Belfast Telegraph

Ministers must 'get a grip' over treatment of Northern Ireland veterans, says ex-Army officer

Conservative MP Bob Stewart
Conservative MP Bob Stewart

A former army officer held up instructions issued to British soldiers during the Troubles as he urged ministers to "get a grip" and stop the "witch-hunt".

Conservative MP Bob Stewart, who completed seven tours of Northern Ireland, said he was ashamed successive governments have been "complicit" in the pursuit of veterans.

He also insisted those who served in Northern Ireland must be included in legal protections to prevent repeated investigations into historical allegations.

Mr Stewart, MP for Beckenham, referred to the Yellow Card rules of engagement and the difficulties in deciding when to open fire during an impassioned plea for changes.

Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt is expected to face MPs in the Commons on Tuesday to outline her proposals.

She last week announced plans for legislation to provide stronger protection from repeated investigations into historical allegations for veterans of overseas conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Under the proposals, there would be a "presumption against prosecution" in relation to alleged incidents dating back more than 10 years unless there were "exceptional circumstances".

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Lt. Colonel Bob Stewart on parade with the Cheshires at the Fallingbostel.

As it stands, the legislation will not apply to those who served in Northern Ireland, although in an apparent break with Government policy, Ms Mordaunt said she intended to find a way they could be afforded the similar protection.

A number of Northern Ireland veterans are currently facing charges, including Soldier F, who has been charged in relation to the killings of two protesters during Bloody Sunday in Londonderry in 1972.

Mr Stewart, speaking as MPs considered a petition asking for immunity for soldiers who worked in Northern Ireland, said: "We were sent to Northern Ireland by you, us, our predecessors.

"We were sent to Northern Ireland to save lives, to look after people and, frankly, we were given this card, this Yellow Card, which was approved by Parliament.

"This Yellow Card told us what we could and what we could not do under fire. We trained very hard on it. We memorised it. We rehearsed it."

Mr Stewart said decisions to open fire were "incredibly difficult" amid fears innocent people could be hurt in the crossfire.

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Tory MP Bob Stewart (Parliament TV)

He added such decisions had to be taken in "milliseconds" and outlined the Yellow Card instructions about the situations in which they could open fire.

After he highlighted concerns over the treatment of British veterans compared to republicans, Mr Stewart said: "It's unsurprising that there is huge anger among the veteran community.

"Quite rightly they ask: 'What are you Members of Parliament doing to help us? You sent us there. You gave us this bloody card, you said if we used it and acted in accordance with it we'd be protected.'

"Now our soldiers need protection. They need our protection.

"How can soldiers and policemen and members of the Ulster Defence Regiment, how can they be considered in the same light as a terrorist?

"These guys went out to kill - we went out to save lives. There's a huge difference in intention and we've actually got to sort this matter out.

"Terrorists didn't give a damn who they killed."

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A rally in support of British soldiers facing prosecution for Troubles-related killings has been held at Belfast City Hall. Picture Matt Mackey / Press Eye.

Mr Stewart said he has "held people dying", including an 18-year-old Catholic girl, before adding: "We need a statute of limitations for Northern Ireland veterans."

He added: "I'm ashamed, actually, that our governments - I include Labour, the coalition and our present government - are complicit in a witch-hunt against them."

Mr Stewart noted many of the veterans are in their 70s, adding: "In the Army when we really wanted to sort something out people would be told 'get a grip'.

"I think it's time our Government and our ministers got a grip."

Earlier in the Commons, Tory MP James Heappey (Wells), a former army officer, urged the Government to call a halt to investigations into military veterans.

He said: "It is vitally important to those who are considering a career in our armed forces that they don't see old men in their communities being dragged into investigations for things that happened decades ago."

Mr Heappey asked defence minister Mark Lancaster if he agreed the investigations should end.

He replied: "(Mr Heappey) raises a very important point. He would have seen the Secretary of State's comments on this over recent days and I'm happy to say that a written ministerial statement will be tabled tomorrow."

Tory former armed forces minister Mark Francois said: "The most important issue with regard to veterans is protecting them from lawfare and legal witch-hunts."

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