Skip to main content

Veterans: Protection from Prosecution

Volume 707: debated on Wednesday 26 January 2022

1. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on bringing forward legislative proposals to protect veterans from prosecution for actions taken during the troubles. (905208)

2. What discussions he has had with the Northern Ireland Executive on when legislative proposals will be brought forward against vexatious claims made regarding veterans who served in Northern Ireland. (905209)

Before we begin, I would like to make some brief remarks regarding the upcoming anniversary of Bloody Sunday. This Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. The killing of 14 people on that day began what was the most brutal and tragic year of the troubles in terms of lives lost. I echo the words of the then Prime Minister David Cameron, who, following the publication of the Saville report in 2010, stood at this Dispatch Box and apologised on behalf of the British Government, describing the events of Bloody Sunday, rightly, as “unjustified and unjustifiable.” It is important that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past, but remember these difficult moments in our history, and come together to help build a better shared future for all the people of Northern Ireland. My thoughts this weekend will be with all those affected.

The Government collectively believe that any system for addressing the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past must focus on delivering for those most impacted by the troubles, including victims, survivors and veterans. We were very clear when publishing the Command Paper that we would engage intensively and widely with stakeholders, including the Northern Ireland parties, before introducing legislation, and that is what we have done and what we are doing. We are reflecting carefully on what we have heard, and we remain committed to addressing the issue through legislation.

Does the Secretary of State agree that if he reflects carefully on the responses to his Command Paper and if he engages with the professionals who have worked on legacy over many years, there is a landing zone for victims and for veterans that will address the grievance industry that has been built up in Northern Ireland off the back of people’s horrendous experiences and will deliver a lasting legacy agreement so that Northern Ireland can move forward?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I agree with what he says. It is important that we find a way forward that works for the people of Northern Ireland and, as I say, delivers for victims, survivors and veterans; has a lasting ability to move things forward; and ensures that those who still do not know the truth and do not have information about what happened to loved ones will have a chance to get to that truth in a reasonable timeframe.

As a veteran who served in Op Banner, I welcome any legislation that comes forward on this issue. While we wait for that legislation, will the Secretary of State work with the Office for Veterans’ Affairs to ensure that any Op Banner veterans have the support they need?

Yes. Again, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government are unequivocal in our commitment to deliver for all those most impacted by the troubles, including those who served so bravely to protect life and country for people in Northern Ireland. As part of that process, I assure my hon. Friend that we will work closely—and we are working closely—with the Office for Veterans’ Affairs and my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence People and Veterans; in fact, we will be meeting this afternoon.

Can I welcome the Secretary of State’s words at the outset? Fifty years ago this week, the Parachute Regiment were sent to my city to murder 14 people—people who were unarmed, marching for civil rights—[Interruption.] And I would condemn that as well, as well the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) knows. Last weekend, Parachute Regiment flags were flown on the outskirts of Derry. The Parachute Regiment rightly condemned the flying of those flags as a grossly offensive act against the victims of Bloody Sunday, but they have yet to apologise for and condemn the actions of their soldiers on Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972. Does the Secretary of State think they should?

As I have outlined, as the Prime Minister said at the time and as I have said in responding to public inquiries recently, we as the Government must accept responsibility for what has happened in the past. When things are wrong, we need to be clear about that, as we have been. It is right that we have apologised for that, and I have added my own personal apology to that of the Government. We also need to ensure that we all work together to find a way forward to ensure that people are clear that violence is not an answer to anything in Northern Ireland or elsewhere.

The Secretary of State rightly made his comments about Bloody Sunday at the beginning of his remarks, but he will recognise that it took nearly 40 years for the Saville inquiry to clear the innocent victims who were murdered that day and those who were injured. Will he confirm that under the proposals that he will bring to the House a judicial inquiry will still be possible? If not, we condemn victims and their families to the accusation of guilt when an inquiry would prove their innocence.

The hon. Gentleman gives a powerful example. Ballymurphy, which I spoke about at the Dispatch Box not that long ago, is another powerful example of it taking far too long in these situations for families to get answers and to get to the truth. I can be very clear with the House, as I have been before, that I am determined that the legislation we bring forward will allow families to get to the truth and understand what happened quicker than we have seen before. People should not be waiting decades for information.

British soldiers like myself were sent to Northern Ireland to keep the peace, and to put their lives on the line for the peace of everybody in Northern Ireland. I say to the Secretary of State that, while I welcome the Command Paper, we must not have any delay in the functions of Government getting to a conclusion on this, so that veterans—many of them have passed away already—can live their lives in peace, rather than in fear of being dragged before the courts.

My right hon. Friend makes an important point, from the point of view of veterans. He is absolutely right: most people who went out there served their country to protect life, in quite a contrast to the terrorists in Northern Ireland who went out every day to do harm. It is important that we deal with the issue, so that we do not leave it to another generation, and that we do so before we lose a generation who not only have information but deserve to live their final years in peace.

Every life lost in Northern Ireland matters, and we remember the two very courageous Royal Ulster Constabulary officers murdered in Londonderry 50 years ago tomorrow. As a proud former member of the Ulster Defence Regiment, I want to ensure that whatever proposals the Government bring forward do not create a moral equivalence between the brave men and women who served in our armed forces and the police service and those who took the law into their own hands, engaged in acts of terrorism and sought to bring Northern Ireland to its knees. Will the Secretary of State be clear that there will be no moral equivalence between our armed forces and police and the terrorists of the IRA and other paramilitary groups?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I can be very clear, and as a Government we are clear, that we will never accept any moral equivalence between those who upheld the law in Northern Ireland—those who, as I say, went out every day to protect life and to do their service—and those who, from any point of view, went out every morning to destroy life and to destroy Northern Ireland. They must never be allowed to win, and there can be no moral equivalence.

In bringing forward proposals on dealing with the legacy of our past, can the Secretary of State advise what discussions he has had with the representatives of innocent victims in Northern Ireland, and will he heed the very clear view, right across the community in Northern Ireland, from those innocent victims and their families that what they want out of the process is access to truth and justice? Justice must not be dispensed with.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. As we have said from the beginning, it is important that we engage with a wide range of stakeholders. I have done that myself, as have my Ministers. Indeed, in the last week I have been meeting with the very groups that he refers to—victims groups as well as veterans. It is clear that people have waited far too long for information. We also have to be honest with people about what is achievable and the reality of what we can do, bearing in mind the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 that followed the Good Friday agreement, decommissioning and other things that have happened since then. We must deliver a process and a structure of investigations and information recovery that helps people to get to the truth, while being clear that, as I have said before, there are so many people who did so much to keep Northern Ireland safe.