CONSERVATIVE
New Forest East

NORTHERN IRELAND – OPERATION BANNER VETERANS – 10 January 2017

Richard Benyon: I  was going to ask you to grant an urgent question today, Mr Speaker, on the investigations into and prosecutions of Operation Banner veterans, but I withdrew it because of the events of last night. Will the Secretary of State inform the House as to what measures will be taken as a result of this situation to stop this very one-sided judicial process?

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (James Brokenshire): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his point. I am absolutely clear as to the huge contribution that our armed forces and the Royal Ulster Constabulary made in seeing the gains within Northern Ireland over recent years. He makes a point about some of the ways in which the system operates at the moment. There is a need for greater proportionality and balance within the system, which is precisely what the Stormont House agreement and the Stormont House bodies will provide. Notwithstanding current events, I remain ​committed to taking that forward, leading to a public phase in relation to that work. I judge that to be the right next step.

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Dr Julian Lewis: My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) ably expressed the dismay at the grotesquely partisan and inequitable decision to instruct the Police ​Service of Northern Ireland to start pursuing retired British service personnel, while amnestied former terrorists freely walk the streets. Will the Government introduce legislation urgently to offer them at least the same protection as the amnestied terrorists undeservedly enjoy?

James Brokenshire: There are no amnesties. We have been clear on that in relation to the “on-the-runs” scheme, and Lady Justice Hallett’s report concluded in 2014 that these things never amounted to an immunity from prosecution. But my right hon. Friend makes a broader point about the need for a proportionate and balanced approach to legacy to ensure that all aspects are investigated properly, rather than by looking at one side rather than the other. That is precisely the approach that can be taken forward through the Stormont House agreement.

Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson: We will have a debate later in Westminster Hall on this very subject. May I say to the Secretary of State that if we are going to have more talks, let us deal with this issue once and for all? It is unacceptable that veterans of the armed forces who served the Crown are waiting on the knock at the door, while the terrorists walk free.

James Brokenshire: I know the interest that the right hon. Gentleman has taken in this issue of legacy over many, many years. I agree that it is totally unfair that the alleged misdeeds of soldiers and former police officers should be investigated, while perpetrators of terrorist atrocities are ignored and their victims forgotten. It is precisely that part that was reflected in the proportionate, balanced, fair and equitable stance taken in relation to the Stormont House agreement; this is why we have been continuing discussions on that very issue and why I am determined that we will move to a public phase so that we can take that forward.

Dr Andrew Murrison: Had the historical investigations unit not been structured as it was, the Stormont House agreement would have failed and, in all likelihood, so would have the Executive in 2014. Now that the Executive have apparently failed, does the Secretary of State share my sadness that the unit was set up as it was and had to investigate chronologically, meaning that servicemen were bound to be the subject of most of its investigations as terrorists sadly do not keep any records, and they certainly do not respond to letters from the Ministry of Defence inviting them to unburden themselves?

James Brokenshire: The historical investigations unit has not yet been established and the chronological approach that he highlights – that proportionate approach – is not in place. The need for reform and change was reflected in the Stormont House agreement, which is precisely why it is necessary to take this matter forward. Notwithstanding recent events, there is still the opportunity for us to move forward with the parties to ensure that we get the political stability required for these issues to be taken forward, precisely for the cross-community interests that reside around this issue.

Claire Perry: Like so many Members in the House, I have grave concerns about what seems to be a disproportionate and politically motivated investigation of those who believed that they were just doing their job during Operation Banner. I am sure my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is aware of those concerns, but he should know that, as an MP representing many serving members of the British Army, I know that this issue is having a measurable effect on current recruitment for our armed forces. Does he agree that this period of uncertainty provides us with an opportunity to set the record straight about what is and is not within the scope of the inquiry?

James Brokenshire: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point, and for the way in which she makes it. I certainly am struck by the strength of feeling, which is why I underline the points I have made about how we need to see a change in the system. The attention of the state is focused in such a way that there are cases in which people have been murdered as a consequence of terrorist activity but are not being pursued. There are mechanisms that provide for that, and I am intent on taking that forward. Notwithstanding the current issues, that remains a priority.

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James Heappey: I served twice in Northern Ireland during my time in the Army, so I know a little of the challenge faced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in meeting the expectations of all sides of the community. However, I must echo colleagues who have discouraged him from allowing investigations of British troops. No matter how well designed the investigatory process is, such investigations break the covenant with those who are serving and have served in our armed forces. I encourage my right hon. Friend to block the investigations straightway.

James Brokenshire: I am not able to intervene; my hon. Friend will understand the rule-of-law issues, the related prosecutorial issues and the other aspects that sit around all this. Nevertheless, I am concerned about the balance of effort and the need to ensure that there are proper investigations that follow the evidence rather than anything else. Reform is needed. The situation as it is at the moment is wrong and has to change, and that is what I am committed to achieving.