Belfast Telegraph

Tory fury at reports Troubles soldiers won’t get immunity

Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt
Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt
Northern Ireland minister John Penrose
Conservative MP Iain Duncan Smith
Conservative MP Bob Stewart

By Alain Tolhurst and Josh Thomas

Angry Tory MPs have hit out at the Government after reports that plans to protect armed forces veterans from prosecution will not apply to Northern Ireland.

The Government was accused of making a "rancid backstairs deal" with Sinn Fein, as MPs lined up to urge better protection for ex-servicemen and women from "vexatious attacks" and being pursued through the courts.

Following an announcement by Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt that British veterans would have greater protection against prosecution for actions on the battlefield, there were calls to extend the protection to those who served in Northern Ireland.

Speaking in the House of Commons, Tory MP Mark Francois dubbed proposals to re-investigate every fatality during the Troubles from the late 1960s onwards as "IHAT mark two", after the controversial Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) investigation, which was shut down over fraudulent claims of criminality by soldiers.

Granted an Urgent Question in the Commons, he said: "After the appalling, tragic events in Londonderry, we all want to see the Northern Ireland Executive re-established but that cannot be at the price of som e rancid backstairs deal between the Northern Ireland Office and Sinn Fein IRA to sell Corporal Johnny Atkins down the river at the price of establishing the executive."

Mr Francois said Parliament should "not allow the scapegoating of our veterans to pander to terrorists".

In response, Northern Ireland minister John Penrose said: "We will have no rancid political deals under my watch."

He added that the idea of one was "not acceptable".

Former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith called for a change in the law to improve the situation.

Mr Duncan Smith added: "When natural justice collides with the law, we change the law."

He told MPs he had served in Northern Ireland, and what was then Rhodesia.

"They were both operations, and we were sent to Northern Ireland and I lost friends and, particularly, Robert Nairac, I'm sorry I wasn't able to be here for that. I don't know how I can honestly, with a clean heart, say that my Government represents the best interests of ex-servicemen and women who have served their country."

Mr Penrose responded, saying that the Government is talking about bringing forward a Bill in order to change the law to "put this right".

Tory MP Bob Stewart said: "I completed seven tours in Northern Ireland, all with the infantry or associated units. I lost many men, and I was involved in fatality shootings.

"I was investigated, along with others. The investigations were thorough, aggressive, and bloody awful to go through."

Mr Stewart said soldiers who had been to court and been proved innocent should not be asked to go through that again.

He added: "How the hell can our Government allow such people to be possibly investigated again?"

Mr Penrose said there needed to be a situation where "unless there is some brand new piece of evidence that changes the situation", people should not be pursued further through the courts.

Attacking the plans to set up a commission going back over every fatality in Northern Ireland since 1968/69, Mr Francois said that - due to so-called "letters of comfort" given to suspected IRA killers - armed service personnel would be investigated but "the alleged terrorists will not".

"So this entire process would be utterly one-sided because service personnel and members of the RUC would be liable for prosecution, those with letters of comfort are scot-free," he added.

Mr Penrose said the "letters of comfort" were not "an amnesty from prosecution" and in future would not be "a body armour against prosecution" for suspected terrorists.

Mr Penrose also denied that any commission to re-investigate British soldiers had been "demanded as a price in the talks" by Sinn Fein on bringing back the Stormont assembly.

Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Tony Lloyd said soldiers should be protected from "vexatious attacks", but said no-one should be immune if they "wilfully" broke the law.

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