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Law protecting soldiers 'long overdue': Veterans Commissioner

Commissioner wants an end to prosecution of veterans who served in Northern Ireland during Troubles

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Unionist politicians support the UK Government’s proposal to introduce a Bill that will limit false and historical allegations against soldiers

Unionist politicians support the UK Government’s proposal to introduce a Bill that will limit false and historical allegations against soldiers

Unionist politicians support the UK Government’s proposal to introduce a Bill that will limit false and historical allegations against soldiers

Northern Ireland's Veterans Commissioner has said a new law to protect former soldiers who served in Northern Ireland is "long overdue".

Danny Kinahan was responding to news that legislation is due to be announced in the Queen's Speech next month.

It comes after Johnny Mercer quit as UK defence minister on Tuesday due to his frustration at a lack of progress over legislation to protect British veterans who served during the Troubles.

He had been leading the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill through the House of Commons.

The Bill seeks to limit false and historical allegations arising from overseas operations by introducing a statutory presumption against prosecution, making it exceptional for personnel to be prosecuted five years or more after an incident.

It was developed in response to legal claims made after operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but does not cover incidents in Northern Ireland.

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Opening the debate on the Bill yesterday, Mr Mercer's successor as defence minister, Leo Docherty, told MPs: "A Bill will soon come forward from the Northern Ireland Office that will protect our Northern Ireland veterans of Operation Banner and address the legacy of the Troubles."

Mr Kinahan said: "This is long overdue and it is the least that veterans deserve."

He also confirmed he would be seeking an early meeting with Mr Docherty on the issue.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson had earlier told MPs the Government would be "bringing forward further measures in due course" when challenged by the DUP to protect Northern Ireland veterans from "vexatious" prosecutions.

Downing Street later said details of the new legislation would be confirmed in the Queen's Speech on May 11.

However, DUP East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson said there were major questions for the Government on protections for Northern Ireland veterans.

Mr Robinson said: "The former Veterans Minister Johnny Mercer has indicated that not a single word had been committed to paper by yesterday evening relating to Northern Ireland veterans' legislation. If that is the case, how can the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State tell the House of Commons that the NIO legislation will be tabled shortly?

"If progress has been made in the last 24 hours then that is welcome but veterans who served in Northern Ireland deserve better than to be led up the garden path.

"Northern Ireland veterans are not second class soldiers and should be told the facts without spin or gloss."

Sinn Fein MP Francie Molloy said British soldiers cannot be placed above the law through immunity from prosecution for the killings of Irish citizens.

The Mid Ulster MP added that any attempt to put current or former British soldiers above the law is "unacceptable".

"It is also ludicrous to suggest that the British Crown Prosecution Service is pursuing vexatious prosecutions against its own former soldiers," Mr Molloy said.

"The British government needs to stop peddling that nonsense. Successive British governments have covered up the role of their armed forces in the conflict in the north and have frustrated families attempting to get to the truth about the killings of their loved ones.

"No British soldier, current or former, can be placed above the law or beyond the reach of accountability for their actions, regardless of whether it is in Iraq, Afghanistan or in Ireland."

Meanwhile Grainne Teggart, Amnesty's Northern Ireland campaigns manager, said the focus should be on the justice that victims of the Troubles deserve.

"No-one should be above the law," she said.

"Handing out a free pass to people who committed abuses in Northern Ireland would pull up the drawbridge for victims and their families and would be a betrayal of their fundamental right to justice.

"Rather than singing from the same hymn sheet as his predecessor, Mr Docherty should reflect on the tears and heartache of the many families in Northern Ireland long denied justice."

Following his departure, Mr Mercer yesterday blasted Boris Johnson's government as "the most distrustful, awful environment" where "almost nobody tells the truth".

He also said "nothing has been done" over the "gross betrayal of people who signed up to serve in the military".

The MP for Plymouth Moor View said he was "made to feel like I'm the last man in the room who's willing to fulfil our manifesto commitments", describing politics as a "cesspit".

"You know, I find this place has taught me a lot about the Government, a lot about my colleagues: let's say shooting straight is not one of their finest qualities," he told Times Radio.


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