Belfast Telegraph

Boris Johnson's promise to end Troubles soldier prosecutions a ‘cynical ploy’

UUP MLA Doug Beattie
UUP MLA Doug Beattie
Ralph Hewitt

By Ralph Hewitt

Boris Johnson's pledge to end the prosecutions of Troubles veterans has been described as "cynical" by a unionist MLA.

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The Prime Minister has promised that if re-elected after the General Election, his party will introduce measures to support military personnel, veterans and their families.

Under the proposals, the Conservatives would 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.

Mr Johnson's announcement has been slammed by unionists who claim it will also mean terrorists will never be brought before the courts, while John Teggart, whose father Danny was killed by the Parachute Regiment nearly half a century ago, said the plans were "totally wrong".

UUP MLA Doug Beattie said he believes the Prime Minister's pledge is a ploy to gain votes from the veterans community in December's General Election.

"The problem is that if you bring in legislation on a statute of limitations or presumption before prosecution, the reality is that it will set a precedent in case law and will apply as well to terrorists," stated the former soldier. "It is actually a de facto amnesty and I wish they would just be honest. What they're trying to do is draw a line in the sand of prosecutions in Northern Ireland and that includes terrorists getting away scot-free for the perverse nature of the things that they did."

Danny Teggart was shot dead by the Parachute Regiment in Ballymurphy in 1971, along with 10 others.

His son John said the Prime Minister and other politicians need to think of the families who are fighting for justice.

"The Prime Minister thinks he's doing this for the veterans but he's opening the doors for a total amnesty for all through the Troubles, which is totally wrong," he added.

"I'm glad that a lot of our local politicians are agreeing with what I'm saying in that it will be an amnesty for all."

DUP leader Arlene Foster stated that she could not support any blanket amnesty for Troubles crimes and that her party would not support any such proposition in Parliament.

"What we want to see is vexatious claims against veterans being dealt with, and we have supported that right throughout the process," Ms Foster said. "But we cannot have a situation where anybody who has committed a heinous crime is actually just swept aside in an effective amnesty and we will not support that in Parliament."

Ms Foster's party colleague Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, echoed his leader's comments, stating that the Government's proposals must be viewed in more detail.

Sinn Fein MLA Linda Dillon said that any proposals to give current or former soldiers immunity from prosecution is unacceptable.

"Once again we see proposals being brought forward by the British government to create a de facto amnesty from prosecution for British soldiers who committed offences in Ireland, including the murder of Irish citizens," she said.

"Any attempt to create a scenario where current or former British soldiers are given immunity from prosecution on top of the impunity they have enjoyed for decades is unacceptable."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood described Mr Johnson's proposals as an "affront" to victims and survivors of the Troubles.

Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster, Colonel Richard Kemp, a retired British soldier who served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, expressed scepticism surrounding the proposals and doesn't believe they will happen.

He added that during the Good Friday Agreement talks, British forces representatives stated that they did not want to be compared to terrorists.

"It's left us in a situation where we have hundreds of terrorists who have been effectively let off by being given Royal pardons, letters of comfort and being released early from jail," said Colonel Kemp. "At the same time British soldiers are being hounded and persecuted for offences that they have already been tried and acquitted."

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, speaking on BBC Radio 4, said: "This isn't an amnesty, because if people haven't been investigated and they haven't had an inquest, then of course, they won't be able to avail themselves of that. This is about repeated and vexatious claims."

Tanaiste Simon Coveney said the Irish government had not been told or consulted about the announcement, and would be opposed to it.

"We have an agreement between both governments and the parties in Northern Ireland on how to progress, to manage very sensitive legacy issues, and to move a process of reconciliation forward," he said.

"That was the Stormont House Agreement and within that agreement there's no amnesty for any one sector within Northern Ireland, or people who are involved in breaches of the law during the Troubles."

Key questions on a controversial issue that won’t go away

Q. What is it that the Tories are suggesting?

A. Veterans minister Johnny Mercer said under the proposals, the Human Rights Act "will be amended to specify it doesn't apply to issues - including Northern Ireland - that took place before the Act came into force in October 2000". Making the announcement, Boris Johnson told veterans: "We will always support you."

Q. Why do ministers believe the change is required?

A. The Ministry of Defence has set up an Office for Veterans Affairs to look at what has been dubbed "lawfare" - legal action against veterans based on allegedly flimsy evidence.

Backers of change point to the welter of claims made against British soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

More recently, the ongoing prosecution of 'Soldier F' over Bloody Sunday has prompted protests by supporters who brought central London to a standstill with a motorcycle rally in April.

Q. Is everyone happy with the proposal?

A. Giving veterans immunity from prosecution over historic events would be unpopular with many in Northern Ireland.

For the families of victims of Bloody Sunday, when British soldiers opened fire on civilians during a protest march in Londonderry in 1972, prosecutions offer the prospect of justice for their loss.

Amending the Human Rights Act to exclude military personnel could also, as the Times newspaper points out, put the UK "on a collision course" with the European Court of Human Rights.

And defining "vexatious" or "pernicious" prosecutions is unlikely to prove straightforward.

But supporters of a change point to the scandal over claims of abuse of Iraqi civilians by British troops.

That scandal eventually led to one of the lawyers who brought many of the claims being struck off.

Q. Is there universal support in the Tory Party for curbing prosecutions of veterans?

A. A leaked memo from March revealed that then PM Theresa May had ruled out the idea of a statute of limitations on historic prosecutions of military personnel who served during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Meanwhile, former Secretary of State Karen Bradley said in March: "It doesn't matter who the perpetrator is. If a crime has been committed, they should face justice."

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