those who served in Northern Ireland—not just the soldiers and the security forces, but the community workers and the political staff. There is a mass of people who have done and are doing so much work, and they are the people we should praise. In my party, Doug Beattie, Steve Aiken and Andy Allen are ex-servicemen who show what we have all been through. Andy Allen lost his legs and his eyesight in Afghanistan. He is one of the greatest heroes we have, and he was, and will be again in the future, one of our Assembly Members. He has really gritted his teeth and found a way forward. We must all be proud of that.
I was pleased to hear mention of the Defence Committee report that was put together by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer). It contains terrific recommendations, and it was extremely sad to see how the Government dealt with it and took it from under him. The report has some wonderful recommendations about how we should approach future investigations. If I have any complaint, it is that it talks only about the future; it should consider present and future investigations. It is extremely good that IHAT has been closed down, but we need to look at the recommendations in the report and follow them because there are good ideas there that the House should take on board.
Last weekend, I met a senior officer in the services who told me that he came home the other day to find out that two plainclothes detectives had been knocking at his door, asking about the past. Naturally his wife was concerned, and his children were very concerned, as were the neighbours. That is just one example of what is going on at the moment, and that is why we are having this debate. Let us make the most of not only the report, but the chance we have to work together. We really have to find a way through this.
There are good mechanisms in place. The historical investigations unit is a good idea, but we must make sure it does not result in our looking at cases twice. It would be better to give the powers to the police and to carry on with what we are doing now, while making sure they have the powers and resources required to conclude on all matters.
We have to take on board the fact there is a continual tarnishing and blackening of the security forces in Northern Ireland in the papers every week, and we do nothing about it from our side. If one follows what Sinn Féin has been doing—this fits in nicely with the tarnishing I mentioned—one can see that it intends continually to do down our armed services. It calls them imperial and indisciplined, but we know that the 250,000 who served in Northern Ireland were, in most cases, most professional. We have to support them and to make sure that things are fair.
My interest started with the case of Corporal Major Hutchings, so I am pleased that the whole House has pulled together to make sure that we look at this issue. I welcome the Prime Minister’s comments about being fair, balanced and proportionate, but we have to act now. We cannot just keep waiting; we have to keep going.
It was a political decision in one case to allow someone’s sentence to be reduced from 105 years to only three years, so surely a political decision could be made to sort out this problem.
The hon. Gentleman is right that it is a political decision, and we have the chance to make it. We must be sure that we do not just give amnesties to the terrorists; we need to find a way forward that involves equivalence. We must find a way that resolves it all. That is possible if we all sit down together.
We need truth and justice for the victims—that must be underneath everything—but there is one thing that has bothered me all the way through and I have found uncomfortable. We are in an election period, and we are being told that we should blame it all on the Belfast agreement, some of the architects of which are in this Chamber—indeed, one of them is the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley, who moved the motion. We should be working together, not attacking each other. It bothers me to hear that Jonathan Powell said in his book that certain members of the party that sits here with me tried to get Tony Blair to write to Dr Ian Paisley, who was our First Minister at the time, to say that they would accept the on-the-runs but blame it all on David Trimble. I hope that is wrong, but I put that out there, because election points were being made today. Nevertheless, to return to my main point, let us all work together.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No; I have finished.
I thank all hon. Members who secured the debate. I will focus on issues that relate to the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, since other Members have fully and eloquently addressed the situation in Northern Ireland. I was not a Member of the House during the Iraq war or when IHAT was established in 2010, so I have looked at it afresh. There are three questions: how we got to the point of establishing it; what went wrong with the process; and where we go from here.
In a debate on a related topic last year, a Conservative Member told one of my hon. Friends:
“The danger of the argument he is making is that the Scottish National party is turning soldiers from cannon fodder into courtroom fodder.”—[Official Report, 27 January 2016; Vol. 605, c. 200WH.]
When he reflected on that statement, he might have regretted its implication, because members of our armed forces should never be regarded as cannon fodder. Too often, it appears that the last thing to concern the Ministry of Defence is the impact of its decisions on members of our armed forces.
Many hon. Members here today are conscious, as I am, that we ask our armed forces to undertake challenging and dangerous operations. We might not always agree with Government foreign policy or defence strategy, but one of the implications of joining the armed forces is, in part, to pass to others responsibility for deciding who is and who is not an adversary. In return, the people who do the job with the commitment and professionalism that they are renowned for are right to expect the fullest protection we can give them. They have a right to expect the laws that they are required to obey to be clear. The techniques that they are taught to use, the training that they are given and the rules of engagement under which they operate must be in compliance with those laws and kept up to date. When we look at the background to the IHAT process, it seems that the MOD failed in that aspect of its duty of care.
In this place, we can endlessly debate the territorial extension of the European convention on human rights versus the application of international humanitarian law, but in the real world that current and past members of the armed forces are in, those are not things to consider at their leisure if they find that a serious allegation is made against them for something that happened many years ago. IHAT was set up in a desperate effort to address that failure, but it was not the right answer and it was not delivered in the right way.
In my constituency, I have been involved with a case in which IHAT dealt very badly with a veteran. It wasted huge resources sending officers from the south of England to the west of Scotland, and that journey was entirely wasted because they had done no homework. There was a real lack of clarity about their status, and they breached confidentiality by asking members of the community for the veteran’s whereabouts. That was completely unacceptable. He was not hiding and he had not done anything wrong. There is no justification for behaving like some kind of military Sherlock Holmes. There was also an utter failure to provide an opportunity for appropriate pastoral care.
I ask hon. Members to reflect on why it was necessary to put in place such specific resources for the Iraq conflict. Is this just another toxic legacy from that conflict that will disappear over time? It is interesting that one of the significant changes in IHAT was the shift in resources from the Royal Military Police to naval police because of the perceived conflict of interest if the RMP was carrying out inquiries into its own former cases. Perhaps the increasingly complex international framework means that resources of the kind put in place for IHAT need to be planned for to ensure that the process is undertaken with a great deal more professionalism and concern for the wellbeing of current and former service personnel.
That brings me to how we go forward from here. In the Defence Committee report to which other hon. Members have referred, there is a clear acceptance that the IHAT process has been flawed and that the problems that it caused were, in many cases, foreseeable and avoidable. The first principle that the report recommends for consideration is the importance of support for current and former service personnel. That goes to the heart of the issue and of our responsibilities, because no one wants innocent members of the armed forces to be unfairly accused of wrongdoing. They do a difficult and dangerous job and for the most part they do it extremely well.
Justice cannot be served unless processes are managed in a transparent, structured and expeditious way. It is important that the MOD accepts that if poor or illegal practices are taught to service personnel and implemented by them, it needs to step up and accept responsibility, rather than letting individuals take the blame. If cases have been disposed of, it must be assumed that they can be reopened only if compelling new evidence is brought forward. Similarly, cases should be opened after 10 years only in exceptional situations.
The decision to outsource so much of the IHAT operation was particularly unhelpful, but the blanket closure of IHAT and derogation from the ECHR cannot be seen as our primary responses. The desire to distinguish between serious and spurious claims is laudable, but no indication has been given of how the difference can be determined without judicial process. Service personnel deserve to know which judicial process that will be and that the choice has been well considered.
Action is needed to provide an alternative and to avoid the MOD being allowed to continue with processes that are not independent or transparent. If our solution is simply to derogate from the ECHR because we are not prepared to put in place the right framework to deliver, we are sending the wrong message on human rights and potentially causing problems for our troops on overseas operations. There is a danger of confusion and uncertainty for them about what they can and cannot do in that context.
I was disappointed to read the Attorney General’s evidence to the Defence Committee, in which he confessed to having no knowledge of the position taken on these matters by other countries that operate within the ECHR. Given the history and the fact that he was attending as a witness, that showed an extraordinary lack of preparedness from the Government’s legal team.
The Government must not pass responsibility for the interpretation of international humanitarian law to troops on the frontline. Differences of interpretation could put our forces and others around them at risk. The Secretary of State for Defence’s justification that
“military advice is that there is a risk of seriously undermining the operational effectiveness of the Armed Forces”
just does not stack up. This might be unpalatable to him and the Government but, looking forward, the truth is that that simply means that the MOD is compromising the defence of human rights and its responsibility to our armed forces as a cost-cutting measure. Whatever the solution is, that is no solution at all.
I thank everyone who has taken part in today’s debate; there have been a number of powerful speeches and a lot of good points have been made.
Given that my time is very limited, I shall simply cut to some observations that I wanted to raise about the Iraq Historic Allegations Team issue. None of us wants members or former members of our armed forces to be treated unfairly when accusations of wrongdoing are made. The huge backlog of cases at IHAT meant that serving and former service personnel faced extended periods of uncertainty over the accusations that had been made, and we should not be comfortable with that. We must have adequate resources for the investigation of allegations and a system that quickly identifies allegations with no substance or supporting evidence, and throws those cases out. That did not happen initially with IHAT.
As I said in last year’s Westminster Hall debate on IHAT, I would favour exploring whether a criminal charge akin to wasting police time, or even perverting the course of justice, would be appropriate when frivolous or vexatious allegations have been made against service personnel that serve only to bog down investigators, cost taxpayers money and—perhaps most importantly—heap unfair suffering on service personnel who find themselves being investigated on spurious grounds. The possibility of pursuing the prosecution of time wasters would serve to deter the investigation of unfounded cases and root out those few cases that need to be answered and properly investigated.
I also want to comment on the Government’s decision to derogate from articles 2 and 5 of the European convention on human rights as a response to the situation that arose with IHAT and more widely, as has been discussed today. I am concerned that that decision blurs rather than defines the high standards that we rightly expect and overwhelmingly see delivered by our armed forces, and sends entirely the wrong message to the rest of the world about our commitment to human rights.
To be clear, I believe that 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. That certainly means being offered proper legal representation and support. Allegations must be taken seriously, but equally serious must be the consequences of bringing vexatious cases, which many of us suspect may have been brought previously.
Finally, I turn to the argument put forward by the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) yesterday at Prime Minister’s questions, which was also mentioned by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson): the possible application of a statute of limitation to the bringing of such cases. We should seriously consider that idea because it might have some merit. There may be pros and cons, but it is certainly worth considering. I hope we can take it forward as a proposal and investigate it properly.
We all support the idea of justice being done, but that also includes fairness to our armed forces personnel, who are entitled to due process in answering allegations made within a reasonable timeframe. There will, of course, be exceptions, so we have to consider the issue carefully.
Our armed forces have our support and gratitude for the difficult work they do on our behalf in defending us and our values. That means that they must live by the same values that they defend with such distinction. We must make sure that we look after them and treat them with the fairness under the law to which they are entitled.
It is a privilege to follow the hon. Members for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) and for Stirling (Steven Paterson). As we get close to the conclusion of the debate, they have helpfully widened its scope to include the entirety of the content of our motion. Although in my party we have a particular and strong view, given our history and experience in Northern Ireland, there is a wider context and a wider challenge for the Government, which our motion also seeks to address. I am grateful for their comments.
I was mildly apprehensive that, in speaking towards the conclusion of the debate, I would find myself repeating points that had already been made. Now that I have been bestowed with the responsibility of summing up the debate, my responsibilities happily align with my apprehensions, so I am keen to help to summarise this incredibly important debate. Given the seriousness not only of this singular issue but of the wide range of complex political dilemmas that we face in Northern Ireland, it is rare that we have such an opportunity to have such a wholesome and full debate. On behalf of our party, I hope it is in order for me to thank all Members who have participated, whether through substantive speeches or interventions. Some have been erudite, some have been pithy and some have been pointed, but all have contributed to the substance and importance of the debate. For that, I am grateful.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) commenced the debate superbly with a level of dignity that befits the issue, but cut to the core of the problem. Although many hon. Members following his contribution sought to emulate the aspiration to have balance in how we deal with legacy cases, very few touched on the core of the problem.
I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s contribution. I know that he and the responding Minister will not be able to give a wholesome commitment, but they should keep alive in their minds the fact that to leave the resolution to this problem solely with the Stormont House agreement and the legacy resolutions in Northern Ireland would be to continue to allow a veto by those associated with the greater perpetrators of crime and terror in Northern Ireland, and that would be a shame.
If we are to look purposely at balance, it is important that the Government consider carefully and clearly how they will address the imbalance and iniquity of the provisions of the Good Friday agreement, whereby terrorists and paramilitaries get two years and a “get out of jail free” card. That was clearly available in public discourse, considered, legislated for and endorsed in a referendum, but it is wrong. It is imbalanced and imperfect, and iniquitous to those who struggle for the memory of loved ones in our Province of Northern Ireland. I hope that the Department is working to address that conundrum, and, similarly—we have been through this in great detail—the on-the-runs scheme of consecutive Governments—not only the Labour Government, although that is where it found its genesis.
The Labour Government created a system whereby they encouraged amnesty for terrorists, whereby those for whom extradition orders were sought were never pursued, and people were allowed to travel back into the United Kingdom without even the fear or prospect of arrest, inquiry or investigation, never mind prosecution. Even the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland, Barra McGrory, who is much maligned in all of this, helpfully contributed to the inquiry of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs into on-the-runs, and highlighted how odd a position this was for investigating authorities. For as long as there is an imbalance in favour of those who perpetrated crime and terrorism in Northern Ireland, we will continue to raise this issue.
It is important to say that of the enormous number of contributions made, there are four Members of Parliament who could have been here, yet are not. The Members for West Tyrone (Mr Doherty), for Belfast West (Paul Maskey), for Newry and Armagh (Mickey Brady) and for Mid Ulster (Francie Molloy) all have a view on how we should deal with the soldiers and servicemen of this country: get them in the dock and put them in jail. Yet they are not here making those representations; they enjoy the veto that they have had up until now, but I hope that that will change.
The issues that we have dealt with this afternoon draw on emotion, as we saw from the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie), who reflected on her personal experience in Northern Ireland. Our experiences cross political divides. The horror faced by our community and the individuals sitting around me is real and it does not discriminate across the political boundary.
When my hon. Friend—and he is a friend—the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) delved into the emotion around the historical difficulties faced in Northern Ireland, I do not think that the importance of this issue was lost on anyone in the Chamber. No matter how personally or deeply affected we might have been in the past, this issue is real today. That is why we hope that today’s motion, in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley, can attain the unanimous agreement of the House. The Government should bring forward measures to ensure balance. The hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) said that the duty fell on us all to find a way forward, and that is what we should focus on this afternoon. I will not focus on his later comments because they were not worthy of the debate or of the sentiment he himself was expressing, which is that the duty falls on us all.
In conclusion, having probably not fulfilled my obligation to reflect the contributions of all those who have participated, I think that we have had a most useful, important and timely debate this afternoon. The onus very much lies with the Government. This cannot be dealt with in Northern Ireland or through the Stormont House structures alone. The challenge is there. There is a desire and a need for the balance, fairness and equality that is talked about often but seen very rarely. The responsibility lies with the Government, and I hope that they will take this opportunity to respond.
I begin by thanking speakers on both sides of the House. The hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) was generous in welcoming all the contributions and differing views from across the House. I would like to offer the same welcome to people who speak with much passion on this issue. Having attended Westminster Hall debates and meetings in the Tea Rooms, and having received dozens of letters from MPs and constituents on this matter, I know that this is a really important issue. I have spoken to the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) about this before, and I know that the passion with which he spoke today was reflected in the Westminster Hall debate he led so powerfully a few weeks ago.
This is an incredibly important subject that generates great strength of feeling, and I shall try to address some of the issues raised. Before that, however, it is important to put on the record again the Government’s deep and abiding admiration for the men and women of our armed forces and police who have served not only in Northern Ireland but in many other arenas, as the motion notes. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear in his opening remarks, without their sacrifice and willingness to put their lives at risk to protect the people of Northern Ireland from terrorists willing to kill, bomb and maim and to maintain the rule of law, the peace process would not have succeeded. They have made a huge effort.
The vast majority of the more than 250,000 men and women who served in the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the armed forces in Northern Ireland during the troubles carried out their duties with exemplary professionalism, but the rule of law applies to all and must be allowed to take its course, independent of Government and political interference. Nevertheless, I acknowledge the concern among many veterans about how past events are being investigated in Northern Ireland. The justice system there is a devolved matter and the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, but the Government are concerned that the current systems for investigating the past do not reflect the fact that 90% of deaths in the troubles were caused by terrorists and overall disproportionately focus on the actions of soldiers and the police.
Reform is needed, and it must be in the interests of all, including the victims and survivors who suffered the most. That is why this Government support the full and faithful implementation of the Stormont House agreement to bring in a new, balanced, proportionate and fair approach in dealing with Northern Ireland’s past. This will include a new historical investigations unit to take over from the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the police ombudsman investigations into outstanding troubles-related deaths. This will include investigations into the murders of nearly 200 soldiers, including those who were killed in the Ballygawley bus bombing and the awful events at Warrenpoint.
I now turn to some of the many thoughtful comments made by Members of the House. Where I cannot give full details, I would like to write to some of them, because there were some challenging questions and thoughtful contributions. The hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) gave an excellent performance, as always. Having spent some time in the House with him, I know of his huge passion for Northern Ireland and his very considered and thoughtful contributions. He has been forthright in offering me thoughts and exchanging his great knowledge on Northern Ireland, not just in the time that I have been in this post but over recent years. I really do appreciate his thoughts.
The hon. Gentleman made a particularly appropriate comment in saying that progress in the future requires a settlement of the past. It set much of the tone of the debate, on the back of the speech by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley. The hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) spoke right at the beginning about the temperate language that was required. That was also important in setting the tone. An event in an election period has an opportunity to be unworthy of this House, but today’s debate has been very measured and temperate. I think we all value her contribution.
My hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham) has been bending my ear on this issue for many months because he is so passionate about it. I know that the leadership he has offered to colleagues on the Government Benches and on the Labour Benches is respected and welcomed. One of his points, which was reiterated in many other speeches, was that the restraint of our armed forces should be recognised. We often focus on mistakes and errors, but those 250,000 people, over 30 years, were very restrained and made a massive contribution to bringing and maintaining peace, and to maintaining law and order in a place that had quite often resorted to chaos. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) mentioned the 30,000 police officers who were also very professional in their approach. I have the great privilege of working with many police officers today who maintain that professionalism.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) talked about police officers’ dedication to duty. She mentioned the cowardly attack on the police officer yesterday. We all condemn that in this House. This group—this cult—of people who are not worthy of living in such a wonderful place as Northern Ireland are trying to drag it back to that place, that past, that we do not want to return to. Not only did they seek to murder a police officer, but there was the impact on the family, on the brave officers who had to go in and address the device, and on the neighbourhood and community. We should acknowledge their massive contribution. Our security forces and police will continue to pursue those people and we will bring them to justice.
My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Sir Julian Brazier) mentioned the need for balance in addressing the issues. In particular, he said that only fresh evidence should be submitted. I want to reassure him about the historical investigations unit. The legislation will include specific tests that must be met in order that previously completed cases can be reopened for investigation. Specifically, new and credible evidence that was not previously available to the authorities will be needed before the HIU will open and close cases. I know that that reassurance is also important to many other Members.
Does the Minister accept that a new element will also be introduced to the cases, whereby there will not have to be new evidence but simply a claim that there are new ways of looking at the evidence? That is one of the weaknesses in the case he is making.
The case I am making is that the present system is not appropriate. It is disproportionate. We need a new system, which was agreed under the Stormont agreement. As I have said, if we get to the point where we can implement the Stormont House agreement with an Assembly that is working and functional, we will have an opportunity to address the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury, which we all believe is appropriate.
The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) paid tribute to the armed forces, as many others have done, and commented on the cowardly acts of those who sought to murder a police officer yesterday. He also noted that more than 7,000 individuals were awarded bravery medals for their contribution to Operation Banner. I agree with his specific point about the claim that misconduct was rife. We will not allow history to be rewritten and for a different narrative to take its place. Lots of brave people served and sought to bring peace and maintain law and order. Misconduct was not rife in the British forces. There were good people trying very hard to maintain law and order.
The hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) said that there has been peace for nearly 20 years and that 90% of those who died did so at the hands of terrorists. I have already referred to the hon. Member for South Down, who said that it was possible for the Assembly to have a positive future on the far side of the election. She talked about young people wanting hope. We all want to make sure that we can get to the other side and make it work.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made an extremely emotional speech. He said that he was sick, sore and tired of those who attack the Ulster Defence Regiment. Having worked with the UDR when I was out there, I know that they were very brave. When I returned home to Yorkshire, they continued, like many Royal Ulster Constabulary officers, to go home under threat. I recognise the passion with which the hon. Gentleman supports them. He released his emotions. We recognise that he is a good guy.
The hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) talked about fairness and balance and called for unity. We all have an obligation to make sure that we get to the other side of the election and have a functioning and working Assembly.
Finally, I reiterate this Government’s commitment to making progress on this issue. Following next week’s Northern Ireland elections, we will all have a massive obligation. The hon. Member for Belfast East said that that should apply not just to people in Northern Ireland, but to all of us. We all—the Secretary of State, I and others with an interest—want to make this work. I assure Members that we will do everything we can to make it a success.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House acknowledges the service and sacrifice of the armed forces and police during Operation Banner in Northern Ireland as well as in other theatres of conflict in Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan; welcomes the recent decision to close down the Iraq Historical Allegations Team; and calls on the Government to take steps to ensure that current and future processes for investigating and prosecuting legacy cases, whether in Northern Ireland or elsewhere, are balanced and fair.