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Northern Ireland news

Ministry of Defence team to 'consider soldier immunity plans'

Defence secretary Gavin Williamson
Harriet Line, Press Association

A MINISTRY of Defence team is to consider proposals aimed at giving ex-soldiers immunity from historic prosecutions, defence secretary Gavin Williamson has announced.

He told MPs he understands concerns over how Troubles-era prosecutions have been dealt with, amid calls for a statute of limitations.

During defence questions in the Commons, Tory former minister Sir Henry Bellingham asked Mr Williamson if he would bring forward legislative proposals for a statute of limitations to protect ex-soldiers from prosecution.

Mr Williamson replied: "I understand concerns over whether serving and former personnel are receiving the legal protection and certainty that they deserve.

"I am therefore pleased to announce that I have established a dedicated team within the Ministry of Defence to consider this issue and to advise on the way forward.

"This work will be complementary to the work of the Defence Committee who are looking at the specific question of how to protect our service personnel and veterans against historic allegations as part of their inquiry into this important topic."

Defence Committee chairman and Conservative MP Julian Lewis said his committee would "warmly welcome the setting up of a dedicated team".

The announcement comes hours before MPs debate the Northern Ireland Budget (No 2) Bill, which former defence secretary Sir Michael Fallon is seeking to amend to stop public money being used to fund historical prosecutions of former soldiers in Northern Ireland.

He will urge MPs to back changes to the Bill to prevent funds being spent on reopening cases.

Sir Michael said: "It's morally wrong that those who served to keep us safe from terrorism should be threatened with possible imprisonment in respect of allegations made 30 or 40 years ago which have already been investigated, while some of the terrorists themselves have been guaranteed immunity from prosecution through comfort letters.

"We need to stop hounding our own brave servicemen and women, and stop it now."

The amendment to the Bill, which will come before the Commons on Monday afternoon, has cross-party support and has been signed by 34 MPs.

It follows reports that Mr Williamson wrote to Theresa May urging her to create a "statute of limitations" for offences during the Troubles, in the wake of new plans to examine criminal cases.

He reportedly told the Prime Minister that British soldiers who served in the north from the 1970s to the 1990s should have the "protection they deserve", adding: "If this means a wider amnesty, so be it."

But Downing Street has said it "cannot countenance a proposal where amnesties would be provided to terrorists".

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