Investigation of Veterans

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:41 am on 16th May 2019.

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Photo of John Penrose John Penrose The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 10:41 am, 16th May 2019

I begin with an apology because, as everybody will no doubt have observed by now, I am not the Secretary of State for Defence—I don’t have her hair. I wanted to explain why there has been some toing and froing since the terms of the urgent question became clear in the last hour.

I am here because we have concluded, at least for the moment, that it would be better that I try to respond to my right hon. Friend’s question about soldiers serving in Northern Ireland—obviously the Northern Ireland Office addresses that directly—particularly because the rules were different when soldiers were serving in Northern Ireland. They were there in support of the police and in support of civil powers, which forms a different legal basis than the one that applies if they are fighting abroad in other kinds of conflict. I shall endeavour to be as helpful as I can to my right hon. Friend; if he has any remaining questions he wants to address, I will be happy to follow through with him later, but let me at least try to respond to the burden of his urgent question as it was asked.

I strongly agree, as I suspect that all Members on both sides of the House will strongly agree, that my right hon. Friend is absolutely right that the current system—the current situation—in Northern Ireland is not working properly for people on all sides. It is clearly unsupportable and it is unfair in many ways. If a former soldier or a former police officer—perhaps now in their 70s—is concerned about being pursued through the courts for events that happened 30 or 40 years ago, that is a constant worry to them, their family and their friends. Equally, a family member of a victim of republican terrorists in a case where the perpetrators were never brought to justice has a feeling of great worry and concern, and has difficulty moving on. That concern affects people on all sides of the community in Northern Ireland, and my right hon. Friend is absolutely right that it has to be addressed.

It is for that reason that not just the Government but—I think I am right in saying—parties on both sides of the House and right the away across Northern Ireland believe that a new approach is vital if we are to put this right. That was why the original Stormont House agreement was announced some years ago, and it is why most recently we have been consulting on how to take this forward. We received more than 17,000 responses to the consultation, which shows the depth, breadth and intensity of concern about the current situation. We have now pretty much finished going through those responses. Some trends are starting to emerge, and we will of course bring them to the House as soon as we decently and responsibly can.

One thing is clear to everybody: everyone agrees on the aim. The difficulty is that, 30 or 40 years after some of the events of the troubles, we need a process that, while having a judicial element, is broader than just judicial. It must allow all sides of the community in Northern Ireland to establish the truth, where it can be established, be fair to all sides, and allow people—society as a whole—to draw a line and move on.

While comparisons cannot be exact, because the situation in Northern Ireland is unlike anything else on the planet, this has been done in other societies. One famous example, of course, is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Clearly that would not work precisely in Northern Ireland, but it is essential that we find an equivalent process that aims at the same outcome of allowing people to feel that justice is being achieved with the truth established, wherever it can be, so that closure can be achieved for all sides on an equal basis wherever possible. That matters particularly for soldiers and police officers who served in Northern Ireland, but also for the families and grieving loved ones of victims.

I will endeavour to respond to my right hon. Friend’s further questions—I am sure he has many—but I hope that helps to set the scene.