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Investigations into UK soldiers in N Ireland are immoral, Tory MP says

A Tory former defence minister has said historic investigations into British soldiers in Northern Ireland are "absolutely immoral", as he backed a time limit for bringing prosecutions.

Sir Gerald Howarth said it was unacceptable that veterans who fought in the "filthy war" in Northern Ireland faced being dragged from their beds in dawn raids for questioning.

Sir Gerald and fellow Tory MP James Gray also condemned Phil Shiner, the controversial human rights lawyer who brought thousands of complaints against British soldiers for their actions in Iraq.

Mr Shiner was struck off on Thursday after being found to have acted dishonestly in bringing murder and torture claims against veterans.

Speaking in a backbench debate about the armed forces covenant, Sir Gerald said he was "very pleased" to hear Mr Shiner had been struck off.

Sir Gerald added: "Frankly I don't think that's enough, but then I always was a supporter of capital punishment."

DUP defence spokesman Sir Jeffrey Donaldson had earlier urged ministers to consider "a statute of limitation" for British veterans in Northern Ireland.

Sir Gerald said: "I think it is absolutely immoral that those men who fought in that filthy war, wearing the Queen's uniform, facing an enemy wearing civilian clothes, lurking in the shadows amongst a civilian population, having done their best for their country are now being dragged from their beds at six o'clock in the morning in dawn raids and being dragged off to Northern Ireland.

"I think it's unacceptable and I'm afraid to say to my friend on the front bench this is not a matter simply for the police services of Northern Ireland, or for the prosecuting authorities.

"It is, as I've told the Prime Minister, a matter for ministers.

"This is a matter of public policy and it must be addressed, and I strongly endorse the case made by him for a statutory limitation."

Sir Jeffrey said that men and women who served in Northern Ireland "are now waiting for the knock on the door".

He added there was too much focus on investigating the actions of the armed forces and police in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, instead of on the actions of terrorists.

Sir Jeffrey said: "I close by encouraging the minister and his colleagues, and their colleagues in other departments that are involved in this issue, to give serious consideration to the introduction of a statute of limitations, that would protect the men and women who have served our country, and who deserve that protection.

"I recognise that no one is above the law, but when cases have been investigated in some cases not just once, but twice previously, and when the men and women who served our country have been exonerated, only to find years later that those cases are being reopened, then I think there is something wrong."

Sir Jeffrey warned such investigations were having a big impact on recruitment to the armed forces.

He added: "Young men and women are looking at what's happening and asking themselves, why would I join the armed forces, if I face the prospect in the future that I might be prosecuted?

"I really do think the Government needs to act on this. They need to protect the men and women who protected us in our darkest hour."

Mr Gray, former shadow Scottish secretary, said the Iraq Historical Allegations Team (Ihat) was "absolutely outrageously criticising 4,500 of our soldiers".

Most of the cases being investigated by Ihat were brought by Mr Shiner's now-defunct Public Interest Lawyers.

Mr Gray said: "It looks as if there's going to be as few as 60, probably fewer than that, prosecuted. This is an absolute disgrace."

Sir Gerald added: "I felt at the time that man Phil Shiner was a disgrace.

"He was a dreadful man engaged in a cowardly and unacceptable activity of trying to find people who would stand up and accuse his fellow countrymen, who have gone to relieve the people of Iraq from their suffering, and he went to try and do down those people.

"I'm very pleased to hear today he's been struck off."

Tory Army veteran Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) attacked what he described as the "politically motivated witch hunt" in Northern Ireland.

He said: "We need in this place to bring in legislation quickly which provides a statute of limitations on all sides.

"This would help draw a line under the terrible events of the Troubles and bring the communities together and there would be no further retrospective prosecutions of our service people."

On the issue of protecting veterans, Mr Lopresti said the Government is "letting them down so badly".

Fellow Army veteran and Conservative Tom Tugendhat (Tonbridge and Malling) echoed a similar sentiment as he welcomed the decision relating to Mr Shiner.

He said: "I'm afraid our government is not doing enough.

"We need to do more to protect those who have done the most for us because what the covenant should be about is to ensure that those who have served, who have risked all, who have given all, can come back safe in the knowledge that they are safe and that they are not going to be pursued by charlatans and liars like Philip Shiner who has been struck off today by the Solicitors Regulatory Authority for his deceit, dishonesty and absolute treason to this country in the way he has pursued fine, fine people."

Julian Lewis, the chairman of the Defence Select Committee, backed calls for the introduction of a statute of limitations as he also criticised Mr Shiner.

He said: "If people like that had been around in the aftermath of the Second World War and if our troops in the Second World War had known that they would have to face the duplicity and the manoeuvrings and the outrages perpetrated on subsequent generations of soldiers by people like that then I do not think they could possibly have fought with the valour that they did in defeat of Nazism and fascism.

"The country will be failed by its government if we do not find a method of preventing what is a much more lethal version of that practice that used to be known in terms of industrial relations as the work-to-rule being applied to every time a soldier has to pull a trigger in a deadly conflict."

Defence minister Mark Lancaster said: "Whilst this Government firmly believes in upholding the rule of law, we are concerned that investigations into Northern Ireland's past focus almost entirely on former police officers and soldiers.

"This is wrong and does not reflect the fact that the overwhelming majority of those who served did so with great bravery and distinction.

"This is why the Defence and Northern Ireland Secretaries are working together to ensure that veterans are not unfairly treated, or disproportionately investigated compared to others."

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