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Hounding Army veterans over Troubles deaths a travesty, says former soldier

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 24/09/2016

Letters have been sent to soldiers about events such as Bloody Sunday
Letters have been sent to soldiers about events such as Bloody Sunday

An ex-soldier has slammed the "hounding" of former troops over Troubles-era cases.

Robert Williams said the pursuit of veterans over decades-old events was "a travesty".

He is one of hundreds of former military who served in Northern Ireland and who now have found themselves under the spotlight.

Earlier this year the Belfast Telegraph reported that almost 1,000 letters had been sent to former troops, questioning what they knew about Troubles incidents.

They include the case of an IRA man shot while acting as a lookout for a republican bomb squad.

In some cases soldiers were left shocked after letters unexpectedly dropped on their doorsteps decades later.

Mr Williams, who is from Leeds, recalled how a package arrived at his home in 2010 seeking information on an incident almost half a century earlier. He said enormous sums were being wasted on pursuing elderly men, drawing comparisons with IRA killers walking the streets after being released under the Good Friday Agreement.

Mr Williams referred to his experience in a letter to the Daily Telegraph, drawing attention to the plight of Army personnel who served in Northern Ireland.

It followed controversy over criminal cases being brought against troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mr Williams was involved in an undisclosed incident in Belfast 45 years ago.

He writes: "In 2010, aged well into my 60s, I received in the post a package from the Historical Enquiries Team covered by a letter from the Ministry of Defence which said I would be required for questioning about an incident in which I had been involved in Belfast in 1971.

"The MoD would provide legal support through a large firm of London solicitors. The package included a copy of the report that I had made to the Royal Military Police after the incident. Interviews would be held under caution and recorded.

"At the solicitor's, a partner told me: 'I've a good deal of experience defending ex-soldiers. I was involved in the second Bloody Sunday inquiry. In fact, that bought me my house.' There lies a tale."

Mr Williams said he was told the matter was unlikely to proceed further in the foreseeable future. He said old men were being needlessly hounded.

"It was almost two years before I was interviewed at the solicitor's offices by two ex-policemen," he added.

"On conclusion and after stopping the tape, they said that the next stage would be another inquest, but added that we'd all be dead by the time that happened. Enormous sums were spent on a futile exercise - the hounding of elderly men 40 years after the event.

"It was a travesty when one considers that convicted IRA murderers are walking the streets, having been released after the Good Friday Agreement."

In July, this newspaper reported how at least 855 letters have been sent to former soldiers since 2013.

The total will be higher because the Ministry of Defence did not disclose figures for cases where the number of letters sent was fewer than 10.

A total of 368 relate to the killing of 14 civilians on Bloody Sunday. Thirteen people were killed when paratroopers opened fire on a civil rights march through Derry in January 1972. The 14th died later.

A further 153 are seeking information on Ballymurphy. Ten people were shot dead in the area in the three days after internment was introduced, in what the bereaved families refer to as the Ballymurphy Massacre. An 11th person died of a heart attack after a confrontation involving a soldier.

In some cases the letters seek information on the deaths of IRA men.

These include Daniel McAreavey. The 21-year-old was shot during a bomb attack on an Army observation post in the Lower Falls area of Belfast in October 1972. He was said to have been providing cover for an IRA bomb team when he was shot.

Earlier this week, it was warned that veterans are risking financial ruin in attempting to defend themselves against criminal allegations of abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The allegations include those from a Taliban bomb-maker who claims his arrest and detention for 106 days was illegal, despite troops' belief that he would make bombs designed to kill British soldiers if they released him.

Investigators are now examining claims of abuse in more than 2,200 cases in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

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