Although the fight against COVID-19 is at the front of everyone’s mind, it hasn’t (yet) squeezed everything else off the agenda and yesterday’s papers reported apparent progress on the thorny issue of Northern Irish veterans.
“Hundreds of ageing Northern Ireland veterans are to be given legal promises that they will never be pursued through the courts again”, according to the Sun.
The spur for this was a written ministerial statement given by Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, in response to the first reading of the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill on Wednesday, in which he wrote of “ensuring equal treatment of Northern Ireland veterans and those who served overseas.”
Under the terms of the Bill, which is intended to end ‘vexatious’ prosecutions of British troops, there will be a five-year time limit on prosecutions against those who have served on operations overseas. Exceptions will be made where “new and compelling evidence” is brought forward, and prosecutions will need sign-off from the Attorney General.
Tory MPs report having some reservations about legislation. These include the fact that it appears to exclude alleged sexual offences from the limit – which could allow those wishing to wage ‘lawfare’ against the Armed Forces to do so simply by changing the nature of their allegations – but especially that it excludes from protection those ex-servicemen who have served on operations on British soil.
The Northern Ireland Office is going to bring forward its own legislation, but campaigners have been deeply concerned that deeply entrenched institutional attitudes there (which have long been a point of complaint for unionists) will undermine any effort to extend proper and equal legal protection to veterans of the campaign in Ulster.
On the face of it, Lewis’s assurances mean that such men will receive identical legal protection to their comrades who fought in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, although until we have sight of the draft legislation we have no way to be sure. It also remains to be seen whether Lewis will try to incorporate some of the suggestions made by John Larkin QC, the current Attorney General for Northern Ireland, in a recent speech at the think-tank Policy Exchange.
But MPs are taking nothing for granted. Mark Francois, the deputy chairman of the Veterans Support Group in Parliament, told us:
“The new bill is welcome in that in principle it helps provide protection against vexatious prosecutions for Veterans who served overseas. But the comparable bill for Northern Ireland Veterans has not even been drafted yet. Brandon Lewis’s written ministerial statement says that Northern Ireland Veterans will get “equal treatment” to those who served overseas, and I and my colleagues will remain vigilant to ensure this promise is upheld.”
Another lacuna in this cross-departmental approach is that support and protections provided to former soldiers are very often not being offered to former officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the civilian force which served as the first line of defence against both republican and loyalist terror. Both Lewis and Ben Wallace, his counterpart at the Ministry of Defence, would do well to try and prevail upon Priti Patel to bring the Home Office into line with the Government’s strong public line on defending those who defended the State.