My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat, in the form of a Statement, the Answer given by my honourable friend the Minister of State for Northern Ireland to an Urgent Question in the other place. The Statement is as follows:
“We have concluded, at least for the moment, that it would be better to try to respond to the right honourable Member’s comments 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, in support of civil powers, which is a different legal basis from the one that applies if they are fighting abroad in other kinds of conflict. Therefore, I will endeavour to be as helpful as I can to my right honourable friend. If he has any remaining questions about this which he wants to address, I am very happy to follow them through with him later, but let me at least try to address the burden of his UQ right here, as it is asked.
Can I start by saying, Mr Speaker, that I strongly agree, and I suspect that everybody on all sides of the House will strongly agree, that my right honourable 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. Whether you are a former soldier or a former police officer, perhaps now in your 70s, who is worried about being pursued through the courts about events that happened 30 or 40 years ago, that is a constant worry to you, and to your family and friends. Equally, if you are a member of the family of a victim of republican terrorists where the perpetrators were never brought to justice, there is great worry, concern and difficulty in moving on. That concern affects people on all sides of the community in Northern Ireland, and my right honourable friend is absolutely right that it has to be addressed. That is why not just the Government but, I think I am right in saying, parties on all sides of the House and right across Northern Ireland believe that a new approach is vital to put this right. It is why the original Stormont House agreement was announced some years ago and why, most recently, we have been running a consultation on views about how it should be taken forward.
There were more than 17,000 responses to the consultation, which I think shows the breadth, depth and intensity of concern about the current situation. We have almost finished going through those returns and some trends are starting to emerge. We will of course bring them to the House as soon as we decently and responsibly can.
I think that one thing is clear: everybody agrees on the aim. The difficulty is that, 30 or 40 years after some of the events of the Troubles, we need a process which may have a judicial element—I am sure it will—but which will have to be broader than just judicial. It should 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 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; famously, for example, with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. That clearly would not work precisely in Northern Ireland, but some equivalent process which aims at the same outcomes and allows people to feel that justice is being achieved, that truth has been delivered wherever it can be and that, so far as is possible, closure can be achieved for all sides on an equal basis is essential. 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 honourable friend’s further questions—I am sure that he has many—but I hope that my Answer at least helps to set the scene”.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating that Answer and for its sensitivity at such a delicate moment for the peace process in Northern Ireland—if only others would be as sensitive in their remarks. I hope that he agrees that it is one thing, and quite right, to protect veterans anywhere from vexatious claims and to support them in general, but that it is quite another to create blanket immunities or statutory time limits in relation to very serious matters in breach of our international obligations.
I thank the noble Baroness for what I think is her broad endorsement of what we are doing, and she makes some very good points. It is important to protect veterans from vexatious claims, which is the gist of the announcement that has just been made.
My Lords, I note that the Statement intends to separate the issue of what has happened in Northern Ireland from the responsibility of soldiers in conflict. While one cannot be entirely left on one side, I note that the Secretary of State for Defence talked in her RUSI speech yesterday—I hope that the Northern Ireland Office was consulted beforehand—about the importance of defending “the rules-based order” in the world. That of course includes the laws of war, so that in the very rare cases where British soldiers do not obey the laws of war they have to be held responsible. The Government, who pursue people for war crimes in the Balkans and elsewhere, must recognise that we cannot take our own forces entirely outside the laws of war. I emphasise that the Stormont House agreement was extremely important and that all sides in Northern Ireland, as I understand it, are committed to it. I encourage the Government to pursue as fast as possible the publication of the consultation and the establishment of the arrangements and institutions set out in the agreement.
The noble Lord is right to the extent that we also wish to come back on the results of the consultation. He will understand that it takes time with 17,000 responses—a lot are very sensitive and a lot are long exposés and letters going back to terrible experiences—but we want to come out with a detailed response to the consultation as soon as possible. As he alluded to, we owe great gratitude for the heroism and bravery of our Armed Forces. We take seriously the issue of the prosecution of veterans. The Prime Minister is fully aware of the strength of feeling on this, both in Parliament and among the public. However, nobody is above the law—we should take that very seriously, particularly in this country. The point has been made that there is a difference in terms of our brave soldiers fighting in Northern Ireland as opposed to in Iraq and Afghanistan.
My Lords, I declare an interest as having been a Minister for Northern Ireland 45 years ago at some of the bloodiest times and during some of the most terrible atrocities. I understand what the Secretary of State for Defence is trying to do and explain, but it is worth remembering that the Provisional IRA declared that it was a war and that anyone in uniform was a fair target and could be slaughtered—what we called murder and it called war. That distinction should perhaps be made a little more strongly in the Statement. Of course Northern Ireland is different, as the terrorist situations in Afghanistan and Iraq are different. Northern Ireland being part of the United Kingdom made for an additional difference. Nevertheless, it was a war. Young and often inexperienced soldiers were put on checkpoints where they were confronted with a choice of murder or be murdered. The drama of this has to be understood in dealing with the problem of veterans and repeated accusations. Could that emphasis be a little more carefully enunciated in dealing with this matter?
My noble friend is right that these matters are quite sensitive. On whether the Troubles can be defined as a war or a conflict, to my own knowledge they are defined more as a conflict. What is certain is that our soldiers were put into the front line to deal with some extremely difficult issues and, as soldiers do, they had to make split-second decisions in very demanding situations. We should never forget that they are extremely highly trained, nor should we forget the victims who were caught up in those events. The whole point of what we are trying to do is draw a line under the conflict and move on.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that we should all place on record without equivocation our admiration for soldiers in very difficult situations, whether Northern Ireland or those others to which he referred? It is very easy to discuss these matters in Parliament; it is quite another thing when you think of the strains, the stresses and the immediacy of the situations in which soldiers serve. That said, does he agree that what matters tremendously in the armed services is the culture and not just the law, and that one must be careful not inadvertently to undermine the courageous leadership of so many non-commissioned and commissioned officers in upholding the rule of law and the principles that we are defending? They understand that it is a battle for hearts and minds, and we must not play to the wrong influences in such situations.
The noble Lord is absolutely right, and this plays into the comments I made earlier. We need to draw a line under this, but it is terribly important that a line means a line and that people on all sides feel happy that enough investigation has been done into what happened during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. As a result of the consultation and the efforts made on the back of the Stormont House agreement, everybody should end up by moving on. Despite the fact that it has no Assembly up and running, Northern Ireland has enjoyed continued peace for a good long time, and has an outstanding future ahead.
My Lords, I know what it is to come from a family whose loved ones were brutally blown up and gunned down by the Provisional IRA. No one has been brought to justice to this day and probably never will be. However, we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the young men and women who served in the Armed Forces on the streets of Northern Ireland in very difficult circumstances. They showed tremendous professionalism and bravery. Can the Minister assure me, and the House, that the British soldiers who served in Northern Ireland will not be left as pawns in the political game?
They absolutely will not. It is extremely important that we continue to support our Armed Forces as much as we do. They are the ones on the front line protecting us. There has been an extremely long, difficult and complicated process in Northern Ireland. An important result of this consultation and the work that has been done is that all victims of violence in Northern Ireland need to be remembered and the details of that violence investigated where necessary.
My Lords, I would correct the noble Lord, Lord Wallace: not all parties support the Stormont House agreement. My party does not support it. I do not support it. It proposes to establish a historical inquiries unit which will have the effect of hounding out members of the security forces for the next 10 years. The Minister talked about drawing a line under the process. In fact, it will only start a whole industry because the security services have records and the terrorists do not. The republicans have said that they want the records at Kew; that is what they are aiming to get. I totally accept that nobody is above the law. However, does the Minister accept that the proposals initiated some time ago at Stormont House and subsequently by the Northern Ireland Office will be the starting point for a new campaign of hounding members of the security forces? As former Justice Minister David Ford said, we could expect one or two convictions over the lifetime of that body, at best. That sets a very bad example.
The noble Lord has so much more experience than me in Northern Ireland, but I do not entirely accept what he says. In the interests of justice, we need to find out what evidence there is. If any new evidence emerges relating to the possibility that a serious crime was committed at some point in the past, it should be properly investigated. As he rightly says, the Armed Forces themselves do not wish to be seen as somehow above the law.