Reinstatement of Guardsmen Fisher and Wright

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 5th December 2000.

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Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker 2:45 pm, 5th December 2000

Many Members from all sides of the House have indicated a wish to speak. After discussion with the Business Committee, I have decided to allocate 15 minutes to the Member who raised the question, and five minutes to each of the other Members who wish to speak. Standing Orders restrict the Adjournment debate to one hour, so eight or nine Members, in addition to Mr Maginness, will have an opportunity to speak.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

On behalf of my constituent, Mrs Jean McBride, and her family, I raise the issue of the recent decision to retain Guardsmen Wright and Fisher in the Army. That decision has caused much outrage and concern in my constituency of North Belfast. For many of my constituents, their reinstatement flies in the face of the basic principles of justice.

Let me relate the basic facts of the case. On the bright morning of 4 September 1992, Peter McBride, aged 18, visited his sister in Edlingham Street in the New Lodge Road area of north Belfast. After that visit he was stopped by an Army foot patrol near Trainfield Street. The commander of the patrol questioned the youth and searched him thoroughly. He also searched a white T-shirt, which he was carrying when he was stopped. The T-shirt had been washed by his sister Róisín, and he had collected it from her home. After five or six minutes in the presence of the Army patrol, Peter McBride suddenly broke away from the soldiers and took off at speed. He vaulted over a garden wall into Spamount Street, ran down that street, turned left into Glenrosa Street and then right into Upper Meadow Street. He was pursued by the soldiers, with Guardsmen Wright and Fisher in the vanguard. The soldiers called on him to stop, but he did not — he kept running at a fast pace. At that point, Guardsmen Wright and Fisher opened fire on Peter McBride. Two bullets struck him in the back, killing him.

At their trial, in February 1995, the trial judge, Lord Justice Kelly, a former Member of the Northern Ireland Parliament and a former Attorney-General in the Unionist Government at Stormont, found that evidence given by Fisher and Wright had been both evasive and untruthful and that they had both lied about material aspects of the case. In particular, he was satisfied that they had seen Peter McBride being searched by their commander. He regarded Fisher’s defence that he believed that Peter McBride had been carrying a coffee-jar bomb in a white paper or plastic bag to be untruthful. Peter McBride was retreating from the guardsmen all the time, increasing the distance between them over the three streets. He also found that the incident was not a panic situation that required a split-second decision or a split-second action, if any action was required at all. He also found that the defence case that the guardsmen believed that Peter McBride was carrying a coffee jar to be false. The trial judge found that the two soldiers had deliberately aimed shots at Peter McBride, who posed no threat to them at all.

Lord Justice Kelly clearly found that there was no good reason to fire at Peter McBride and that there was no justification for Fisher having fired when he did. The judge concluded that Wright had deliberately lied about his reasons for firing and that, at the time of firing, he did not believe that there was any justification to do so. Therefore, both soldiers’ defences were thoroughly discredited. The Northern Ireland Court of Appeal heard the soldiers’ appeals and conducted a lengthy review of both cases. Their appeals were unanimously dismissed.

I have spent considerable time outlining the facts of the case, as determined by the court alone. It is important to remember that those are the judicially determined facts. I have not included assertions or determinations of anyone outside the courts. On 2 December 1998, both soldiers were released early on licence from their life sentences by the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. They resumed their military duties that month.

Their release was made under normal life-sentence review procedures rather than under the Good Friday Agreement. However, I accept that it would have been politically impossible for the Government to release other prisoners under the agreement while keeping the two soldiers in prison. The early release of those men was a bitter pill for the McBride family to swallow, as it was for many others in my constituency. Nevertheless, it could not properly be argued that the soldiers did not deserve to benefit — like so many others caught up in the troubles — from the prisoner release scheme.

However, at the heart of the issue is not their early release, which most people now reluctantly accept, but their reinstatement in the Army. Under the Queen’s Regulations for the Army 1975, it is presumed that a soldier sentenced to imprisonment by a civilian court will be discharged unless exceptional reasons exist that make his retention desirable. That is the only test that can be applied to those two soldiers. Therefore, the question is whether exceptional reasons emerged from an objective and honest scrutiny of the facts of the case that I have just outlined.

The Army — through the Army Board, which is made up of senior Army officers and a junior Army Minister — had to determine whether there were exceptional reasons that made it desirable to retain the guardsmen, notwithstanding their convictions for murder their life imprisonment sentences. According to the Northern Ireland High Court, the Army Board was wrong to decide in 1998 that the soldiers should be retained on account of the argument put forward that they had made an error of judgement. The trial judge had clearly rejected that argument, since he regarded their defence as a lying one. Therefore, no error of judgement arose.

The Army Board’s decision was judicially reviewed and subsequently quashed. The judge at the review was of the opinion that the guardsmen’s application to be retained in the Army had to be considered afresh. Their application for retention in the Army was recently heard again by a differently constituted Army Board. Despite the fact that the second Army Board rejected the "error of judgement" argument, it unbelievably came to the same decision — that the guardsmen should be retained for Army service.

Given the facts that I have carefully rehearsed, it beggars belief that the Army Board could properly have arrived at that same decision to retain two convicted murderers in the Army. In view of the facts, as found by the Northern Ireland courts, no reasonable person could properly conclude that exceptional reasons existed that makes their retention desirable. There are exceptionally good reasons to do precisely the opposite. If there were exceptional reasons to retain them, let us know what they are. What makes it desirable to retain two convicted murderers in the Army?

If the Army Board’s decision were to be accepted as correct — in justice or in politics — the stature of our courts and our judges would be diminished. The decision implies that at least four judges arrived at judicially- flawed decisions in convicting those murderers. Equally, it suggests that the Northern Ireland judiciary is of no real consequence and that we have an inferior form of justice. Despite the fact that no contrition was shown by Guardsman Wright and that only partial contrition was expressed by Guardsman Fisher in May 1995, three months after his conviction, they were permitted back into the Army, with access to highly-powered and lethal weapons.

More disturbing is the report that both soldiers are referring their convictions to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC). That completely undermines any possible residual element of contrition.

Let us remember that those men were not confined to paper pushing or potato peeling. They were sent to a dangerous theatre of war — Kosovo — where the risk of engagement with either regular or paramilitary forces was very high. By order of the Army Board, they are prevented from serving in Northern Ireland, as to do so is deemed inappropriate. Why is it deemed inappropriate for those men to serve in Northern Ireland but appropriate enough for them to serve in war-torn Kosovo? Does that decision display any consistency? What sort of message does that send out to the rest of the Army? Murder, the most grievous act of criminality, can be committed in Northern Ireland and those responsible will be looked after by the Army. A Northern Ireland citizen can be killed with impunity. So far as Northern Ireland is concerned, double standards can and will apply.

What would the reaction be in Britain if soldiers had murdered a citizen in inner-city Birmingham? Has anyone in the House any doubt that such soldiers would not be retained in the Army? If they were, could Members imagine the anger and outrage in Britain? Could Members imagine the outrage and anger if the British Medical Association were to readmit into its ranks, as a practising doctor, someone who had murdered a patient?

This case says that the murder of a citizen in inner-city Belfast is treated differently because, in some way, inner-city Belfast is different. Although the soldiers were convicted of murder, it was not really murder as understood by the Army. That has serious implications not only for Nationalist citizens but also for Unionist citizens.

What twisted mentality leads the military mind to perversely contort judicially decided facts, and to go through further contortions and obviously contrived hoops to end up with the decision to retain two men unworthy of the title "soldier"? Compare and contrast — [Interruption].

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

No. My time is limited.

Compare and contrast the way in which the Army has dismissed soldiers convicted of the lesser crime of drug dealing. Since 1995, 130 soldiers have been tried for drug-related offences and most have been convicted. The Army has discharged 108 of them. What sort of message does that send out, either to those in the Army or to the public at large? Is the rationale laid down by those decisions that it is more acceptable in the British Army to murder someone than to indulge in drug abuse?

As the ‘Glasgow Herald’ said in its leader recently,

"Regardless of the tense situation in Northern Ireland at the time, their error of judgement (if such it was) should surely have been enough to cause their dismissal. How could the Army (or, indeed, any civilian population they were charged with protecting) trust them to act professionally in the future? Ministers Mandelson and Hoon should make every effort to ensure that justice is done. Fisher and Wright were murderers. They should still not be soldiers."

Who could disagree with such an unequivocal editorial?

The decision was innately unjust. To one’s ordinary sense of morality, it is plainly incomprehensible. It defies the ordinary sense of justice in Northern Ireland or, indeed, elsewhere in the world. It exposes double standards being applied by the Army to its personnel. It exposes double standards being applied by the Government to the people of Northern Ireland and, in particular, to the long-suffering people of north Belfast — not least, the deeply hurt family of the late Peter McBride.

The Army decision has, without doubt, devalued human life in Northern Ireland and, indeed, elsewhere. Its unjustness, cruelty and crass insensitivity is huge. I expect better from the Government, and I appeal to them to examine the decision’s enormous injustice and to reverse it. No self-respecting democratic Government can knowingly tolerate the inclusion of convicted murderers in the ranks of their army.

Photo of Alan McFarland Alan McFarland UUP

There is no doubt that this is a tragic case of a serious error of judgement on the part of two soldiers under stress on the streets of Belfast. They were convicted and served six years before being released on licence in 1998, in the aftermath of the Belfast Agreement. It is unfortunate that this debate is taking place today, because security is a reserved matter. The debate that the SDLP wishes to have should have taken place in the House of Commons, where such matters are usually dealt with.

We might today have been better served discussing the enormous postal crisis in the lead-up to Christmas. Could this be a blatant attempt at electioneering on the part of the SDLP, to "out-Sinn Féin" Sinn Féin? The issue has been used by Sinn Féin and its so-called justice groups to carry out a vendetta against the Government and the Security Forces. It smacks of double standards. There was no hubbub from those groups about Garda collusion or the role of Fianna Fáil in the formation of the Provisional IRA. There was no investigation of 30 years of murders by the Provisional IRA, even though a substantial number of its victims came from the Nationalist community.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this case, we must try to put the past 30 years behind us. The Belfast Agreement was a watershed and an opportunity to move on. Hundreds of prisoners have been released, and millions of pounds are being spent on rehabilitation and making a new start. In an edition of Hansard last week there is a list of all the organisations into which money is currently being poured, such as ex-prisoners’ organisations.

We have a former senior IRA commander in the Government of this country. Other Assembly Members have been convicted of the most hideous offences. The two soldiers were, in the opinion of a court, considered to have paid their debt to society, and thus were released on licence. It is time to allow all those who wish to move on and make a new start to rebuild their lives.

If the Belfast Agreement is to mean anything, particular sections of the community must enter into the spirit of that agreement and cease to pursue vendettas.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

I agree with the Member that the matter should have been debated in the House of Commons, where the SDLP has three Members. I was at the debate on the matter in the House of Commons, and I do not recall hearing any intervention from any of them.

Any murder is a tragedy. I understand well the feelings of those who lose people in such circumstances. However, it is ironic and absolute humbug for the mover of the Adjournment motion to draw parallels and say that those things should not be when he and his Colleagues worked their hardest to put into the Government of Northern Ireland those who headed up an organisation — the IRA — that performed such dastardly deeds.

I find it strange to hear the same Mr Maginness defending the court. Had this been another case, the Member and his Colleagues would have been challenging the court and picking holes in its judgement.

I said one thing in Westminster that I shall repeat today. Those two men did not go on to the streets of Belfast to commit murder. They did not plan the night before to take some people out and shoot them. They did nothing of the kind. The IRA — and some of its members sitting in the House today are active and were active in the IRA — planned and killed deliberately. Mr Maginness tries to excuse the Government, but it is his friend, Mr Mandelson, who is responsible. It is his friend, Mr Hoon, who is responsible. He should not try to pass the buck to an Army Board. He knows perfectly well what Mr Hoon and the Secretary of State have said. He should not try to blame anonymous people sitting on an Army Board, because the Government are responsible for this act.

As has been emphasised, those people went to prison. They served their time. They were put on licence. They paid their debt to society. That should have been the end of it, but, of course, the same Mr Maginness is quite happy to have IRA men in the new police force, and to put out 50% of the Protestants so that they can get 50% of his own kind in. It is a strange thing that he is going to get the IRA into the new police force about which he always talks and argues. Those men committed an act under drastic and terrible circumstances, and it must be drastic and terrible for them and everyone else involved. However, they were not murderers who went on to the streets of Belfast to commit murder — even Mr Maginness cannot indict them of that and prove that they were.

Photo of Gerry Kelly Gerry Kelly Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. The killing of north Belfast teenager Peter McBride goes directly to the heart of the relationship between Irish Nationalists and the British Government in Ireland. Peter McBride’s case is not the only one. Almost 400 Nationalists were killed as a direct result of Crown forces’ activity. Many of those killings were planned, as were hundreds more as a result of collusion with Loyalist murder gangs.

Peter would have been just another forgotten name or statistic if it had not been for two factors. One was the dogged and brave insistence of his parents and family, who did not, and will not, let this human rights issue be buried. The other is the British Army’s stubborn stupidity and racism.

The facts are as painful as they are clear. In 1992, Peter McBride, at the young age of 18, was stopped close to his home and thoroughly searched by a Scots Guards foot patrol. It has never been in dispute that he was unarmed. After he was searched, two soldiers, Wright and Fisher, shot Peter McBride in the back as he ran away, killing him. They were charged with murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. They were two of only a handful of soldiers ever to be convicted of any of the hundreds of killings carried out by the forces of the Crown. They had served less than six years when they were hurriedly released. The British Army should have discharged them, but it did not. Had Peter McBride been British and lived in London or Liverpool, we might safely assume that the soldiers involved would have been discharged.

It was a painful experience for all of Peter’s family. More pain was to come when the British Army Board twice ruled that Fisher and Wright could remain in the Army. In the midst of their hurt and grief, Peter’s family took a judicial review to the High Court to challenge that decision. The court overturned the Army Board’s ruling and instructed it to reconsider. Allegedly, another board was put up, which reconsidered the matter and came to the same unfortunate conclusion. Since 1995, when Fisher and Wright were convicted, many soldiers have been dismissed from the British Army after positive drugs tests. It would be hard for anyone to come to any conclusion other than that the British Government look on the murder of Irish people by the forces of the British Crown as little more than a misdemeanour.

What the McBrides want from the British Government is straightforward. They want recognition that Peter was innocent — a victim, a human being just like any other — [Interruption].

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker 3:15 pm, 5th December 2000

Order. If Members wish to have a conversation, they ought to have it outside the Chamber.

Photo of Gerry Kelly Gerry Kelly Sinn Féin

He had a family and friends who loved him. They want to grieve for Peter instead of watching his killers being patted on the back by the British Government. They do not want those two men to be handed back their rifles so that they can repeat their performance on someone else’s son; they want recognition that Peter and his family are the victims. In the scheme of things, that is not much for which to ask. Instead of being allowed to grieve properly, they are being publicly slapped in the face again and again.

The actions of the British Ministry of Defence are racist. It thinks that it does not matter because Peter was just a "Paddy". It affects us all, especially when one considers the timing of the Ministry of Defence’s announcement in the middle of the deepest crisis that the peace process has faced since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

I leave it to Jean McBride to articulate her feelings. In her statement, I see the determination, commitment and stamina that the British Government have underestimated to their cost and shame in the past. Speaking after she heard the British Ministry of Defence decision on 24 November, she said she was

"completely devastated by the decision".

She continued:

"but if they think that I am going to give up they have another thing coming. They think that Peter’s life is worth nothing — shoot him in the back and forget about him. We will fight on until these two murderers are kicked out. Tony Blair should be ashamed of himself. The anniversary of Peter’s birthday is next week and if they think that I brought my son into this world to have him murdered and forgotten, then they just don’t understand what it is to be a mother."

The British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, needs to know that this is a courageous family that cannot be dismissed. Peter’s mother, father and the rest of the family can be sure that they will not be fighting on their own. The British Prime Minister must accept that Irish people are not non-people. They need to be able to grieve and to know that soldiers who murder Irish people will be punished, not rewarded. He needs to tell his Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, to kick Wright and Fisher out of the British Army.

Photo of Mr Norman Boyd Mr Norman Boyd NIUP

Today the SDLP is yet again demonstrating a totally hypocritical stance. Throughout 30 years of terror the SDLP has condemned violence while not hesitating to profit politically from it. The SDLP is always telling Unionists that we should forget the past. Therefore, why does the SDLP create an issue about Guardsmen Fisher and Wright today? There is no necessity to re-open the court case and to re-enact it in the Chamber.

The SDLP demonstrates sheer hypocrisy with its selective condemnation of the two Scots Guardsmen, James Fisher and Mark Wright. The SDLP supports the disbandment of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the release of terrorist prisoners, including the release of Provisional IRA terrorists who have murdered hundreds of innocent Protestants, Roman Catholics and members of the security forces.

The SDLP wants mass murderers to be able to hold positions on policing boards and for the law-abiding people of Northern Ireland to accept terrorists in Government, including having a terrorist hold the position of Minister of Education. The SDLP has endorsed a convicted terrorist as a Minister in the Government of Northern Ireland.

The SDLP wants the two guardsmen removed from the Army, yet it wants the people of Northern Ireland to stomach Martin McGuinness as the Minister of Education even though he has held the position of Chief of Staff of the Provisional IRA, as well as being a convicted terrorist. Martin McGuinness was once named as Britain’s number-one terrorist by ‘The Cook Report’ and is on — [Interruption].

Photo of Gerry Kelly Gerry Kelly Sinn Féin

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Member speaks about the Minister of Education and is well off the subject of the Adjournment debate.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

I urge the Member to return to the subject of the debate.

Photo of Mr Norman Boyd Mr Norman Boyd NIUP

The so-called Minister’s sickening view that freedom can only be gained at the point of an IRA rifle is endorsed by the SDLP.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

Order. Members, where possible, should not feel themselves wholly bound by a prepared script. It is sometimes helpful to have notes, and it is always helpful to be prepared, but it adds much more to the debate when a degree of flexibility and response to the debate is possible. I urge all Members to enter into the spirit of the debate rather than be wholly restricted to a script. It also makes it easier to respond to requests from the Chair.

Photo of Mr Norman Boyd Mr Norman Boyd NIUP

Mr Speaker, I find that a little surprising when other Members, including the Member who spoke before me, read from scripts.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

If the Speaker is to refer, he must always refer when one or other Member is speaking. It is like the man who received two ties from his wife. When he came down wearing one, his wife asked what was wrong with the other one. Inevitably when one makes a reference it will be to one Member, and that Member will feel picked upon. I assure the Member that I am not picking on him. Rather, I refer to the general principle. However, I raised it in respect of him because he returned to his script, manifestly ignoring the Chair’s advice.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson DUP

On a further point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it in order for sexist remarks about wives and their opinions on ties to be made in the House?

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

I have no doubt that the same matters might be referred to in reverse, although I am trying to work out what the equivalent of the tie would be. However, I must remind Mr Wilson that the use of mobile phones in the Chamber is out of order.

Photo of Mr Norman Boyd Mr Norman Boyd NIUP

The SDLP has no protests or complaints with IRA terrorists who are made advisers to Ministers in the Executive. The SDLP does not call for public inquiries into the unsolved murders of innocent Protestants and members of the security forces. The SDLP never called for convicted terrorists to be barred from council positions or from the Assembly.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

I think that we might be relieved.

Photo of Mr Cedric Wilson Mr Cedric Wilson NIUP

We should compliment the SDLP on providing this public service. The SDLP is exposing its true nature and what it has embarked upon for the past 30 years in Northern Ireland when it has attempted to vilify the security forces. The SDLP has not stopped yet. It now tells the Assembly, the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister that it is unable to support the new forces of law and order in Northern Ireland. From Mr Alban Maginness we are witnessing the real face of the SDLP.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

Order. I have listened for some time. One thing that I am certain of is that Guardsmen Fisher and Wright were not members of the SDLP. They are the subjects of the debate, not the SDLP. It is reasonable to make references. However, we had a situation in which every sentence began with the words "The SDLP", as has the intervention. I plead with Members to return to the subject, which is the question of Guardsmen Fisher and Wright and their reinstatement.

Photo of Mr Cedric Wilson Mr Cedric Wilson NIUP

I will let my Colleague resume. It is sad, in the light of the fact that the security forces have been protecting Mr Alban Maginness’s constituents and his culture and background every bit as much as they have protected the Unionist and Protestant community in Northern Ireland, that the Member has moved this motion today. It is an absolute disgrace.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

I need to advise Mr Wilson — his Colleague who gave way will appreciate this — that he cannot restrict the Member who gives way. Interventions and interruptions in other Members’ speeches should be brief and to the point. They are not an opportunity for intervention speeches, as Mr Wilson’s was in danger of becoming.

Mr Boyd may continue, although his time is now short.

Photo of Mr Norman Boyd Mr Norman Boyd NIUP

There is no requirement to revisit the position of the two guardsmen, and Alban Maginness is being mischievous in doing so. It must be borne in mind that Peter McBride had a number of criminal convictions and had been running away from the soldiers at the time he was shot. One soldier believed that Peter McBride had opened fire on him, and another believed that Peter McBride was about to throw a lethal coffee-jar bomb at him. At that time, soldiers and police were being shot, bombed and murdered daily throughout Northern Ireland, and coffee-jar bomb attacks were a daily occurrence.

In a letter to ‘The Times’ after the trial, the two soldiers’ commanding officer, Lt-Col Tim Spicer, wrote:

"I am completely satisfied that neither of these young soldiers had anything other than the firmly held and honest belief that they were involved in a terrorist incident and therefore acted entirely in good faith, in accordance with the law, the rules of engagement and their military training."

Mr Maginness’s motion graphically illustrates the anti-British Army bias of the SDLP and the rest of the pan-Nationalist front. That bias has not changed in 30 years. Therefore, his argument lacks all credibility, and the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland will see that. The two soldiers were doing a difficult job in a violent environment, and most people believe that they should never have been jailed under such circumstances.

Photo of Mr Fraser Agnew Mr Fraser Agnew UUAP

If the debate serves no other purpose, it highlights the fundamental differences in the mindsets of the Nationalist and Unionist sides. Nationalists and Republicans were in favour of the release, under the terms of the Belfast Agreement, of the Shankill Road bomber, who was guilty of mass murder. He spent less time in jail than the two Scots Guardsmen. The Shankill Road bomber will have received funding to help his rehabilitation into society, and, as in many cases, he was no doubt in receipt of much more than many of the victims who lost their loved ones. No one on the Republican side objected to the release or to the moneys received, and no one objected to such a person being gainfully employed. The actions of the Shankill Road bomber were the result of careful planning. His callous actions were deliberate and premeditated.

Contrast that with the reaction to the release of the two guardsmen, Mark Wright and James Fisher. Unlike the Shankill Road bomber, they did not go out to deliberately maim and kill. Their actions were not the result of careful planning. Peter McBride was a petty criminal running away from the law when he was shot. Arguably, that was not a crime that should have resulted in him being shot dead, but tensions were high in the area. Two days previously, a colleague of the two Scots Guardsmen was callously shot dead by the Provisional IRA.

The soldiers made a genuine mistake, yet they have been accused, by Republicans in particular, of murder. Should a mistake be termed "murder", as was the case here? Unfortunately, the matter is now being used as a political football and many statements, especially from Republicans, reek of revenge and pure vindictiveness. Is anyone asking Sinn Féin to purge itself of convicted murderers and criminals?

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

Order. I should draw Members’ attention to the terms in which they are referring to the outcome of judicial proceedings. It seems to me that querying the outcome of judicial proceedings can properly be done only by substantive motion. At Westminster, the findings of a superior court may not be queried by way of remarks or statements — only by way of a substantive motion. Some remarks today query the outcome of a court case. There may be a question as to the precise standing of this place as a court, but it is proper for me to draw the matter to Members’ attention and to advise them to be cautious in that regard. I will study Hansard and look at the matter, not only in respect of this debate but in respect of others. I would appreciate Members’ being cautious in querying the findings of properly constituted courts.

Photo of Mr Fraser Agnew Mr Fraser Agnew UUAP

As always, I am more than happy to accept your advice on such matters.

Is anyone asking Sinn Féin to purge the party of the convicted murderers and criminals in its ranks? They have been convicted.

Indeed, it was almost mandatory to have a conviction to qualify for Sinn Féin membership. However, hypocritically, the Army is expected to purge its ranks of those who have paid their debt to society. Those two soldiers acted without malice. It was an unfortunate tragedy, and now they are being persecuted while hard-line terrorists, who went out to murder, are released from jail early. Those soldiers deserve justice and fairness, not further punishment through a vicious and vengeful campaign aimed at taking away their chosen career.

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC 3:30 pm, 5th December 2000

The issue is wider than the individuals concerned. The Assembly is aware, as we work to build confidence in the Army and the other security services, of our concern that the decision to reinstate the two guardsmen could imply that the Army is above the law. People are right to have high expectations of the security forces. We expect them to be fair and efficient and to enshrine the principles of democracy and justice. People will be rightly disappointed to see soldiers who have been found guilty of murder — the most serious of crimes in a court of law — return to their regiments.

People will also be confused by the contradictory judgements in these cases, which will serve only to undermine trust in the Army. Independent assessors and observers have also raised concerns. Soldiers have been dismissed for lesser crimes, as has already been stated. Surely murder should be treated much more seriously.

Photo of Seamus Close Seamus Close Alliance

I am somewhat saddened that this has become a Unionist versus Nationalist debate, argument and fight. I have not gleaned any sense of humanity or feeling for those who were wronged.

The decision by the Army Board to reinstate Messrs Wright and Fisher caused huge problems for many people. I do not speak about those who take any and every opportunity to strike out at the security forces or those to whom I would refer as Army "bashers"; I am talking about honest, decent people who have supported law and order down through the years when the forces of law and order were subjected to attacks from terrorists on both sides of the proverbial house. I firmly contend that the decision to reinstate those men was wrong. It was both insensitive and counterproductive and could bring the Army and forces of law and order into disrepute.

I do not need to rehearse further the arguments or the circumstances that surround the tragic death of Peter McBride. They have already been well rehearsed and documented, although, given what I have heard during the debate, some people still seem to have some of the facts wrong. Moreover, I do not need to rehearse the events that took place at the subsequent trial of the two soldiers.

It is suffice it to say that Peter McBride was shot dead and that two soldiers were found guilty of murder. Those are the incontrovertible facts. No one has suggested that Peter McBride ought to have been shot dead or that the two soldiers should not have been found guilty of a crime. If we live in this land of "maybe", "what if" and "what not", perhaps the soldiers made a mistake. Perhaps the charge was wrong. Perhaps Peter should not have run. However, those "maybes" and "what ifs" cannot alter the brutal fact that Peter McBride is dead. The soldiers shot him, and they were found guilty of murder.

To dismiss those facts as simply a mistake — "The poor soldiers made a mistake" — or an error of judgement diminishes human life. There is no mistake, no error of judgement that anyone could possibly make that could have greater consequences than the destruction of human life, and no apologies can undo that error or that wrong. That mistake is not the same as a mistake of indiscipline, insubordination, or drunkenness. I understand that soldiers have been dismissed from the Army for those reasons.

People are only dismissed from the Army because the Army must be seen to be a disciplined force in the eyes of everyone. How can it be seen to be a disciplined force if it includes within its ranks those who have been found guilty of murder? How can it be seen as a disciplined force if those who make that type of error — and let us assume that it was an error of judgement — are within its ranks? Are we to give a second chance, through reinstatement, so that those individuals carrying weapons of death can make the same mistake again? No. The price of another error of judgement is a price that I, and society, would not be prepared to pay, because it is the price of a human life.

The decision to reinstate the two soldiers has driven a huge stake through the family of Peter McBride. It is insensitive and has not taken their feelings into account. Some will say, "What about those other murderers that we see on the streets, those who have been released under the Good Friday Agreement?" People who make that point miss the point. If society makes that point, it misses the point. The law is there to defend the general public. Those within the forces of law and order who abuse or sink below those standards do a great disservice to the people that they try to serve. To compare them to terrorists is a disservice to the general public.

Photo of Mr Duncan Dalton Mr Duncan Dalton UUP

I support the motion, but I must make it clear that I do so out of individual choice and am not speaking on behalf of my party. The case is a terrible tragedy. One young man is dead and two others carry the dual burden of a conviction and their own conscience. I had hoped that this debate might be more than just a sectarian slanging match, but, unfortunately, it appears that Members are unable to look beyond their own sectarian interests. They have to prove how much of a super-Prod or super-Taig they can be in the House, rather than deal with the real issue.

I have grave concerns about the retention of Guardsmen Fisher and Wright in the Scots Guards following their conviction for murder, which was upheld by the Court of Appeal. I agree with Mr Maginness that, while other prisoners were benefiting from early release, it was correct that those men should also have been released from prison. The issue is whether they should be retained as members of the British Army. That is the subject of our debate, not whether they should have been released, and not whether they are part of a general ambiguity towards the wrongdoings of the past in Northern Ireland.

My comments should not be taken as criticism of the British Army. I am not here to bash the British Army. I am a former member, unlike those who have tried to defend the Army today, with the exception of my Colleague Mr McFarland. The circumstances are specific to the individual cases that we are discussing. The British Army has an honourable record in Northern Ireland. A third of a million men have served in Northern Ireland during the past 30 years. More than 650 of them have given their lives, and more than 6,000 carry wounds that constantly remind them of their service. Their record is an honourable one, and they have served their country and this community admirably.

My comments should not be seen as supportive of Republican-inspired vendettas against the security forces. Those community groups who purport to defend justice seem to apply that term only to certain victims. Their attitude appears to be basically sectarian. If groups such as the Pat Finucane Centre or the Committee on the Administration of Justice really seek justice for all, when will they take up, for example, the cases of Chief Inspector Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan, who were murdered by the Provisional IRA in South Armagh as a direct result of Garda collusion? Does their concept of justice not extend to members of the RUC?

As for the Members of Sinn Féin, I have no doubt that they have stood in the Chamber with straight faces and talked about human rights, justice and the terror of the British Army. I remind the House that the single biggest killer of the Nationalist people in Belfast was the Provisional IRA. The number of those killed by the police and the Army — and many of those killed were active terrorists in the course of acts of violence — is barely a quarter of the number killed by the Provisional IRA. The real oppressors of the Nationalist people were, and still are, the Provisional IRA. The spokesmen who talk about rights and justice while their colleagues brutalise their own community nightly make me laugh.

Having said that, we must remember that the issue being debated today is one of principle. The crime of Guardsmen Fisher and Wright is different to many committed in this country. It is not comparable to those who deliberately plan brutal murders, but it was still a crime. It was murder even though it was mitigated, to a degree, by the circumstances. The fact that Fisher and Wright committed the murder while wearing the Queen’s uniform should not be an excuse. In principle, I doubt that many in the House believe that someone convicted of serious crimes prior to application should serve in the police or the Army. It is not acceptable for an ex-IRA man or a ex-UVF man to be in the security forces, so why is an exception being made this time?

Of course, the circumstances of that case are different. Those two men were soldiers, operating in a difficult situation. They were young men doing a tough job as best they could. However, they made a terrible and fatal mistake, and they failed in their duty. I ask people to step back from the emotion and remember the cold facts. Peter McBride was an innocent 18-year-old man who was out in broad daylight on 4 September 1992. He was stopped by an Army patrol and searched. During that time he got involved in an altercation with team commander Sgt Swift, and he ran from the patrol. He was pursued and, from a distance of approximately 80 to 90 yards, was shot twice in the back and fatally wounded. He crawled into an alley behind Hillman Street and lay dying.

I ask Members, especially those on this side of the House, to remember that. An innocent and unarmed citizen of the United Kingdom was killed by soldiers of the United Kingdom Army, on the streets of the United Kingdom, in circumstances that a United Kingdom judge sitting in a United Kingdom court found to constitute murder. That should be a matter of concern to everyone, whether Unionist or Nationalist.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

Order. The Member’s time is up.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

May I acknowledge the speeches of the previous three Members who spoke in this debate. Mr Agnew said that this is a campaign motivated by, as he put it, revenge and vindictiveness. If there is one truth about this particular campaign, it is that neither revenge nor vindictiveness motivates Peter McBride’s family. They want closure on the issue and to put the matter behind them without any further revenge, reparation or prosecution. That point should be acknowledged.

We have learnt, belatedly, that the purpose of the debate is to raise this issue and to raise it in a way that will let people step back from their instinct to defend or condemn the Army and allow them to make an informed judgement about the conduct of two soldiers on the streets of north Belfast in 1992. As we have learnt — belatedly — that can happen, and it has happened before.

Mr Boyd said that the motion is motivated by anti-British Army bias, but there are others who disagree. To say that those soldiers — who had been given specific responsibilities for the security and maintenance of the law in Northern Ireland — can return to the Army and continue as before is something that I have real difficulty in accepting.

Others, such as the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, have said that they find real difficulties with the soldiers’ reinstatement. That is not evidence of anti-British or anti-British Army bias. Mr McFarland said that we should pursue vendettas. I think that shows that this is not a vendetta.

Furthermore, I do not agree that we should forget the past; we should deal with the past. We need a truth process that will address properly and creatively all the harsh things that have been done and said. In that context, the matter under discussion has not been carefully selected but is part of a wider truth and reconciliation process that can help to inform our society.

Dr Paisley acknowledged that those who have suffered bereavement in the North continue to suffer. I want to acknowledge that he said that. I might even agree with him that, on that day, those soldiers did not go out to murder. I do not know what was in their heads and hearts on that day and at that time, but Dr Paisley might well be right about that. However, it is also true that, just as Loyalist paramilitary armies in the North went out with murder in their heads and their hearts, there were elements in the British Army, especially in the Forces Research Unit (FRU), who went out with that intention. Those in the British Army who were responsible for the murder of Pat Finucane, among others, should be called to account sooner rather than later.

As Mr Maginness said, the report of the Army Board will, sooner or later, come out. When it does, we must all ask ourselves the questions that the Army Board answered in the affirmative. First, were there exceptional circumstances to justify the return of the soldiers to the British Army? Secondly, on that day, were people in the area carrying coffee-jar bombs and was the situation tense? If we conclude that none of those circumstances applied, we must ask whether it is legitimate to allow people who used their guns to murder to use those guns in the future.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr DUP 3:45 pm, 5th December 2000

We have heard breathtaking hypocrisy from the Members opposite. The Member for North Belfast, Mr Maginness, usually comes to the House piously wringing his hands and telling us that he will never contribute to any debate that might be contentious. He appeals to us from his perch of piety to withdraw from any debate that could be regarded as contentious. Today, he has brought a highly contentious issue to the House. As the Member for North Down, Mr McFarland, said, the issue should not have been brought to the House, because another place has responsibility for such matters. It is regrettable that the SDLP has done so.

I do not object to our debating the issue, but I object strongly to SDLP hypocrisy. Many of the words that they have uttered will come back to haunt them. In many other places — whether he has been elected to them or not — John Hume, whom, I believe, has never spoken in this House, tells people to draw a line under the past. So much for that — today, Front-Bench SDLP Members have raked over the dirt and stirred the embers of the past. They want to rub people’s noses in it; that is what is so contemptible.

The McBride family deserves sympathy. However, the way that the family’s case has been treated by Nationalist and Republican representatives in the House diminishes the respect and the sympathy that they have gained.

If the McBride family is entitled to sympathy, the Fisher and Wright families — and, indeed, Guardsmen Fisher and Wright — are also entitled to sympathy for the difficult job that young men were asked to do in the streets because of butchers who are represented in the House today. Mr Maginness said many things, such as it was "a bitter pill for the McBride family to swallow", "unworthy of the title ‘soldier’", "they defy justice" and "double standards". All of that can be said about the Belfast Agreement, and how it released many other of this society’s killers, but I did not hear it from him. Not once did he utter any such condemnation. Why does the Member fail to table a motion about the unworthiness of people in Government who have been convicted? Why does he not do that? Why does he not join with me today and sign such a motion? I do not believe he has reached this new high moral ground. He said that it is a bitter pill to swallow. It certainly is a bitter pill when prisoners’ groups get £6 million, as was seen across the Province last weekend. There is no doubt that if we are going to apply the new Maginness standards of defying justice — "bitter pill" and "double standards" — the Belfast Agreement is unworthy of the name "peace agreement".

Mr Maginness also has selective amnesia regarding the troubles. I can list for him young men of 17, 18, 19 and in their twenties who were murdered in his constituency. Mr McCaig, Mr McCaughey, Mr James Hesketh, and Mr James Macklin were all soldiers. One was shot on the Antrim Road, one on the Grosvenor Road, and two at Ligoniel. I never heard him uttering a word about those murders. I never heard him bring a motion before this House about those young men. What were they doing? They were defending him and his constituents. What price did they have to pay? They paid with their lives.

He has the audacity to lecture Members on this side of the House about unfitness. Then we have Mr "not fit to practise as a solicitor" Attwood get up and support him. How dare he lecture any Member in this House about unfitness, and people being unfit to be in Government in Northern Ireland when he supports it? If they are going to start pointing the finger, they had better look at the three fingers pointing back at them. If people —

Photo of Dr Joe Hendron Dr Joe Hendron Social Democratic and Labour Party

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Surely it must be out of order for the Member to make a direct personal attack on another Member like that. It is an absolute disgrace. I would like to hear what you have to say about it.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

If personal attacks are made on Members, they have the right to respond. I am happy to give the Member an opportunity, if he so wishes, to respond without interruption after Mr Paisley Jnr has finished.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr DUP

I would be happy to read the articles that were printed in ‘The Irish News’ — the newspaper that helped the other Member from West Belfast many times in the past. He may wish to read those articles. If the SDLP has set new standards in this debate, those standards apply to it as much as they apply to Guardsmen Fisher and Wright. In this House, we have bomb-planters, widow-makers and orphan-creators. There is not a word of condemnation from the SDLP about those people, but condemnation at the double for the British Army.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

Order. The Member’s time is up. I call Mr Attwood, should he wish to make a response, given that an attack was made on him.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

The particular comment that he made is untrue, and it is a matter of public record that it is untrue. Secondly, everybody should be judged against standards. Everybody in the Chamber, myself included, should be judged against many standards.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr DUP

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it in order for a Member to come to the House and tell us, when the Law Society

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

Order. The Member will resume his seat. He has had an opportunity to make his remarks, and he will know that he and his Colleagues are quite content to exercise their right to make a response when accusations are made against them. Therefore, I have given Mr Attwood — as I will give any other Member — the right to respond when accusations of that kind, as distinct from an entirely political kind, are made against a Member. Mr Attwood has responded. The matter, so far as I am concerned, is therefore closed, and I think it improper to engage in further discussion or debate about it.

Adjourned at 3.55 pm.