Northern Ireland news

Simon Coveney warns British government over 'amnesty' for troops

Tánaiste Simon Coveney said: "There should be effective investigation into deaths during the Troubles, regardless of the perpetrators"
Press Association

Tánaiste Simon Coveney has expressed concern about "loose comments" following British defence secretary Penny Mordaunt's plan to end probes into alleged historical offences by British troops who served in Northern Ireland.

Ms Mordaunt said yesterday she wants to end the "chilling" threat of "repeated" investigations.

Mr Coveney told the Dáil: "This is a sensitive time for legacy in Northern Ireland.

"We need to ensure that loose comments that are made are not damaging in terms of trust and the willingness of all sides to cooperate to make sure that the legacy structures committed to and agreed by both governments, supported by all political parties, move forward in the spirit that they were intended."

Legacy could form part of ongoing Stormont talks aimed at restoring devolved powersharing.

Mr Coveney said he expected the British government to uphold previous assurances that stronger legal protections against prosecution of soldiers and veterans would apply only to overseas service.

He added: "There should be effective investigation into deaths during the Troubles, regardless of the perpetrators.

"That is what is provided for in the legacy framework of the Stormont House Agreement and it is imperative that we move forward."

He said no provision had been made in earlier political agreements for amnesties from prosecution.

Mr Coveney added the Dublin government would not support the introduction of such measures for alleged state or non-state perpetrators.

Angry Tory MPs today hit out at the British government following reports that plans to protect armed forces veterans from prosecution will not apply to Northern Ireland.

The government faced accusations of making a "rancid backstairs deal" with Sinn Féin, as MPs lined up to call for better protection for ex-servicemen and women from "vexatious attacks" and being pursued through the courts.

Speaking in the House of Commons, Tory MP Mark Francois dubbed proposals to re-investigate every fatality during the Troubles from the late 1960s onwards as "IHAT mark two", after the controversial Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) investigation, which was shut down over fraudulent claims of criminality by soldiers.

Mr Francois said parliament should "not allow the scapegoating of our veterans to pander to terrorists".

In response, Northern Ireland minister John Penrose said: "We will have no rancid political deals under my watch."

He added that the idea of one was "not acceptable".

Former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith called for a change in the law to improve the situation.

Mr Duncan Smith said: "I don't know how I can honestly, with a clean heart, say that my government represents the best interests of ex-servicemen and women who have served their country."

Mr Duncan Smith added: "When natural justice collides with the law, we change the law."

Mr Penrose responded, saying that the Government was talking about bringing forward a Bill in order to change the law to "put this right".

Tory MP Bob Stewart said: "I completed seven tours in Northern Ireland, all with the infantry or associated units. I lost many men, and I was involved in fatality shootings. I was investigated along with others. The investigations were thorough, aggressive, and bloody awful to go through."

Mr Stewart said soldiers who had been to court and been proved innocent should not be asked to go through that again.

He added: "How the hell can our government allow such people to be possibly investigated again?"

Mr Penrose said there needed to be a situation where "unless there is some brand new piece of evidence that changes the situation", people should not be pursued further through the courts.

Attacking the plans to set up a commission going back over every fatality in Northern Ireland since 1968/69, Mr Francois said - due to so-called "letters of comfort" given to suspected IRA killers - armed service personnel would be investigated but "the alleged terrorists will not".

"So this entire process would be utterly one-sided because service personnel and members of the RUC GC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) would be liable for prosecution, those with letters of comfort are scot-free," he added.

Mr Penrose said the "letters of comfort" were not "an amnesty from prosecution" and in future would not be "a body armour against prosecution" for suspected terrorists.

Mr Penrose also denied that any commission to re-investigate British soldiers had been "demanded as a price in the talks" by Sinn Féin on bringing back the Stormont assembly.

Shadow secretary of state Tony Lloyd said soldiers should be protected from "vexatious attacks", but said no-one should be immune if they "wilfully" broke the law.

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.

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