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Northern Ireland Troubles Army veterans slam 'witch hunt' - living in fear of a knock on the door

Veterans group vows to oppose any deal that would see amnesty given to ex-terrorists

By Ivan Little

A group of former members of the security forces are vowing to shatter the silence of their past to counter what they claim is a "witch-hunt" against them.

They have pledged to oppose any political deal that would propose an amnesty for terrorists in Northern Ireland.

The retired soldiers, police officers and Prison Service personnel set up Northern Ireland Crown Forces Veterans for Justice (NICFVFJ) earlier this year.

It held a rally last month at Belfast City Hall to protest at how it feels veterans have been treated by the judicial system, in which it says it has little confidence.

The organisation has threatened to demonstrate at Stormont because it thinks unionist politicians have cold-shouldered veterans.

Members are angry over what they see as attempts to "legitimise terrorists while demonising the people who stood up to them".

Founder Mel Brown (51), who was in the UDR/Royal Irish for nearly 10 years, says her organisation has the backing of 760 veterans who have signed up to a restricted Facebook page, which is not accessible to members of the public who do not have security force links.

NICFVFJ says it no longer has any formal ties to Britain-based veterans' groups but is supporting individual ex-soldiers like 76-year-old Dennis Hutchings, who is awaiting trial here on charges related to the killing of John Pat Cunningham in 1974.

The group says hundreds of other ex-soldiers are "dreading the knock on the door" that would tell them they too are under investigation over killings that happened 40-plus years ago - including Bloody Sunday.

The local veterans agree with campaigners who have lobbied for the introduction of a new statute of limitation to ensure that no further former security force members are charged with historic offences.

The Government recently indicated that it is ready to start consultations on the statute.

But the Ulster veterans fear such a measure could be used to equate terrorists with security force members and exempt everyone from prosecution.

"Equivalence is something we couldn't stomach," says Wilfie Brown, who is 53 and was in the R Irish for 22 years.

"We don't want an amnesty for the terrorists."

He is convinced that former terrorists stand to be exonerated under a new deal that would sanitise what the IRA did and even offer its ex-members cash - a type of pension for paramilitaries.

Former Parachute Regiment soldier John Ross (64) from Belfast says that equivalence is high on the agenda of republicans.

He adds: "There is no equivalence between right and wrong; between good and evil; between the innocent and the guilty.

"There can't be equivalence between a terrorist organisation who murdered people in pursuit of their political agendas and legitimate forces in which soldiers and police served their country in the line of duty."

Last week four Tory and Labour MPs wrote a joint letter to Prime Minister Theresa May calling for an amnesty across the board.

They are former Army captain Johnny Mercer; Julian Lewis, the chairman of the Commons Defence select committee; former Defence Minister Kevan Jones and Dan Jarvis, a former paratrooper.

They say they acted because they were concerned about the arrests of ex-military personnel, but discovered that expert evidence indicated a statute of limitation that covered only security force members would be out of step with international law.

NICFVFJ - which has dismissed the MPs' demand - claims there is already an imbalance in the way the authorities have dealt with republicans through the use of on-the-run letters and royal pardons.

"Yet Sinn Fein, some of whom have these letters of comfort in their pockets, are the very ones who say there is no justice and demand equality," says Wilfie Brown

"We are at boiling point. We really have had enough, every decision that is coming now seems to be for the terrorists.

"They have been rebranded and many of the paramilitaries have reappeared within community groups accessing thousands of pounds in funding.

"And, of course, we have also seen them going into government, which has been unacceptable to many people."

He says that the estimated 141,000 former security force members in Northern Ireland have seen little in the way of financial windfalls for them or for their families.

Mel Brown says she suspects that part of the thinking on a statute of limitation for the security forces is to protect high-ranking figures at the top of the chain of command, not the foot soldiers.

She and her colleagues have had meetings with the UUP, but had to postpone talks with DUP leader Arlene Foster because of the recent Brexit crisis.

However, Wilfie Brown says politicians have let veterans down by failing to represent their views.

He has called for the formation of a single unionist party to "speak up for and defend what the majority of people here believe in".

He says the atrocities of the IRA must never be downplayed and he likens some of them to the barbarity of Isis.

He cites the brutal murders of Corporal David Howes and Derek Wood after an IRA funeral in March 1988, but also talks about massacres at Kingsmill, Darkley, Enniskillen and the Shankill bombing.

However, he insists that his organisation is also opposed to any softening of approach towards loyalist terror groups as well.

"A terrorist is a terrorist is terrorist," says Brown.

"There's no difference."

But it is clear that most of the organisation's fury is reserved for the IRA and for Sinn Fein and for claims that soldiers and police were involved in an orchestrated murder campaign during the Troubles.

Wilfie Brown says: "It's been rammed down people's throats that we went out and shot people dead just for the sake of it, which simply isn't true.

"People talk about a shoot-to-kill policy, but if there had been one, surely more terrorists would have died." He adds that none of his colleagues are saying mistakes were not made.

But was collusion with loyalists one of those mistakes?

"I can't speak to that," he replies.

"It certainly didn't happen in my time."

Mel Brown says she and many other veterans are still haunted by what they experienced during the Troubles and by the loss of friends and colleagues.

She adds: "Every time I see or hear anything about the past all the pain comes flooding back. You don't stop living your memories."

She says she sometimes comes face-to-face with people in the street and in shops who were once out to kill her and her colleagues.

"I have sought professional help but you can't always be sure who you are talking to," she says. She adds that the group wants to highlight the lack of support for ex-servicemen and women in Northern Ireland compared to what is available across the water.

Ross says that because there is no military covenant here he couldn't get the same help that his former colleagues based in Britain can receive.

Phil McLernon (47) who's originally from Bushmills and served with the Royal Irish and the Royal Engineers, claims that the media have been soft on republicans and believes that justice has been sacrificed by successive governments.

"I was involved in the intelligence follow-up after the Omagh bomb," he says.

"Will those families ever see justice? I very much doubt it."

Dave Crooks (66), who won a Queen's Gallantry Medal and a Queen's commendation for bravery award during 32 years as a police officer, says "revisionists" are working flat out to cast the security forces in as bad a light as they possibly can.

But he says most who joined the police or Army during the Troubles were motivated by a desire to help people and their province and don't deserve criticism.

He adds: "It's time to stop blaming the people who put their lives on the line to protect innocent Protestants and Catholics.

"For 30 years the IRA, the UVF and the UDA murdered and butchered in this country but revisionism has taken over to such a degree that politicians will do anything to keep the peace in place.

"So, what they're prepared to do is to put us on the same footing as the terrorists.

"And that has to be morally indefensible."

Crooks, whose cousin Detective Noel McCabe was shot dead by the Provisional IRA on the Falls Road in November 1976, adds: "Outside of the family, no one remembers Noel, but his murder killed his mother and father.

"And right across Northern Ireland there are thousands of families whose lives were torn apart.

"My wife's war hero grandfather was killed in one of the earliest bombings on the Shankill.

Fifteen years after he retired Crooks says he is still cautious as to how he goes about his everyday life.

He says: "I still keep my head down."

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