Belfast Telegraph

Troubles troops faced the choice of 'murder or be murdered', says peer

Troops on Belfast's Shankhill Road during the Troubles
Troops on Belfast's Shankhill Road during the Troubles

By Nick Lester, Press Association Political Staff

Soldiers manning checkpoints in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles faced the choice of "murder or be murdered", a former minister for the province has said.

Tory peer Lord Howell of Guildford argued the bloody conflict had been "a war" and this needed to be understood in handling historical accusations made against veterans.

He made his comments after it emerged that plans to strengthen legal protections for military personnel who served on overseas operations such as Iraq and Afghanistan would not apply to Northern Ireland.

The Government was also warned at Westminster that proposals to reinvestigate every fatality during the Troubles from the late 1960s onwards would lead to the "hounding" of members of the security forces.

Lord Howell, who served as a minister for Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, said: "The Provisional IRA did declare war... and they declared anyone in uniform was a fair target."

He added: "It was a war. Young soldiers, often inexperienced soldiers, were put on checkpoints where they were literally confronted with the choice - murder or be murdered.

"The drama of this has got to be understood in dealing with this problem of veterans and repeated accusations."

Responding, Tory frontbencher Viscount Younger of Leckie said the Troubles were "defined more as a conflict".

He said: "Our soldiers were put into the front line to deal with some extremely difficult issues and they had to make, as soldiers, some split second decisions on what to do in some very demanding situations."

But pointing out that the victims of the violence should also not be forgotten, he said: "This is the whole point of what we are trying to do.

"We want to draw a line under the conflict and move on."

Former Ulster Unionist leader Lord Empey criticised the plans to set up a commission to go back over every fatality in Northern Ireland since 1968/69, arguing it would "have the effect of hounding members of the security forces for the next 10 years".

He said: "The minister talks about drawing a line under the process. It in fact will only start a whole industry because security services have records, the terrorists do not.

"Nobody is above the law, I totally accept that, but will the minister accept that the proposals... will be the starting point for a new campaign of hounding members of the security forces."

Lord Younger said: "What we are talking about, in the interests of justice, is that we need to find out what evidence there is and that if any new evidence emerges relating to the possibility that a serious crime was committed at some point in the past, this should be properly investigated."

"The armed forces do not wish themselves to be seen as somehow above the law," he added.

Former DUP MP Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown said he came from a family "whose loved ones were brutally blown up and gunned down by the Provisional IRA" and that "no-one has been brought to justice to this day and probably never will".

He said: "We do owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the young men and women who served in the armed forces on the streets of Northern Ireland under very difficult circumstances and showed tremendous professionalism and bravery.

"Can the minister assure me that the British soldiers who served in Northern Ireland will not be left pawns in any political game?"

Lord Younger said: "Absolutely not. I think it's extremely important that we continue to support our armed forces as much as we do. They are the ones on the front line protecting us."

PA

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