Belfast Telegraph

Time limit for prosecutions of ex-soldiers proposed by Westminster committee

By Victoria Leonard

Soldiers who served here during the Troubles should be protected from future prosecution by a statute of limitations, a Westminster committee has recommended.

The Defence Committee said that unless a line was drawn “under all Troubles-related cases, without exception, they will continue to grind on for many years to come — up to half-a-century after the incidents concerned”.

The recommendation comes after several investigations were launched into unresolved deaths involving soldiers.

The committee described these as “deeply unsatisfactory”, saying that questions over their independence, stability, resources and manpower have led to “a vicious cycle of investigation and re-investigation that fails both former service personnel and the families of those who died”.

It claimed that “to subject former service personnel to legal pursuit under the current arrangements is wholly oppressive and a denial of natural justice”.

Their report said that the government “must not lose sight of its moral responsibility to those who have served our country” and stated that this was as important for Northern Ireland veterans as for those who served in more recent conflicts.

After exploring four options, the Defence Committee favoured a statute of limitations covering all Troubles-related incidents involving former members of the Armed Forces up to the signing of the Belfast Agreement.

This would be coupled with a truth recovery mechanism to help bereaved families.

The committee said it believed that this approach would “provide the best possible prospect of bereaved families finding out the facts, once no one needed to fear being prosecuted”.

Senior legal experts advised the committee that only applying the statute to the military would leave the UK open to the charge of legislating for “State impunity”.

However, the Defence Committee stopped short of recommending that the statute cover incidents on all sides during the Troubles. It said that this issue would be “for the next government to decide”.

The Defence Committee also encouraged the next government to extend the statute of limitations to include former RUC members and other former security personnel, although it acknowledged that this was beyond its remit.

East Belfast DUP MP Gavin Robinson, a member of the Defence Select Committee, welcomed the report and described it as “justifiable justice”.

“The last 20 years have been marred by the completely imbalanced treatment of those who terrorised our society, and those brave service personnel who ensured they would never succeed,” he said.

“Early release of prisoners, a maximum two-year sentence for fresh terrorist convictions, odious ‘On the Runs’ legislation and a secretive scheme to issue letters of immunity have all tarnished the balance of justice.

“Today’s report seeks to redress that iniquity.”

However, Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly described the report as “an insult to victims and survivors” and called for “no immunity”.

“Everyone should be equal before the law and no one should be above the law,” he said.

SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly called for the report to be rejected.

She said: “No one should be off-limits to the rule of law, be they a soldier, a policeman, a member of MI5 on the one hand, or, on the other hand, a member of the IRA, UDA, UVF, INLA or other terror gang.

“This legal principle is at the heart of the rule of law and is non-negotiable. That is why the report of the Defence Committee must be rejected. It cannot be allowed to prevail.

“The SDLP believes investigations or prosecutions should be without fear and favour.”

Ulster Unionist MP Tom Elliott called for steps to be taken to protect the security personnel who served during the Troubles, but added that “such protections should not open the door to a de facto amnesty for terrorists”.

He said: “We have always been clear that no one should be above the law. However, we must arrive at a system, as the Secretary of State has said, which is fair, balanced, impartial and proportionate in dealing with the past.”

Spokesman for Innocent Victims United (IVU) Kenny Donaldson called the report “ambiguous to say the least” and “open to multiple interpretations”.

He said: “IVU has a clear stance on terrorism and criminal violence — where there can be proven to be a premeditated intent to take human life (minus terrorists being killed whilst in the midst of an offensive action) all such crimes must be treated consistently.

“It is clear that there are many within the establishment who favour an out-and-out amnesty. This is not acceptable to the innocent victims and survivors of terrorism and other Troubles-related criminal violence.

“We ask for clarity from the Defence Committee and moreover the government.”

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