The current situation for investigating soldiers and police in Northern Ireland is “patently unfair”, Theresa May has said, as senior Tories hit out at proposals which could see British soldiers prosecuted for offences during the conflict.
Thousands were killed or injured during 30 years of violence, most by paramilitaries but a significant number at the hands of security forces members.
MPs had urged a statute of limitations which would prevent anyone from facing trial for offences that happened during the conflict, including former servicemen and paramilitaries.
But the Government has insisted there will be a consultation on the proposals — to the dismay of some Tory backbenchers.
Terrorists should be investigated and that is what the Government wants to seeTheresa May
The Prime Minister said the peace in Northern Ireland today is “very much due to the work of our Armed Forces and law enforcement in Northern Ireland” after she was asked about the issue during PMQs.
But she added: “We have an unfair situation at the moment – the situation we have at the moment is that the only people being investigated for these issues that happened in the past are those in our Armed Forces or those who served in law enforcement in Northern Ireland – that is patently unfair.
“Terrorists are not being investigated, terrorists should be investigated and that is what the Government wants to see.”
Her comments came after Tory Julian Lewis (New Forest East) asked: “Does (Mrs May) recall that the previous secretary of state for Northern Ireland suggested that the possibility of dealing with legacy cases by a statute of limitations, coupled with a truth recovery process, would be included as an option in the forthcoming consultation exercise?
“Does she accept that that is a legitimate option for consideration and will she ensure that therefore it is not excluded from that consultation exercise?”
Earlier, during Northern Ireland questions, Sir Mike Penning, a former Northern Ireland and defence minister, told ministers if they wanted to honour the memory of service personnel killed in the conflict then the “consultation flatly should say we’re not having a conversation, we will protect the soldiers and put them first and the terrorists second”.
Former defence minister Mark Francois added: “I’d like to ask a question about the human rights of our brave servicemen who served in Northern Ireland for so many years without whom there would be no peace in Northern Ireland.
“Can I make a submission to the consultation early on, can I tell the Secretary of State in all candour that there are many on these benches who will not be prepared to traipse blithely through the lobbies in order to support the setting up of any institution which would scapegoat our military veterans to pander to Sinn Fein.”
The status quo that we see at the moment sees a disproportionate emphasis on the actions of the military and law enforcement during the TroublesNorthern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley
Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley said: “He is absolutely right and I agree with him, there is no way as Secretary of State that I am prepared to do anything that makes the situation for our veterans, for who he says we have so much to thank them for the peace that we see today in Northern Ireland they served with incredible dignity and duty and I want to respect that.
“That is why I want to make sure that we deal with this situation. The status quo is not good enough, the only people today who are getting knocks on the door from the police telling them that they face inquests are the military, we need to change that and that’s why we need to issue a consultation.”
Over the last year, the concept of an amnesty has gained traction among a number of Westminster backbenchers, who claim recent prosecutions of former British soldiers are tantamount to a “witch-hunt”.
Prosecutors and police in Northern Ireland insist such allegations simply do not stand up to scrutiny, with a breakdown of figures showing no disproportionate focus on ex-security force members.
Mechanisms to deal with the conflict legacy were agreed by Northern Ireland politicians in the 2014 Stormont House Agreement; an amnesty was not among them.
The agreed proposals, including a new independent investigatory unit, a truth recovery body and an oral archive, are on ice due to a small number of outstanding disputes.
Former Northern Ireland minister Dr Andrew Murrison said there was a “very real danger that the Stormont House Agreement institutions may act against the interests of servicemen, former members of the security services and give an unfair advantage to former paramilitaries”.
He asked: “Does she share my concern about the possibility without checks and balances those institutions may create a form of historical revisionism that casts members of the security services in an unfairly poor light?”
Ms Bradley replied: “The status quo that we see at the moment sees a disproportionate emphasis on the actions of the military and law enforcement during the Troubles and really very little emphasis on the actions of paramilitary terrorists who were responsible for 90% of the killings during the Troubles.
“That is why I do want to see a consultation on the institutions so we get exactly right those points that he has raised.”
Mrs May’s official spokesman later told a Westminster media briefing: “There is a long-standing position of the Government going back over a number of years. We are bringing a consultation forward. That work is ongoing. Wait for the consultation to be published.
We are committed to establishing a method for dealing with this in a balanced and proportionate way and that will be set out in due coursePM's spokesman
“Around 3,500 people were killed in the Troubles – 90% were murdered by terrorists. Many of those cases required further investigation, including the deaths of hundreds of members of the security forces.
“We are committed to establishing a method for dealing with this in a balanced and proportionate way and that will be set out in due course. Until that happens, there is nothing further I can add.
“What the Prime Minister is clear about is that the current system is unfair, it’s not working and we need to move to an arrangement which is proportionate.”
A senior Labour spokesman said: “We want to see the full implementation of the Stormont House agreement of 2014, including the historical legacy unit. We want to see those decisions implemented.
“Of course we fully support the armed forces, and any proposals on a statute of limitations would need to be looked at and would need to have the support of both communities.”