MPs' Fury at Hounding of Veterans
By Ian Drury, Home Affairs Editor
Daily Mail – 27 April 2017
British soldiers who served in Northern Ireland have been left in a “morally indefensible limbo” by a controversial police investigation, a report found yesterday. Up to 1,000 retired troops face becoming murder and manslaughter suspects over killings from the height of the IRA's terror campaign.
In a scathing paper, a Westminster committee warned that if a line was not drawn “urgently” under the witch-hunt it would “grind on for many years”. The report says:
“It is morally indefensible for former service personnel to be caught in limbo with the threat of investigation hanging over them.”
MPs said veterans in their sixties and seventies should be immune to investigation and prosecution four decades after they fought terrorism in the Troubles.
In a decision that has sparked outrage, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) is re-examining every Army killing in the fight against Irish terrorism. One dying veteran is already set to stand trial over the death of an IRA suspect nearly 43 years ago. Great-grandfather Dennis Hutchings, 75, is being hauled to court over the shooting of John Pat Cunningham, 27 – who was later found to be innocent – in Northern Ireland in June 1974.
The Commons Defence Select Committee has demanded an end to the
“vicious cycle of investigation and re-investigation that fails both former service personnel and the families of those who died”.
It called on the Government to pass a Statute of Limitations to prevent veterans facing legal action over the killings. This would effectively grant immunity to those who served in Ulster from 1969, when the Troubles began, to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Failure to act could lead to a repeat of the hounding of troops by the discredited Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT), set up to probe war crimes accusations. The Mail has campaigned against the witch-hunt against troops.
Tory MP Julian Lewis, chairman of the cross-party committee, said:
“To subject former soldiers to legal pursuit under the current arrangements is wholly oppressive and a denial of natural justice. Parliament has it within its power to enact a statute of limitations, which is the only way to avoid another IHAT debacle.”
The report said:
“Unless a decision is taken to draw a line under all Troubles-related cases they will grind on for years, up to half a century after the incidents concerned.”
MPs said the Government should
“not lose sight of its moral responsibility to those who served our country”,
but also called for bereaved families to be told what happened to their loved-ones.
The PSNI's Legacy Investigation Branch is re-examining 302 deaths during the Troubles. Critics are angry that, although 90 per cent of the 3,500 killings in Northern Ireland were at the hands of terrorists, the investigation has focused on the actions of British forces. The committee found there were a “disproportionately high” number of investigations focused on ex-soldiers – some 30 per cent.
Legal experts warned that if a Statute of Limitations only applied to former Army personnel, the Government could be accused of legislating for “state impunity”. But the MPs do not recommend statute for all sides, leaving it “for the next government to decide”.
Democratic Unionist committee member Gavin Robinson said:
“The last 20 years have been marred by the completely imbalanced treatment of those who terrorised our society and brave service personnel who ensured they would never succeed.”
But Sinn Féin's Gerry Kelly, a convicted IRA terrorist, called the MPs' recommendation “an insult”.