Belfast Telegraph

Prime Minister Johnson pledge to end Troubles soldier prosecutions 'an affront to victims,' says Eastwood

Colum Eastwood said he was 'sick of the myth' former soldiers being pursued for nothing

Members and guests sit in the chamber (PA)
Members and guests sit in the chamber (PA)
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood (Niall Carson/PA)
Mark Edwards

By Mark Edwards

Plans by Boris Johnson's government to prevent "vexatious" prosecutions of soldiers who served in Northern Ireland are an "affront to victims and survivors" of state violence, according to SDLP leader Colum Eastwood.

In the Queen's Speech on Thursday the government promised to bring forward proposals to tackle what it calls "vexatious" claims that "undermine our armed forces".

The government also said it would seek better ways in dealing with "legacy issues" that provide "better outcomes" for victims and survivors.

The DUP welcomed the commitments made by Government in the speech.

Mr Eastwood, who was recently elected as MP for Foyle, said the government was "obsessed" with granting amnesty to soldiers who committed crimes in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.

"Not only is it an affront to victims and survivors who lost loved ones at the hands of British Army personnel, any attempt to change the law will grant effective immunity to members of paramilitary organisations who murdered and maimed people in our communities," he said.

“There is nothing vexatious about seeking truth, justice and accountability for those who lost loved ones. The threshold for criminal prosecution is itself a check on the exercise of legal powers.

"Those brought before the courts do not face charges on a whim, it’s the result of gathered evidence and a determination by the independent PPS that a prosecution is in the public interest. I am sick of the myth that former soldiers are being pursued for nothing – these are serious crimes with a substantial body of evidence."

It was reported on Wednesday that the prime minister is to pledge to amend the Human Rights Act so it does not apply to cases such as Troubles killings, which happened before it came into force in 2000.

The idea of an amnesty had been raised over a number of years, with calls for its implementation rising after the decision to charge one soldier, known as Soldier F, for his part in the death of two people on Bloody Sunday in Londonderry in 1972.

DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson welcomed the government's commitments made in the Queen's Speech.

"The government has said in the past in the absence of any new evidence emerging that soldiers should not face prosecution and we are of the same view and will be supportive of legislation to provide greater legal protection for our armed forces, not only in relation to Northern Ireland but other theatres of conflict where armed forces and served," the Lagan Valley MP said.

"We also very much welcome the commitment by the government to incorporate the Armed Forces Covenant into law and we seek to ensure this extends fully to Northern Ireland in line with previous promises made by the government so that our armed forces and veterans living in Northern Ireland are provided with the same support as they would expect in other parts of the UK."

Mark Thompson, chief executive of Relatives for Justice, told the Belfast Telegraph that he has not seen any intent on the government's behalf to introduction legislation on the matter and that he is unaware of any "vexatious" prosecutions against former soldiers in Northern Ireland.

"I think it is wrong to impugn the integrity of investigators and the Public Prosecution Service and the courts. I don't think that anyone for a moment in their right mind will believe that they have acted in any way unfairly," Mr Thompson said.

"All of this is smoke and mirrors," he added. "There is no real intent in this, other than to play games and politics with it. They need to stop that. It is disingenuous to victims and to those people in the military that they are claiming to protect".

Queen Elizabeth II alongside the Prince of Wales, delivers the Queen's speech during the State Opening of Parliament by Queen Elizabeth II, in the House of Lords at the Palace of Westminster in London. Leon Neal/PA Wire
Queen Elizabeth II alongside the Prince of Wales, delivers the Queen's speech during the State Opening of Parliament by Queen Elizabeth II, in the House of Lords at the Palace of Westminster in London. Leon Neal/PA Wire

The government said it would make the "integrity and prosperity" of the UK a priority and vowed to work "urgently" to facilitate talks to restored devolved government in Northern Ireland."

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