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Defence Secretary quizzed over immunity for British troops as Troubles row continues

Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has been blasted over a lack of protection for British troops from criminal prosecution in the wake of new plans to examine cases from Northern Ireland's Troubles.

Former British Army officer Johnny Mercer said that the Ministry of Defence had failed to act over battlefield immunity more than a year after the controversial £60 million Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) was closed down.

Earlier this month Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley sparked a political row by unveiling a consultation on the toxic legacy of the Troubles that did not include an amnesty for members of the security forces.

Mr Mercer, who served in Afghanistan during 12 years in the army, questioned Mr Williamson when he appeared in front of the Defence Committee on Tuesday.

The Plymouth Moor View MP praised Mr Williamson's predecessor Sir Michael Fallon for showing "political courage" in shutting down IHAT, which was found to have subjected troops to "deeply disturbing" treatment and had "directly harmed" UK defences.

Mr Mercer asked the Defence Secretary: "The idea that servicemen and women can go around committing crimes is ludicrous and no-one is asking for that.

"But if we don't have a formalised structure of getting this process done, like a statute of limitations, it will never end.

"The profoundly disappointing thing from your department... is that they didn't look at IHAT and think 'right that is a series of bad decisions that have left us in a very bad place' and done something about it.

"I have seen nothing over the last 12 months from your department that says in any way we have changed our view or we take seriously what we put our people through. Why is there no urgency in Government to get this sorted out?"

Last week, Mrs 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.

It prompted anger from MPs, with another Tory ex-army officer Bob Stewart accusing the Government of trying to "mollify Sinn Fein using old men who ran huge risks for all of us as collateral".

Mr Williamson, who replaced Sir Michael in November, said he wanted to look at issues involving service personnel who served in conflicts from the 1950s Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya through the Northern Ireland troubles.

He added: "There is a slightly bigger issue that I think we do need to start looking at in order to make sure that the issues of combat immunity are properly addressed."

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