Bob Seely is a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and is MP for the Isle of Wight.
Bloody Sunday was the single most significant failure by the British security forces in Northern Ireland. On 30 January 1972, 13 civilians were killed a protest march in Derry (a fourteenth died later). They were 14 out of the 3,532 civilians, soldiers and paramilitary group members killed on all sides during ‘The Troubles.’.
I do not for a second dispute that bad things happened that day. This is not a case of ‘my side, right or wrong’. Rules of war are there to be obeyed. I have Irish Catholic friends who take a very different approach to ‘The Troubles’ than I do. I respect their opinion. But I am bemused by how on earth the decision to prosecute members of the Parachute Regiment – if that is what is now planned – serves peace in Northern Ireland today.
Prosecution does not send a signal of justice. It is without a semblance of equality. UK soldiers are being hung out to dry whilst those they fought are treated by different rules. There is a natural and obvious injustice. I do not argue that all the Paras behaved as they should. Some didn’t, and people died as a result, but the purpose of the peace process was to accept that while bad things happened in the past, they should stay there. Gavin Williamson is said to be planning legislation to introduce a 10-year limit on alleged historic abuses. Such a law can’t come soon enough.
When judging this issue, it’s helpful to have experience of insurgencies or at least understand their principle. The purpose of the IRA was to force Catholics out of the security forces in Northern Ireland, sectarianise the country, set up rival ‘shadow’ institutions, to murder members of the (overwhelmingly Protestant) security forces, and then hope for violent reprisals and chaos in Northern Ireland – forcing the UK out and achieving a united Irish state, presumably imbued with a socialist, revolutionary anti-British hostility.
The IRA failed in its aim. That they lost when insurgent paramilitary groups have succeeded in so many parts of the world is testament to the remarkable work of the security forces – the UK Armed Forces, the security agencies and the then Royal Ulster Constabulary. This does not mean that our security forces were always right or that there were no breaches of trust. There were some, but failures in command and standards were rare enough for the forces of law and order to survive and to defeat the IRA’s violent aims. By preventing civil conflict on the level of Bosnia or Syria, UK forces that served in Northern Ireland – including the Parachute Regiment – saved the lives of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands. This is not said often enough.
Bloody Sunday was one of those occasions when our ability to police Catholic communities collapsed. It was a moral and political failure. The IRA and Sinn Fein milked the occasion for propaganda for decades. If the British and Irish Governments now had a policy of prosecuting all those involved in the injury or deaths of others, there would at least be a consistent standard by which to put soldiers and former paramilitary members on trial.
But there is no intent to do this. Former paramilitary fighters are out of prison. IRA killers have restarted their lives. Yet British soldiers, whose collective actions in the course of the Troubles saved Northern Ireland from civil war, face the threat of prosecution. They face life imprisonment. Any former terrorist brought before the courts – an almost unthinkable event anyway – would face under the Good Friday agreement a maximum two-year sentence. Every kneecapping and killing was a morally squalid event. Where are former paramilitaries being hauled before the courts? This is not an example of fairness, but of double standards.
The Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) is nowadays repeatedly drummed into servicemen and women. Yet time and time again UK forces feel under-protected by politicians and at the mercy of parasitical lawyers keener to attack the institutions of our state or make a quick buck than they are in the service of justice. The wretched, demeaning spectacle of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, which allowed multiple trumped-up charges to be thrown at the UK Armed Forces, is just the latest episode in that sorry relationship.
I talked with some former army mates this weekend. The assumption is: no matter what you do on operations, others without experience will judge you years down the line, doing so from the comfort of a legal chambers or a court, and the politicians won’t defend you. This is an insidious place for the Armed Forces to be in.
The additional irony is that it will be very difficult to obtain guilty verdicts. No one will be satisfied by the trials. Soldiers will feel betrayed by politicians. The families of the Bloody Sunday dead face failed prosecutions. The trials will open up old wounds in the province just weeks after a recent terror attack in Derry. Those accused will be treated as martyrs or murderers. The trials may provide justification for further acts of violence by dissident republicans. The only winners will be lawyers. The original Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday cost £200 million. The Iraq Historic Allegations Team cost £30 million. Nearly a quarter of a billion pounds for both; what a staggering use of public money.
If this were happening under a government lead by a Marxist IRA fellow-traveller such as Jeremy Corbyn, I would be appalled but not surprised. Instead, it is happening under a Conservative Government. It is an unnecessary, self-inflicted wound. Let the dead rest in peace and let those who survived – on all sides of the conflict – reconcile themselves and their consciences.