MoD apology as deceased soldiers written to over Troubles probes
The Ministry of Defence have apologised after officials mistakenly sent letters to dead soldiers over Troubles-era incidents.
Families were left shocked after correspondence arrived addressed to relatives who had passed away.
The letters were erroneously sent as part of a Ministry of Defence (MoD) trawl seeking information on cases in Northern Ireland dating back decades.
Officials confirmed there have been at least 23 instances over the last 10 years where the intended recipient was deceased.
The MoD said the true figure is likely to be higher, as they will not always be notified, and not all incidents are recorded.
DUP MP Gavin Robinson, a member of the Westminster Defence Select Committee, said he will raise the issue with the MoD.
"In their desire to pursue historical cases the Ministry of Defence are causing pain and grief for families whose loved one has passed away," he said.
"I will be seeking clarity from the MoD about what procedures they have in place and what, if any, checks are carried out prior to such letters being sent."
It comes amid ongoing controversy around investigations into Troubles-era incidents in Northern Ireland. Six former soldiers are currently facing prosecution over killings, although not all of the charges are murder.
Some have criticised the pursuit of veterans, many of them in their 70s and 80s, accused of crimes in the line of duty at a time when Northern Ireland was gripped by terrorist violence.
However, others say no one should be above the law.
Last November the Belfast Telegraph reported that almost 1,400 letters had been sent to ex-troops by the MoD since 2013.
Campaign groups for former soldiers have criticised the trawl, describing it as a witch-hunt.
Now it has emerged that investigators have mistakenly written to soldiers who have passed away.
The MoD, responding to a Freedom of Information request by this newspaper, said: "Recorded information indicates that in a total of 23 instances over the last 10 years in relation to Northern Ireland legacy cases, a letter has been sent to a veteran who we have later been informed was deceased."
The response adds: "It is possible that the number of letters sent to veterans who are deceased may be higher than the number our records indicate, since we would not necessarily be informed if a letter was sent to someone who was no longer alive. "It is also possible that there may be cases in which the department was informed, but that this notification was not in a form which was converted to a record."
An MoD spokesperson said: "We apologise for any upset or distress this may have caused."
The MoD said the vast majority of letters are as a result of direction from coroners, police forces or other agencies, and officials often have to rely on contact details supplied from outside the department.
Ian Simpson, a spokesman for the Northern Ireland Veterans Association, criticised the pursuit of ex-soldiers. "This process seems to be an attempt to trawl through records from years ago looking for any scrap of evidence," he said.
"It is retraumatising people who are being hounded in the twilight years of their life."
Mr Simpson said it was especially troubling that deceased soldiers had been contacted.
He added: "Relatives who thought they had dealt with a bereavement and tried to get some closure suddenly have it all reopened and are retraumatised. It is just wrong."
It comes amid a wider debate around the pursuit of ex-troops who served in Northern Ireland.
The security forces were responsible for less than 10% of deaths during 30-plus years of violence in Northern Ireland.
Mr Robinson, the MP for East Belfast, said there was a notable lack of investigations into terrorist incidents.
He added: "Whilst veterans in their 70s and 80s are receiving such letters, terrorists who deliberately set out to cause murder and mayhem are free from any current threat of investigation or prosecution."
However, addressing the wider legacy debate, Sinn Fein MLA Linda Dillon said relatives of people killed in disputed circumstances at the hands of the State deserved answers.
"Many families have been denied truth and justice for decades through cover-up and stalling and delaying tactics by the British State. That is unacceptable," she said.
"No one should be above the law, all victims and survivors should have the same access to processes of truth and justice, there can be no immunity or impunity for British forces guilty of crime, collusion and murder in Ireland," she added.