Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

MoD supports anonymity for Army witnesses

MINISTRY of Defence lawyers are preparing to back the case for 17 former soldiers to be granted anonymity in testimony to the Bloody Sunday inquiry.

MINISTRY of Defence lawyers are preparing to back the case for 17 former soldiers to be granted anonymity in testimony to the Bloody Sunday inquiry.

Defence Secretary George Robertson has instructed Ministry officials to ensure that the department gives evidence at a judicial review of a ruling by the inquiry, led by Lord Saville.

His move coincides with a threat by Lieutenant Colonel Derek Wilford, who commanded the Parachute Regiment's 1st Battalion soldiers when the 1972 shootings occurred, to refuse to give evidence.

The officer said he was prepared to go to jail for contempt of court unless a decision to refuse the soldiers protection is reversed.

It is the latest twist in a growing high-profile campaign, backed by Tory leader William Hague, MPs and peers and retired senior officers, for anonymity to be guaranteed.

The Inquiry's ruling denies blanket anonymity for former paratroopers, who fear that disclosure of their identity would make them and their families targets for attack.

Government sources confirmed that Mr Robertson had warned Cabinet colleagues of concerns about the safety of the soldiers.

According to one minister, it is hoped that Lord Saville and his team will heed the views expressed in Parliament 'and ensure that the safety of these men is fully considered'.

The MoD is funding a team of lawyers representing some of the men.

Its own lawyers are expected to support the soldiers' concerns and are likely to argue in the judicial review hearing that the IRA, while on ceasefire, retains its weapons for potential use.

Government sources said Mr Robertson was 'sympathetic' to claims for anonymity, and is taking very seriously his 'duty of care' to them as the head of the department, their former employer.

Colonel Wilford told the Daily Mail that he was prepared to make his own protest by refusing to turn up to testify.

He told the paper: 'While I regard myself as visible, having spoken in the past about the day in question, the men I still regard as my soldiers are not visible, and are not afforded any protection.

'I feel very strongly about this. I am also concerned about the good name of the Regiment.

'It is not really a tribunal; they are putting us on trial. It is being done as some form of political expediency.'The Inquiry panel argues that potential military witnesses have misunderstood the legal ruling on anonymity.

A spokesman said it meant there would not be blanket anonymity, but individual witnesses could seek it and their request would be considered.

He has insisted the ruling makes 'explicit allowance' for military witnesses to apply for anonymity, on the grounds that it is justified by their particular circumstances.

Witnesses face being subpoenaed by Lord Saville, who begins public hearings at the Londonderry Guildhall in September, if they are not given anonymity and then refuse to co-operate.

Former Northern Ireland Secretary Lord Mayhew today vowed to press the Government to reverse the anonymity ruling.

Lord Mayhew, a former Attorney General, said he could not advocate anyone should break the law by refusing to testify to the Inquiry on the terms set by it.

But he declared: 'I hope that hypothesis won't arise, because I hope the tribunal will see fit to reverse its order or that, by some other means perhaps by Government intervention in Parliament that will be reversed.'Lord Mayhew said that the evidence given by the soldiers would be just as public and open whether the soldiers were identified or not.

He said that the tribunal would know the identify of each witness.

It was 'a very strange situation that people were made to come to a dangerous place like the city of Londonderry and give evidence in open court, giving their names...in circumstances in which it is known that their lives are going to be at risk.'

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