My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The armed forces were there from the outset to protect peace; the terrorists were there to inflict harm on people. That is an important distinction to make.
I hold veterans and serving members of our armed forces in the highest regard. I hope and believe that that sentiment is shared across this Chamber. In my short tenure as the Member of Parliament for Southport, I have sought to spend a considerable proportion of my parliamentary time raising issues pertinent to those who have served or continue to serve in our armed forces. I am glad to do so again today, although I think that many hon. Members would agree that this issue should have been resolved some time ago.
I welcome this debate, and I thank all hon. Members from across Parliament who are present, including my right hon. and hon. Friends. I am also delighted to see my hon. Friend Johnny Mercer. His perseverance and unrelenting dedication to our veterans has encouraged the Government to act more swiftly on this issue. While policing and justice issues in Northern Ireland are now ordinarily devolved to the Northern Ireland Executive—or, in their absence, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—the legacy of the troubles remains a matter for this Parliament and the UK Government to contend with. To do justice to the issue, we must meet it with the upmost respect and candour.
In a debate on this topic last May, my hon. Friend Sir Henry Bellingham reminded us of the incredibly high number of lives lost during the troubles in Northern Ireland: an astonishing 3,500 people were killed in those terrible years. Let us break that figure down. Approximately 3,000 of those victims were killed by non-state forces—republican terrorists and loyalist paramilitaries. Some 370 were killed by security forces. A total of 722 members of the security services— mainly British soldiers—were also killed. Twice as many soldiers were killed by terrorists as terrorists were killed by soldiers. That should give us British citizens tremendous confidence in our armed forces. It is proof of the commendable restraint shown by the British Army and the Police Service of Northern Ireland at that time.
All those killings, bar a few outstanding terrorist cases, have been investigated fully—often repeatedly. My hon. Friend Bob Stewart, a distinguished and gallant veteran, said last week in an urgent question on the subject that he had been through the process more than once. He is not alone in that. Despite the investigations, matters are complicated further by subsequent developments, poor record keeping, the passing of former servicemen and women, the hundreds of royal pardons that have been granted over time, and the over 500 prisoners released on licence until the year 2000.
The entire process so far appears to have been rigged against our armed forces and in favour of terrorist groups. That does not provide closure or justice. Terrorists and illegal paramilitary forces cannot and must not be viewed or treated as being equal to the police and armed forces, as if they were somehow standing on shared moral ground; they never have done, and never will. However, the legal framework would have us believe that the words “terrorists” and “servicemen and women” should be treated equally in the context of Northern Ireland—they should not.
Having said that, I appreciate the need for closure felt by everyone involved in those tragic years of our great nation’s history. Likewise, I respect the implications of the Good Friday agreement, and understand the pain and suffering endured by the victims’ families, who yearn for justice. Where crimes have been committed—they do happen, albeit rarely—the rule of law should be applied, those involved should be investigated, and prosecutions should be forthcoming. However, let us be clear: in the midst of conflict, those instances are the exception, not the rule. The overwhelming majority of our servicemen and women believe in the preservation of life and the rule of law. They swore to uphold those values in making their vow to the Queen and the people of the United Kingdom when enlisting into the armed forces, and they believe in those values today.
Let us look at some key historical facts. Operation Banner was the longest military engagement in the history of the British Army. During the troubles, as I mentioned, there were more than 3,500 deaths, some 60% of which were murders carried out by republican paramilitary terrorists, mainly from the Provisional IRA. Approximately 30% were carried out by loyalist paramilitaries. British and Irish state forces were responsible for 10% of the deaths; almost all of those occurred as a result of entirely lawful or yellow-card actions, when soldiers and police officers were instructed to act to preserve life and uphold the virtues of the rule of law.
Another stark fact about that period is that a member of the security forces in Northern Ireland was three times more likely to be killed than a member of the IRA, which contrasts with today’s theatres of war, where members of terrorist organisations are three times more likely to be killed than members of the armed forces. That point alone depicts the unrelenting bravery of those who served in Northern Ireland.
Let there be no doubt that paramilitary terrorists were responsible for almost 90% of deaths in Northern Ireland, including more than 3,000 unsolved murders. If we consider that in comparison with the 10% of deaths that have been attributed to those who were serving with the armed forces at the time, we may begin to understand the relentlessness faced by those victims and their beloved families, and the burning injustice faced by our veterans who are being routinely investigated.
The Good Friday agreement, which was hailed as a triumph in 1998, advanced long-term peace in Northern Ireland. For some, however, it may also have inadvertently equalized those who sought to defend the Crown and those who sought to bring it down in the most violent fashion, and have tilted the scale in favour of the terrorists by authorising the early release from jail of many—too many.
Terrorists killed more than 1,000 servants of the Crown involved in Operation Banner. The victims were members of several armed forces divisions, such as the Army, the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force, the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Irish Regiment. Police forces, including the Royal Ulster Constabulary and other constabularies, also lost hundreds of lives at the hands of the terrorists. We cannot do anything to bring those men and women back to their families and loved ones, but we can do something to honour them: ensure that justice is done.
What did the UK Government do instead? They went to explicit lengths to show mercy to people who had been found guilty of the most heinous crimes. One of many examples is Sean Kelly, the infamous Shankill bomber. Prior to 1998, Kelly had been found guilty of murdering seven people and condemned to nine life terms in prison. As it turned out, he barely served seven years.
Despite efforts to investigate the unsolved murders that occurred during the troubles in Northern Ireland, of which the Historical Enquiries Team set up by the Chief Constable is the most prominent, it is saddening and frustrating to see how little real effort has been put into prosecuting the perpetrators of approximately 90% of the crimes committed, while those who fought to preserve the state have been subjected to multiple investigations. Some of those investigations started more than four decades ago and have been opened and closed multiple times, with no consideration for the old age and welfare of those being investigated.