Mark Francois is a former Defence Minister, and is MP for Rayleigh and Wickford. He is Deputy Chairman of the European Research Group.
After three years of a power vacuum in Northern Ireland, it is extremely welcome that the DUP and Sinn Fein have finally managed to agree a deal to re-establish the Northern Ireland Executive. Julian Smith, the Northern Ireland Secretary, deserves great credit for exercising the patience of Job in order to bring both sides back around the table to achieve a successful conclusion.
However, one remaining difficulty is how to address so-called ‘legacy issues’ arising from the aftermath of the Troubles, while feelings still run deep in both communities and indeed among Armed Forces Veterans as well. The recent Conservative manifesto was very clear when it stated, on page 52:
‘A Conservative Government understands the sacrifices made by Armed Forces personnel, veterans and their families. That is why we will introduce new legislation to tackle the vexatious legal claims that undermine our Armed Forces and further incorporate the Armed Forces Covenant into law’
On page 45, regarding the future of Northern Ireland, the manifesto also states:
‘We will continue to seek better ways of dealing with legacy issues that provide better outcomes for victims and survivors and do more to give veterans the protections they deserve.’
The recently agreed deal in Northern Ireland, entitled New Decade, New Approach, contained the following statement on page 14:
‘In moving to a better, more prosperous and shared future the parties recognise the need to address the legacy of the past. To that end, the parties are committed to working together and to doing everything possible to heal wounds and eliminate the issues that divide us.’
When Boris Johnson was campaigning for the leadership of the Conservative Party last summer, he nailed his colours unequivocally to the mast in support of veterans. On 12th July, The Sun carried a splash headline entitled ‘V for Victory’, and inside contained a three point ‘Veterans Pledge’ signed by the now-Prime Minister. This offered to set up an Office of Veterans’ Affairs within the Cabinet Office (now headed up by the excellent Johnny Mercer, himself an Afghanistan veteran); secondly, to enshrine the Military Covenant into law; and thirdly – crucially in this context – to introduce:
‘New legislation to end repeated and vexatious investigations into historical allegations against our servicemen and women – including in Northern Ireland – to be passed before the next General Election’.
That could not possibly be any clearer. So that’s it then? Well, not quite.
The difficulty is that in the previous Stormont House Agreement of 2014, Unionists and Nationalists agreed to address so-called ‘legacy issues’ arising from the Troubles via a Historic Investigations Unit (HIU). However, the playing field was completely tilted against Armed Forces veterans by Tony Blair’s previous decision to grant ‘Letters of Comfort’ to around 300 alleged IRA terrorists, which meant, in effect, that they could never be prosecuted for alleged crimes resulting from terrorism. Whilst the Government continues to argue that these letters have no legal validity, on the one occasion they attempted to bring one of its holders to trial, John Downey, the alleged Hyde Park bomber, he produced a letter in court, whereupon the trial collapsed (although he is now, ironically being prosecuted in the Republic).
British Army veterans possess no such ‘Letters of Comfort’, and many are extremely anxious about the NIO’s proposals to reopen investigations into every single fatality that took place during the Troubles (which total around 3,500). These stretch back over 50 years to 1969, when British troops were first deployed to Northern Ireland under Operation Banner. The NIO regard the Stormont House Agreement as akin to Holy Writ, and appear adamant that this process must continue – as are Sinn Fein.
Around 300,000 British Army Personnel served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, over 700 of whom were killed. Many of the survivors are now quite elderly today. It is worth remembering that without the sacrifice and courage of the British Army – aided by the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Ulster Constabulary GC – there would never have been a Good Friday Agreement in the first place. It is only because these people had the courage to put on a uniform and fight terrorists – both Republican and Loyalist – that we have any chance of peace in Northern Ireland at all today. Many commentators in the media repeatedly overlook this vital point.
Because of fears that any investigations would be hopelessly one-sided, back in October 2018 I and several other former Army officers who are now MPs organised a letter to the then Prime Minister. Signed by over 100 Tory colleagues and 50 peers (including four previous Chiefs of the Defence Staff), it was headed ‘Defending those who defended us’, and argued that an endless process of investigation and re-investigation was completely unacceptable.
Moreover, the All-Party House of Commons Defence Committee (HCDC) investigated this issue in great depth in both 2016 and again in 2019 (I served on the second report) and recommended an alternative way forward, involving a Qualified Statute of Limitations (QSOL) which would set a deadline beyond which cases could not be re-opened unless there was compelling new evidence. For the avoidance of doubt this is not an amnesty but a recommendation to draw a line under the events of the past, unless overwhelming new evidence is forthcoming.
This matters greatly to a large number of British Army veterans, some of whom, such as Corporal Major Dennis Hutchins, are literally dying, with reinvestigation still hanging over them like the sword of Damocles. I also raised at Prime Minister’s Questions last May the case of Sergeant David Griffin, a former Royal Marine who in 1972 killed an IRA gunman as he was about to murder one of his colleagues at a guard post.
He was fully investigated at the time and cleared for firing the fatal shot – he took a life to save a life – but he has since been reinvestigated. The PSNI Investigators knew exactly where to find him, as he is now a pensioner at the Royal Hospital in Chelsea. There is surely no other country on earth that would deal with its veterans in this way – all of which, ultimately, is designed to satisfy Sinn Fein/IRA.
There is also the powerful political point that many of those 300,000 veterans came from northern regiments. Many people living in the so-called Red Wall seats which we captured from Labour at the General Election will have an elderly relative who served in Northern Ireland. For instance, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers (who recruit many of their soldiers from the North East of England) undertook eight tours of Northern Ireland between 1970 and 1980 alone. There are many other northern regiments whose antecedent units served bravely on Operation Banner and their families, many of whom lent us their vote, will fully expect us to protect them.
In summary, the HIU route threatens unacceptable uncertainty for thousands of veterans for years. The Prime Minister has pledged in a national newspaper to end this abuse and I believe him. The Northern Ireland Secretary is a decent man, as indeed is Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, and it should not be beyond the wit of man for these powerful and reasonable politicians to get together in a room and broker some solution which in no way undermines the peace process, but which ensures that those who had the moral and physical courage to serve their country in uniform are not disadvantaged as a result. We owe them no less.