Protect Northern Ireland Veterans by Statute of Limitations, says Defence Committee
Defence Committee Press Notice – 26 April 2017
Former British soldiers, who served in Northern Ireland up to the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998, should be protected by a Statute of Limitations preventing further investigation and prosecution of incidents which occurred between almost 20 and almost 50 years ago. So says the Defence Committee in its Report, Investigations into Fatalities in Northern Ireland involving British Military Personnel. The Report concludes:
“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.”
The Committee favours a Statute of Limitations, coupled with a truth recovery mechanism to help bereaved families, after exploring four options available to the Government to protect Service personnel facing historic, Troubles-related allegations.
Unresolved deaths from the Troubles, including those attributed to the British Army, have been the subject of investigation by the Police Service of Northern Ireland's (PSNI) Historical Enquiries Team (HET) and the Legacy Investigations Branch (LIB). Under the terms of Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act, 1998, terrorists who committed multiple murders during the Troubles face, in practice, no more than a two-year sentence, even if successfully prosecuted.
The Committee heard evidence from senior legal experts that, were a Statute of Limitations to apply only to state actors such as military personnel, it would leave the UK open to the charge of legislating for “state impunity”. The Committee stopped short of recommending that the Statute of Limitations should also cover incidents on all sides during the Troubles – in order to meet this point – stating that this wider issue would be for the next Government to decide.
The report re-emphasizes the conclusion reached in its recent Inquiry into the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT): that, in adhering to the pursuit of justice and the rule of law, the Government must not lose sight of its moral responsibility to those who have served our country. That responsibility is just as great for veterans who served decades ago in Northern Ireland, as it is for current and former Service personnel who served in more recent conflicts.
The Chairman of the Defence Committee, Dr Julian Lewis MP, said:
“To subject former soldiers to legal pursuit under the current arrangements is wholly oppressive and a denial of natural justice. The UK Parliament has it entirely within its power to enact a Statute of Limitations in this matter – which is the only way to avoid another IHAT debacle.”
[To read the full Report, click here.]
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CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
1. In our Report on the conduct of IHAT, we stated that in adhering to the pursuit of justice and the rule of law, the Government must not lose sight of its moral responsibility and its commitment to the Armed Forces Covenant. This responsibility is just as important for veterans who served decades ago in Northern Ireland as it is for former and current Service personnel who served in more recent conflicts. Our Report sets out the steps the Government must take in the next Parliament – as a priority – to protect former Service personnel facing investigations into historical allegations arising from Operation Banner. If it does not, then the spectre of another IHAT debacle will become all too real. (Paragraph 7)
Investigating historic allegations in Northern Ireland
2. So far, the overall process of investigations into fatalities in Northern Ireland has been deeply unsatisfactory. The instability of the investigatory bodies, the limited resources and manpower provided to them, and continuing question-marks over the independence of the investigations has delivered a vicious cycle of investigation and re-investigation that fails both former Service personnel and the families of those who died. (Paragraph 24)
3. It is clear that the status quo is not sustainable. The Legacy Investigation Branch was never intended to be more than a short-term mechanism to bridge the gap until the Stormont House Agreement was implemented. It is morally indefensible for former Service personnel to be caught in limbo, with the threat of investigation hanging over them. The Government in the next Parliament must bring forward legislative proposals – as a matter of urgency – to remedy the situation. We outline a menu of possible options in the final chapter of this report. (Paragraph 25)
The space for legal imagination: options for the Government
4. 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. (Paragraph 51)
5. 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. (Paragraph 52)
6. Although it is beyond the strict remit of the Defence Committee, we would encourage the next Government to extend this provision to include former members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and other former security personnel. It will also be a matter for the next Government to decide, after appropriate consultations, whether the Statute of Limitations should also cover all Troubles-related incidents. (Paragraph 53)
7. If the 1998 legislation had not ensured that future convictions for terrorist crimes – however heinous – would result in nothing more than a short prison sentence, then there would be a case for arguing that natural justice required investigations to continue, no matter how long after the event. (Paragraph 54)
8. We believe that to subject former Service personnel to legal pursuit under the current arrangements is wholly oppressive and a denial of natural justice. It can be ended only by a Statute of Limitations. Our expert witnesses agreed that the UK Parliament has it entirely within its power to enact such a statute and we call upon the Government in the next Parliament to do so as a matter of urgency. (Paragraph 55)