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Threat of legal action could prevent army doing its job, claims general

By Michael McHugh

Prosecuting ex-soldiers over historical deaths in Northern Ireland is unfair and could inhibit servicemen's behaviour in future operations, the former British Army commander in the region said.

Retired general Sir Nick Parker said he was uncomfortable with the "unacceptable and vindictive" risk of trials over events which happened many years ago.

He led the Army in Northern Ireland in 2006 as it wound down its decades-long Operation Banner against republican and loyalist paramilitaries.

Sir Nick said: "It is in my view unacceptable that you send someone to do their country's duty with this hanging in the background."

He continued that if people behaved illegally the Army's chain of command should be robust enough to deal with that.

"This sense that someone is going to turn the clock back to look at what you did in a forensic environment, when you were doing what you believed was right and reasonable at the time, is, I believe, unfair."

Operation Banner in Northern Ireland was the Army's longest continuous campaign and lasted from 1969 to 2007.

More than 300,000 soldiers served in support of police facing the deadly threat posed by IRA and loyalist violence.

Prosecutions over fatalities caused during the 30-year conflict, which largely ended in the 1990s, have been decried by ex-servicemen and some MPs as an official witch-hunt against veterans.

However, some families of the dead have campaigned for justice for their loved ones' killings as a form of closure and redress or in a bid to have their strongly-held beliefs about what happened confirmed.

Witnesses before the Defence Committee of MPs at Westminster said there was already a robust system of military investigation of wrongdoing involving the court martial. Sir Nick gave evidence to the committee and was asked whether the threat of prosecutions constrained troops operationally. He said: "If it lingers on and if what appears to be happening continues to happen then it surely must."

Sir Nick last served overseas in Afghanistan in 2010 and said the troops faced very trying circumstances. "You have enough challenges... without the additional uncertainty," he added.

In February 2017, PSNI figures showed that investigations into killings by the Army accounted for about 30% of its legacy workload. The Government has consulted on new mechanisms for investigating past killings.

Solicitor Hilary Meredith suggested making the Ministry of Defence, instead of individual soldiers, corporately responsible for wrongdoing.

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