Northern Ireland news

Theresa May tells British government that protection for veterans will apply to paramilitaries as well

Theresa May said those arguing the protection of veterans consistently failed to understand that the legislation would also apply to paramilitaries

FORMER British prime minister Theresa May has told Boris Johnson that legislation to protect armed forces veterans from prosecution will also apply to paramilitaries.

The ex-Tory leader was speaking at Westminster yesterday about plans included in the Queen's Speech to "address the legacy of the past".

Following briefings by government sources to London-based newspaper journalists last week, it was widely expected that further details of a plan for a statute of limitations for British army veterans would emerge yesterday.

But despite Mr Johnson promising there would be legislation, no timetable was set out by officials and no specific bill was mentioned by the Queen during the State Opening of Parliament.

Downing Street would not guarantee that legislation would be in place within the next 12 months, with an official spokesman saying: "We want to do this promptly and we also want to make sure this is done properly."

The plan, widely characterised as an amnesty, has been criticised on both sides of the Irish border.

Mrs May said those arguing the protection of veterans had "consistently failed to understand one basic point".

"You cannot legislate simply to protect British soldiers from prosecution, any legislation to protect British soldiers will cover terrorists as well," she said.

"It's a very simple fact but it seems impossible for many people to accept, but once you recognise the position then the options become clearer - because it becomes clear either you continue to investigate and lead to prosecutions for everyone, including veterans, or you draw some sort of line."

Asked if the promised legislation would cover both the alleged actions of service personnel and paramilitaries, the prime minister's spokesman said: "We will set out the proposals in due course, I'm not going to jump ahead of that."

Johnny Mercer, a former army officer and veterans minister, said he had been "personally promised" there would be legislation on a number of occasions, but it was never delivered – "Hence I resigned," he said.

Mr Mercer said "an ambition" in the Queen's Speech "is not legislation" and "doesn't change anything".

In his introduction to the Queen's Speech package, Mr Johnson said: "We will introduce legislation to address the legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, ensuring that our proposals deliver better outcomes for victims, survivors and veterans, while ending the cycle of investigations."

An official document accompanying the speech said further details of the proposed legislation would be confirmed "in the coming weeks".

Earlier this month, the trial of two former paratroopers accused of the murder of Official IRA commander Joe McCann in 1972 collapsed due to legal issues related to the admissibility of statements and interviews given by the ex-soldiers.

The Queen's Speech document said: "It is clear that the current system for dealing with the legacy of the past is not working well for anybody, with criminal investigations increasingly unlikely to deliver successful criminal justice outcomes and failing to obtain answers for the majority of victims and families.

"The government will introduce a legacy package that delivers better outcomes for victims, survivors and veterans, focuses on information recovery and reconciliation, and ends the cycle of investigations."

Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O'Neill said the British government was "attempting to slam the door to justice closed".

"As the findings from the (Ballymurphy) inquest were being read, the British government was announcing its plans to legislate to cover up its role in the conflict and to put current and former British soldiers beyond justice and the law," she said.

"British state forces cannot be above the law – we must deal with the past, including the British state's role, and the Stormont House Agreement must be implemented immediately."

The Queen's Speech also included a pledge to bring forward measures "to strengthen devolved government in Northern Ireland", however, here too no further detail was forthcoming.

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