Northern Ireland news

Nationalists critical of 'amnesty' plans for British troops

Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt, who is set to announce that British troops facing investigation over alleged historical offences will be granted stronger legal protections. Picture by Victoria Jones/PA Wire
John Manley and PA

NATIONALISTS have criticised proposals to give legal protection to British troops facing investigation over alleged historical offences.

British Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt has said she is determined to end the "chilling" threat of repeated inquiries for soldiers who served in Northern Ireland.

She said she wants plans to strengthen the legal protections for military personnel who served on overseas operations such as Iraq and Afghanistan to be extended to cover veterans of the Troubles.

The defence secretary has signalled she intends to create 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.

Read More: British government vows to end 'chilling' probes into army veterans in north

The legislation, which is subject to public consultation, will stipulate that such prosecutions are not in the public interest unless there are "exceptional circumstances", such as compelling new evidence.

Speaking at the Royal United Services Institute in London, Ms Mordaunt said she hoped the measures could offer a way forward for those who served during the Troubles.

"I do think it should cover Northern Ireland," she said.

"The problem is that we have failed to make progress on the whole 'lawfare' issue because we have been held up waiting for other things to happen.

"It is not going to be resolved overnight. It is a personal priority of mine that we get this resolved and we stop this chilling effect that is claiming veterans who really deserve our care and respect."

Ms Mordaunt said she had secured agreement with Secretary of State Karen Bradley that defence concerns, including the veterans, would be formally considered in her next steps.

Among those currently facing prosecution in relation to the Troubles is 'Soldier F', who has been charged with the murder of two people during Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972.

Tory MP Johnny Mercer, who is refusing to vote for government legislation until it ends such historical inquires, welcomed the protection for those who had served overseas, but said it needed to go further.

"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," he told Sky News.

The chairman of the Commons Defence Committee, Conservative MP Julian Lewis, called for a South African-style "truth recovery" process for Northern Ireland.

The former head of the British 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.

"Soldiers did their duty, got up in the morning, sometimes they came under attack. They returned fire," he said.

"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."

DUP MP Gavin Robinson said he was concerned "the proposals to protect veterans" would not apply in Northern Ireland.

"It shows scant disregard for people the length and breadth of the UK who stood to protect our interests and our democracy."

However, Amnesty International UK's legal programme director Rachel Logan said Ms Mordaunt's proposals set a "dangerous precedent".

"British soldiers who break the law must face it, just like everyone else," she said.

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.

Sinn Féin's Linda Dillon last night said "no British soldier should be above the law".

“Sinn Féin has rigorously opposed any and every attempt to introduce a statute of limitations or immunity for crimes committed by British soldiers in Ireland – we have stood in support of victims and and will continue to do so," she said.

“Regardless of whether these reports are accurate the British government know that extending these proposed protections to the north simply would not be tolerable or acceptable."

SDLP justice spokesman Dolores Kelly said proposals for an "amnesty" for British soldiers was like giving military personnel a "blank cheque for the crimes they commit".

"The SDLP remains opposed to amnesties designed to let those who break the law off the hook for their crimes – it doesn’t matter what uniform you wear, everyone must be equally subject to the rule of law," she said.

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