Dr Julian Lewis: I believe some form of consensus is emerging that a statute of limitations might be the correct way forward, especially if it could be applied in a wider context than just the Northern Ireland scenario. I know that the Conservative manifesto at the last election talked about protecting troops from malicious charges such as had been posed most irresponsibly and on an industrial scale in relation to Iraq by invoking the law of armed conflict for future conflicts and ensuring that the criteria of the civil law could not be applied to them. That is where a problem might creep in in connection with Northern Ireland, because there is no way in which the law of armed conflict could be said to apply to that situation, which was internal to the United Kingdom.
We heard from the Secretary of State that, earlier today, the Defence Secretary made the very welcome announcement that a dedicated unit is being set up inside the Ministry of Defence to try to grip this problem, and I think that it will try to grip it at every level – not just for Northern Ireland, but for these wider conflicts. However, for this evening, I will obviously concentrate on the Northern Ireland situation. I wish to start by making brief reference to the report previously produced by the Defence Committee, which was referred to by the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) in his very strong contribution to this debate a little while ago.
Our report entitled “Investigations into fatalities in Northern Ireland involving British military personnel”, HC 1064, was published on 26 April 2017. The Government response, HC 549, was published on 13 November 2017, and there was a Westminster Hall debate on these reports on 25 January 2018, all of which bear future study. The Defence Committee has put in our entire report as evidence under a covering letter to the consultation process that is going on.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Karen Bradley) indicated assent.
Dr Lewis: I see the Secretary of State acknowledging that fact. She will know that the Defence Committee was particularly disappointed about something that I mentioned earlier in an intervention. In the Government’s response – the one that was published in November 2017 – they reprinted two of our recommendations and it gave the following answer to them. The recommendations were as follows:
“It is clear from the experience of these legacy investigations that, unless a decision is taken to draw a line under all Troubles-related cases, without exception, they will continue to grind on for many years to come – up to half-a-century after the incidents concerned… Accordingly, we recommend the adoption of Option One – the enactment of a statute of limitations, covering all Troubles-related incidents, up to the signing of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, which involved former members of the Armed Forces. This should be coupled with the continuation and development of a truth recovery mechanism which would provide the best possible prospect of bereaved families finding out the facts, once no-one needed to fear being prosecuted.”
This is what might be termed the Nelson Mandela solution, which of course proved to be such a success in South Africa.
Lady Hermon: At the very beginning of the right hon. Gentleman’s contribution, he summarised what he felt was the attitude in the House, which was that there was a consensus on a statute of limitations in Northern Ireland. May I just say that I am not in that consensus? I do not support a statute of limitations in Northern Ireland for the armed forces alone. I would like the right hon. Gentleman to address the really critical question. There is a fundamental principle of the British legal system that no one is above the law. How would he reconcile the amendment to which he is speaking with that fundamental principle?
Dr Lewis: I acknowledge the hon. Lady’s making her own position clear. I trust that, in the remarks that I am about to make, I will address precisely that point. It relates in particular to the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998. If I fail to mention that later, I hope that the hon. Lady will leap up and remind me to do so. I just wish to continue with my theme for the moment, which is the Government’s initial response to the passages – the recommendations – that I just read out.
The Government said:
“While the Government believes that the most effective option to address Northern Ireland’s past is to implement the proposals set out in the Stormont House Agreement, the Government acknowledges that others have different views on the best way forward, including approaches such as that proposed by the Committee which do not involve recourse to the criminal justice system. As such, the Government intends to include within its forthcoming consultation on the draft Northern Ireland (Stormont House Agreement) Bill a section entitled ‘Alternative approaches to addressing the past’. This section of the consultation will discuss alternative ways forward and include a description of the Committee’s recommendation. The consultation will invite respondents to give their views on ‘the potential effectiveness and appropriateness of alternative approaches such as amnesties and a statute of limitations to address the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past’. Following the consultation’s conclusion, the Government will consider all views carefully to inform next steps.”
Now, all I can say is that the Committee was greatly encouraged by that positive response, and we were then considerably discouraged by the fact – which may or may not be connected with the change in Secretary of State – that we subsequently found that the consultation was not going to include the section as described officially in the response to our report. That seemed to be a step backwards.
I have heard it said time and again – this evening and in previous debates on the subject – the rather obvious truth that there is no moral equivalence between terrorists or people accused of terrorist offences, and people accused of having committed offences when they were members of the armed forces or security forces trying to protect the people of Northern Ireland. As I said, that is an obvious truth; there is no moral equivalence. However, it can be argued – and I feel that it must be argued – that there is a legal equivalence, because everybody who is accused of a crime is, in a sense, equal before the law. But something strange and particular happened in the context of Northern Ireland, and that was – this is where I come to the intervention of the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) – the passage of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998. If I understand the Act correctly, and I think I do, it means that nobody can serve more than a two-year sentence, no matter how heinous the crimes that they committed, in the context of the troubles in Northern Ireland, which presumably means that, in practice, no one will spend more than half that length of time – 12 months – in jail. Whether it be a question of pursuing terrorists decades after the event or of trying to pursue security personnel or members of the armed forces decades after the event, at the end of that whole process, even if anybody is found guilty of a crime that would normally attract a life sentence, they will end up spending no more than 12 months in jail.
Sir Hugo Swire: I am listening to my right hon. Friend’s argument very carefully. It is not just a question of how much time some of these accused former servicemen may spend in jail – it is about the question mark hanging over them in later life, and their fear that when they go back to court in Northern Ireland they will not be protected. They get all kinds of memories coming back, and feel very afraid. So in a sense, their sentence is already a life sentence while the current legislation continues.
Dr Lewis: I entirely agree with every syllable of what my right hon. and gallant Friend says. We are now in a perverse situation where people are being pursued decades after the event without any scintilla of a suggestion that new evidence has been found. They are put through this disproportionate and agonising process, and at the end of it, in the unlikely event that they were found guilty, any sentence that they served would in no way be proportionate to the crime. The whole process has been undermined, because while one might make a moral, political or legal case to pursue someone to the ends of time for a capital crime – a crime of murder – if one knows right at the beginning that at the end of that huge process they are going to serve only a derisory sentence, that has to call into question the legitimacy of the proceedings.
Mrs Sheryll Murray: Does my right hon. Friend have sympathy with my constituent, Dennis Hutchings, who is facing that situation as we speak despite the fact that witnesses are no longer around and that Dennis is terminally ill? He is the perfect example of what my right hon. Friend is speaking about.
Dr Lewis: I cannot comment on that particular case since it is now sub judice, but cases of that sort fall squarely within the situation that I am describing. As my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) said, it is the process of pursuit, proceedings and trial, rather than the actual derisory sentence at the end of it, that amounts to cruel, unusual and almost certainly unjustified punishment that is inflicted so long after the event.
Nobody is suggesting that crimes that would be called war crimes, if this were an international rather than a civil conflict, should be excused and that people should be put above the law; but the provisions of international law can be met by combining a truth recovery process with a statute of limitations. If people who had committed heinous crimes years and years ago were, at the end of the process, going to serve a proportionate sentence, one could perhaps make out an argument that the matter should be allowed to proceed to the end of time. However, given the way in which terrorists, on the one hand, and armed forces personnel and security forces, on the other, have all been swept up into the concept of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act, meaning that they will serve, at most, a derisory sentence if eventually convicted – which most of them will not be – the way to proceed is the Nelson Mandela solution.