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Campaigners say new legal protection for troops facing investigation for historical offences should cover the Troubles

Belfast Telegraph Online – 15 May 2019

Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt is facing calls to extend strengthened legal protections to British troops facing investigation over alleged historical offences to veterans of the Northern Ireland conflict. Ms Mordaunt is to set out plans for legislation to ensure veterans and serving military personnel are not subjected to repeated inquiries in relation to past operations overseas.

While the move was welcomed by MPs pressing for an end to historical investigations in Iraq and Afghanistan, there was concern that it did not cover the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Among those currently facing prosecution is a former soldier, known as Soldier F, who has been charged with the killing of two people during Bloody Sunday in Londonderry in 1972.

Tory MP Johnny Mercer, who is refusing to vote for Government legislation in the Commons until it ends such historical inquires, said the announcement was a "good start" but needed to go further.

"It's unfair to all sides, and the only people who are enjoying this process and making something are legal teams,"

he told Sky News.

"Northern Ireland represents a particular challenge, the way that conflict was framed in the time, it was not classed as war even though it had many traits of wartime activity. We need to redouble our efforts and see what we can do to apply legislation to stop this process taking place."

The Chairman of the Commons Defence Committee, Conservative MP Julian Lewis, welcomed the moves to prevent soldiers being "lawyered to death". He suggested a South African-style "truth recovery" process for Northern Ireland, where deaths were investigated but there were no prosecutions to follow.

"Given that sort of immunity has already been effectively granted to so many people on the terrorist side of that bitter and awful conflict, what's good enough for Nelson Mandela should be good enough for us and we ought to draw a line in this way,"

he told the Press Association.

The former head of the Army, General Lord Dannatt, said peers would try to amend the legislation to extend it to Northern Ireland when it comes to the House of Lords.

"What we can't allow to go forward is the presumption that those deaths in which the military were involved were wrong,"

he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

"Soldiers did their duty, got up in the morning, sometimes they came under attack. They returned fire. They didn't set out to murder people. Terrorists set out every morning to murder people and successfully did so. There is a huge distinction to be drawn."

The proposals, which will be subject to a public consultation, include measures to introduce a statutory presumption against prosecution of current or former personnel for alleged offences committed in the course of duty abroad more than 10 years ago. It will stipulate that such prosecutions are not in the public interest unless there are "exceptional circumstances", such as if compelling new evidence emerged.

Ms Mordaunt, who is expected to unveil the new measures within days, said:

"We all owe a huge debt of gratitude to our armed forces who put their lives on the line to protect our freedom and security. It is high time that we change the system and provide the right legal protections to make sure the decisions our service personnel take in the battlefield will not lead to repeated or unfair investigations down the line."

The Defence Secretary is also expected to reaffirm her commitment to derogating from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) before the UK embarks on significant military operations. In 2016, Theresa May announced that the Government will adopt a presumption that it will take advantage of a right to suspend aspects of the ECHR at times of war.

Mrs May said at the time that the move should end an "industry of vexatious claims" which has seen veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan pursued through the courts over alleged mistreatment of combatants and prisoners over a decade after the supposed events took place.