It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I start by paying tribute to Bob Stewart. I do not think there is any Member of this House who does not have a deep affection for him. He is held in high esteem, and his was probably one of the most powerful contributions many of us will hear over years in this House. It starkly lays out the challenge we face. We spend a lot of time in this House bantering with one another, sharing bonhomie and referring to those who served as gallant men, but we have just heard the cries and calls for help. No matter how well we wish to dress on
The debate has come at a most opportune time. Members of the House will know I made comments publicly last week expressing my deep disappointment at the sounds coming from the Ministry of Defence, which envisages legislative protection for armed personnel, but not those who served in Northern Ireland. Mrs Moon, you know me. We serve together on the Defence Committee. You know the history, you have heard the stories and you know the experience of people who have lived or served in Northern Ireland. They deserve our support.
I have enormous time for the Minister of State, but he should not be here today. We cannot talk as a nation about our commitment to those who served us, yet delegate anything that happened in Northern Ireland to the Northern Ireland Office. When we as a country established an armed forces covenant and said we had a commitment to those who served, it was not caveated. We did not say, “One system for those who live in England, Scotland and Wales, and another for those who live in Northern Ireland.” We did not say, “If you happen to serve in Northern Ireland, you will be treated as less than someone who happened to serve overseas.” When we talk of sacrifice, we recognise it as such. It does not come in different grades or forms that require different responses.
I read the response to the petition—I commend the petitioners and Damien Moore, who opened the debate admirably—and the Government are right when they say that any proposal should be consistent with the rule of law. They are right to say that criminal investigations and prosecutions are a matter for police and prosecuting authorities, which act independently of Government and politicians. They are wrong, however, to fail to seize the challenge here for us. We set the rule of law in this country. As parliamentarians, it is our duty to set the parameters through which our prosecutors and police operate.
We have a problem. The Government say that they will consult on proposals. They await the responses on the Stormont House agreement or the proposals for a statute of limitations, but what consultation was there on the odious on-the-runs letters? None, but the political proponents of the IRA asked for them, the Labour Government gave them, and the Conservative Government continued to operate the scheme. John Downey, responsible for the Hyde Park bomb, walked free as a direct result of that on-the-runs scheme. There was no public consultation. There was no putting it through the prism of the Northern Ireland Office to see what the views were among political parties or the general public. The deal was done. The Government provided the cover that terrorists sought; they did not ask us. They did not ask the public in Northern Ireland for their view. They did not ask for people’s views on whether it was appropriate to give a get-out-of-jail-free card to those who attempted to destroy society in Northern Ireland.