Belfast Telegraph

Michael Fallon: Armed forces should not be used as a political football

By Michael Fallon

Our brave servicemen and women are not civilians. They have a duty towards the state and must obey its chain of command.

We order them to put themselves in harm's way, and to act as necessary to prevent terrorism and protect the innocent.

They should not, years later, be treated as footballs for today's politicians and campaigners.

As Defence Secretary I closed down the historical investigation into our troops in Iraq. I cut back a similar inquiry into our forces' work in Afghanistan. Now the spectre of investigation and prosecution hangs over earlier veterans, some of them in their late 70s, who served during the Troubles.

Worse still, these are soldiers who've already been investigated and told that they have no case to answer. Almost all these military cases have already been looked into before, often years ago.

These reinvestigations create a dangerous moral equivalence between our former servicemen, whose job it was to protect the public, and terrorists who were content to murder and maim indiscriminately.

IRA bombers have already received "On the Run" letters telling them they will not be prosecuted for previous crimes. Even in cases where terrorists are prosecuted, the maximum prison sentence is two years. But where legal proceedings against the military go ahead, veterans face the possibility of spending the rest of their lives behind bars. How can that be either just or reasonable?

Nobody is arguing that our soldiers should ever be above the law.

Under the Armed Forces Act they aren't and weren't.

If there is compelling new evidence, and if it is admissible at this length of time, that the rules of engagement have been broken, then it should be looked at.

But we should remember that those who now face a worrying wait were ordinary soldiers following the orders of their superiors in a situation where the enemy mingled amongst hundreds of civilians in plain clothing. All three of the Army's major campaigns in the last 50 years are now being placed at the mercy of human rights campaigns and crude politics.

Who would now enlist, do the very best to serve our country, and then fear a knock on the door 30 or 40 years later?

It's time for this government to draw a line. There is a wider public interest here: the consent of the UK Attorney General should be required for any more prosecutions involving British troops, and should be withheld if he concludes that the soldiers involved were doing what they believed to be their duty. Cases where there is no new evidence should be binned and the soldiers accused given a binding letter of exemption from any further action. MPs at Westminster well understand that the situation in Northern Ireland is complex and fragile, and that the past cannot be wished away.

But we also look to both communities in Northern Ireland to recognise that our service people and their families have rights too, and especially the right not to be treated as political pawns.

They expect us to stand up for them. In both Houses of Parliament there are enough of us to do that, and to ensure that this government lives up to its commitment to those who fought terrorism on our behalf.

Michael Fallon MP was Secretary of State for Defence from 2014 to 2017

Belfast Telegraph

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