Immunity for Soldiers — [Mrs Madeleine Moon in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:54 pm on 20th May 2019.

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Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham 4:54 pm, 20th May 2019

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Most men on the ground were petrified that, by accident, they would kill an innocent person. That was a factor in the decision to open fire, in those milliseconds.

I know what happens in the case of a fatality, as I was involved in such an investigation. The Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Special Investigation Branch of the Royal Military Police hauled us over the coals. Even though we had just acted to save our life or someone else’s life, we were treated as though we had done something wrong. Soldiers are separated, questioned individually and kept in isolation. They are not given assistance and they have a very uncomfortable interview. The weapons they used are seized and checked; all the ammunition is counted, and they have to account for every single round. That is what happened to our men, and some women, when they were involved in fatality shootings.

Detailed reports were produced. The problem is that those reports are usable by the Director of Public Prosecutions; they are dug up, and some people go to court. In 1978, I had a very uncomfortable interview with two soldiers who were working with me. They were not infantry. I told them they had to go to court and would be charged with manslaughter. They went ballistic. They said, “Sir, you bloody officer. You are actually going to ditch us. You are going to abandon us; you are going to let us go to a court.” I felt rotten, because I agreed with them, but the Royal Ulster Constabulary told me that I had to instruct those soldiers to go to court and I had to support them, because if they went to court on a charge of manslaughter and that court proved there was no case to answer, the case would be dismissed and they would never hear about it again. Well, will they?

We always acted within the law. If we did not, as we have heard already, we should be prosecuted, but this card was given to us by our predecessors in this place as a protection, as well as instructions as to how we should act. Terrorists just disappear. There is no record of what they have done; they just kill. As my right hon. Friend Richard Benyon has said, we must not judge them in the same way as soldiers. It is so easy to go after men in uniform who went out at our bidding and acted within the law, with everything written down. It is so much more difficult to get evidence on a terrorist. Those terrorists just disappear, and then they get letters; I know those letters do not give them immunity, but it seems like they do. To the men and women who are veterans and who I am trying to represent, it seems like our Government—or Governments, because this includes the Labour Government as well—are giving those guys get-out-of-jail cards. So many of our veterans feel really bitter about that.

It is unsurprising that there is huge anger among the veteran community. They ask, quite rightly, “What are you Members of Parliament doing to help us? You sent us there. You gave us this bloody card and said that if we used it and acted in accordance with it, we would be protected.” Now, our soldiers need protection. They need our protection. How can soldiers, policemen and members of the Ulster Defence Regiment—some representatives of that regiment are here—be considered in the same light as a terrorist? As my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury said, those guys went out to kill; we went out to save lives. There is a huge difference in intention, and we have to sort this matter out. Terrorists did not give a damn who they killed. I have held people dying—women and young girls, including one 18-year-old girl who happened to be a Catholic. They did not give a damn who they killed, and it was terribly upsetting.

Our men and women who served in uniform require us to act. We need a statute of limitations for Northern Ireland veterans. It is absolutely right that we have a statute of limitations for people serving outside the UK, but what is the difference? Someone putting on a uniform was more likely to be shot in Northern Ireland than someone doing it in Iraq or Afghanistan. I can tell you that in Northern Ireland, our casualty rate was pretty big. The casualties we had in Northern Ireland outstrip the casualties we have had in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not just that: there were people who were really badly injured. I had three who lost their legs.

Colleagues, we cannot consider our servicemen and servicewomen in the same light as terrorists. I am ashamed that our Governments—I say “Governments” because I include Labour, the coalition and our present Government —are, as our servicemen and servicewomen see it, complicit in a witch hunt against them. These are old soldiers. Many are in their 70s—I will get there in a couple of months. In the Army, when we really wanted to sort something out, people would be told, “Get a grip.” It is time that our Government and our Ministers got a grip.