Extra legal protections for NI veterans would ‘undermine rule of law’
Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley told MPs a statute of limitations would ‘erode hard won support’ for the justice system.
A bid to strengthen legal protections for veterans who served in Northern Ireland has been dubbed “dangerous” by a Cabinet minister.
Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley told Tory backbenchers, who are calling for the introduction of a statute of limitations, that the move would “undermine the rule of law”.
Her remarks came amid pressure from more than 30 Tory MPs, led by former defence secretary Sir Michael Fallon, to introduce a 20-year time limit for re-opening cases involving former members of the armed forces who served in Northern Ireland.
Sir Michael has tabled an amendment to the Northern Ireland Budget (No 2) Bill which aims to stop public money being used to fund historical prosecutions of former service personnel in Northern Ireland.
Speaking during the Bill’s committee stage, Sir Michael said: “Parliament now needs to draw a line.”
However Ms Bradley urged Sir Michael to withdraw his amendment, telling him the Bill was “not the right vehicle” for it.
She said: “The Government cannot accept this amendment because it does undermine the rule of law.
“The effect of the amendment would be to remove the ability of the public prosecution service in Northern Ireland to prosecute former soldiers for the next 12 months, even in circumstances were new evidence has come to light which the original investigation could not have considered and which the prosecution believed could lead to a conviction.”
She added: “As a Conservative who believes fundamentally in the rule of law and central to that is the independence of our prosecuting authorities.
“I believe that however well intentioned it does lead into some very dangerous territory, it would undermine and erode hard won support for the criminal justice system within Northern Ireland.
“It would be used by those who wish to rewrite the history of the Troubles, to reinforce their claims that the UK Government has something to hide and is primarily concerned with covering up the actions of our armed forces.”
Speaking earlier Sir Michael explained his amendment was necessary to stop the “hounding” of veterans.
He said: “Veterans who put their lives on the line for the rest of us can fear that knock on the door, can be hauled from their beds, arrested, flown to Belfast, put into a cell and indicted for an offence that may or may not have been committed 30 or 40 years before.
“That can’t be right.”
Earlier, during defence questions in the Commons, Tory former minister Sir Henry Bellingham asked Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson if he would bring forward legislative proposals for a statute of limitations.
Mr Williamson replied: “I understand concerns over whether serving and former personnel are receiving the legal protection and certainty that they deserve.
“I am therefore pleased to announce that I have established a dedicated team within the Ministry of Defence to consider this issue and to advise on the way forward.
“This work will be complementary to the work of the Defence Committee who are looking at the specific question of how to protect our service personnel and veterans against historic allegations as part of their inquiry into this important topic.”
Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Tony Lloyd echoed Ms Bradley, saying it was important the consultation on historic inquiries is allowed to progress.
But Tory defence committee chairman Julian Lewis said there was a consensus emerging that a statute of limitations “might be the correct way forward, especially if it could be applied in a wider context than just the Northern Ireland scenario”.
And Conservative former defence minister Sir Mike Penning told the Commons: “This House should stand up for our veterans and if we don’t vote for it this evening there’s something seriously wrong.”