Belfast Telegraph

Tory MPs urge ministers to take action to protect Troubles veterans

Tory MPs have slammed ministers for failing to protect Northern Ireland veterans from prosecution amid fresh calls for an amnesty for the armed forces.

Conservative backbenchers said they had "never been so annoyed" with the Government and suggested recent proposals published by the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) were "resorting to craven appeasement of Sinn Fein".

Former minister Sir Henry Bellingham used the debate in Westminster Hall to call for a so-called statute of limitations for all veterans wherever they served, to stop prosecutions over historical incidents.

Defence minister Mark Lancaster said it was "a reasonable suggestion" and urged colleagues to put the idea forward into an ongoing consultation on proposals to deal with Troubles cases in the future.

Last week, Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley insisted there was "no support" in the region for a "Northern Ireland-only statute of limitations", as she launched a public consultation on other proposals to address unresolved issues from the past.

Tory former Army officer Bob Stewart (Beckenham) described the Government's stance that it has "no choice" but to follow the rule of law regarding prosecuting historic allegations against veteran soldiers as "total twaddle".

He said: "I'm afraid I'm coming to the view that the Government is resorting to craven appeasement of Sinn Fein.

"It is scapegoating a few old soldiers, is this a price worth paying? My God it's not.

"How can our Government mollify Sinn Fein using old men who ran huge risks for all of us as collateral? Have we lost our sense of decency?"

He called on the Cabinet and Prime Minister to "grip this and sort it out", and said: "I'm very angry by the betrayal of our service personnel - this matter is fixable."

Former defence minister Mark Francois added: "These proposals from the NIO are morally disgraceful.

"I have never been so annoyed with my own Government as I am now. We need a statute of limitations for Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan, and we need it soon."

Sir Henry suggested the statute of limitations could allow investigations to take place up to five or 10 years after the incident happened, after which veterans would not face prosecution.

A number of MPs raised the case of Dennis Hutchings, a former member of the Life Guards regiment who is now 77 and in ill health, who has been charged in relation to the fatal shooting of a man with learning difficulties in Co Armagh in 1974.

There were also claims that Major Robert Campbell, a British soldier who has been repeatedly investigated over an Iraqi teenager's death in 2003, had been "abysmally treated".

Sir Henry said: "I don't think any other country in the world would treat their veterans in this way."

Former defence secretary Sir Michael Fallon, who closed down the Iraq Historic Allegation Team last year, added that it was "morally wrong" to reopen cases and that a number of the potential suspects are now elderly and "fearful".

Defence select committee chairman Julian Lewis has backed a statute of limitations that would cover security force members and paramilitaries suspected of involvement in Troubles crimes, suggesting that by law such an arrangement could not just protect those working for the state.

He told the debate: "If the price for protecting soldiers against trials so long after the event is that we also have to protect everyone else, isn't that a price that we ought to be willing to pay?"

However, DUP defence spokesman Gavin Robinson said there were different legal opinions and that a statute of limitations was possible just for the security forces.

Mr Lancaster said no one, including the armed forces, should be above the law but that did not mean "we should accept lengthy investigations and reinvestigations many years after the event".

He urged MPs to read the select committee's report to show the difficulties of proceeding with a statute of limitations, adding that report and the debate "has demonstrated that there is support for an alternative approach to dealing with the legacy of the past".

The minister said: "There is an open question as to how we move forward and (Sir Henry's) suggestion is a perfectly reasonable suggestion to be put forward into that consultation.

"It would obviously be premature for me, as we've just launched the consultation, to commit to how that way forward will be, but that's why I would encourage everybody, particularly veterans and honourable members, to contribute to that consultation so that we can attempt to find a sensible way forward."

Belfast Telegraph Digital

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