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 think the hon. Gentleman is making a central and uncontroversial point, but we need to be very careful in how we approach it. He has to be right that outright crimes such as murder must be pursued, and be pursued even-handedly. In defence of my right hon. Friend Mr Francois, I should say that I do not think he is suggesting anything else.

As I was saying earlier, military discipline means that the duty we all owe to members of Her Majesty’s armed forces is not an unqualified one—there are limits to it for people who may have failed to follow the orders they were given or failed to act in the right way. But we need to be careful about being resolutely even-handed about it. One of the many difficulties that many people have about the situation currently in Northern Ireland is that it is extremely difficult to mount effective investigations into many of these deaths. The hon. Gentleman rightly said that the majority of the deaths that occurred originated from republican terrorists, and it is therefore difficult in many cases to find enough evidence to make those cases stand up in court. It is not necessarily a question of prosecuting authorities not trying to be even-handed; they have to be able to follow evidence that is available to them and see whether or not there is a decent case.

The fact remains that the Government are a great deal better at maintaining records 30 or 40 years later than perhaps the IRA was at all. It is therefore extremely difficult to pursue some cases, which is one of the major reasons—it may not be the only one—why, to many eyes, the ratio of prosecutions is as skewed as I think the hon. Gentleman was trying to suggest. That is the concern that people have, but I can reassure him, as I am sure everybody else present would, that it has to be everybody’s intention to pursue cases for which there is evidence on a completely even-handed basis. We obviously need to make sure that we deal with all the others, too, which is why we have to have a process that is broader than just a judicial one and that allows people to get to the truth, in so far as it ever can be reached at this late stage, to move on with their lives and to draw a line under a pretty terrible series of episodes in Northern Ireland’s past.