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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:09 pm on 20th May 2019.

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Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence) 5:09 pm, 20th May 2019

I think the hon. Gentleman is right, and I thank him for his comments about me. I am one of the lucky ones; I am a member of a party of 10 MPs, but I have not faced what my colleagues or their families have faced. I have not faced the threat that they endured for many years, and I am grateful for that. Society in Northern Ireland has moved on, but fear of invoking something that is wrong cannot be right. It cannot be the path that our Government walk.

There was some suggestion over the weekend and last week that Northern Ireland’s not being included in the statute of limitations was the Democratic Unionist party’s fault. I have heard said over the past six months, “The confidence and supply partners are holding back the expansion of the proposal,” but let me nail that myth today. Anyone who serves with me on the Defence Committee knows my position and that of my party. We will never stand up for an amnesty that equates terrorists with service personnel, but we will work for and provide the protection that our service personnel need.

I have a letter here that we sent to the Prime Minister on 31 October. It states:

“As we have done in the past, we reiterate again that we will vigorously oppose any attempt to introduce an amnesty for the criminal actions of illegal terrorist organisations. There can be no legal or moral equivalence made between the armed forces acting under the rule of law and terrorists who acted outside the law. Affording legal protection in the form of a statute of limitations or similar mechanism to the armed forces and those who served alongside them including the Royal Ulster Constabulary, will not mean an amnesty for anyone. This was the conclusion of the Defence Select Committee and it is a point of view we will uphold.”

I simply want to share that for clarity.

We should not be surprised that we face this challenge. Governments of various hues find it within their gift to respond to the calls of armed service personnel only when the cost of not doing so is higher than the cost of doing so. That is true in my experience of the armed forces covenant in Northern Ireland, where we have Ministers who, because of their political prejudice, say, “I’m sorry; the armed forces covenant does not apply here.” I have shared with Members in this House correspondence from Michelle O’Neill, the leader of Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland, who wrote just that when she was Northern Ireland’s Minister for Health—“The armed forces covenant does not apply here.” She was wrong. It was a national commitment. Do we have a Government who are prepared to enforce that national commitment and repay the trust and the service of our armed forces personnel in Northern Ireland? No, we do not—at least, not yet.

When Joanna Lumley campaigned for Gurkhas who sought the right of abode in this country if they had served before 1997, the Government said no continually. It was only in the dying throes of the Gordon Brown Government that they finally acquiesced, because not doing so was causing them too much trouble in the run-up to an election. That is not how we should honour those who protected us.

I want to share some context—for the rest of this debate, not for the rest of my speech—about Bloody Sunday. I recognise entirely what was said at the start of the debate, and I will not go into specifics about the day. I will not breach any of our conventions about what is sub judice and what is not; it would be inappropriate to do so. Bloody Sunday happened on 30 January 1972. Anyone who has taken the opportunity to look at the Saville report and to hear from families and understand the hurt that they have experienced, and who heard our Prime Minister at the time say that it was unjustified and unjustifiable, knows that it was a dreadful day.

In Northern Ireland, 1972 was a dreadful year, with more murders than any other; 258 people lost their lives. I will take the three weeks before 30 January. On 5 January 1972, Keith Bryan of the Gloucester Regiment was murdered by the IRA. On 12 January 1972, Royal Ulster Constabulary Reservist Constable Raymond Denham was murdered in his workplace by the IRA. On 13 January 1972, an Ulster Defence Regiment sergeant and site foreman was murdered by the IRA. On 21 January 1972, Private Charles Stentiford of the Devon and Dorset Regiment was murdered by the IRA. On 27 January 1972, in Creggan in Londonderry, Sergeant Peter Gilgunn and Constable David Montgomery of the RUC were both murdered by the IRA: a Catholic sergeant and a Protestant constable serving together, and returning to their RUC station together, having sought to protect and defend the integrity of our society together, both murdered by the IRA. On 28 January 1972, Constable Raymond Carroll was murdered by the IRA. Only when we hear those names and the range of dates—this was only three weeks—do we recognise the circumstances, and the pressure under which people were serving.

The hon. Member for Beckenham focused his remarks on the yellow card, which was not the be-all and end-all. It was revised in the ’80s because it was seen to be too complicated. When Lee Clegg was convicted in the ’90s, it was changed again. We have taken evidence on the yellow card not being worth the paper it is written on, yet those were the rules of engagement that our service personnel were told they had to abide by.

We had Bloody Sunday, Bloody Friday and the Claudy bomb all in 1972. During the three-week period that I mentioned, four members of the IRA were killed. Two innocents were killed as well. On 8 January 1972, Peter Gerard Woods was murdered by loyalists in north Belfast, and on 18 January 1972, Sydney Agnew, who would have been a constituent of mine, was murdered by republicans. I do not see there being a fair reflection of that circumstance, that atmosphere or that experience in any court process today. I am deeply disappointed by the level of legal support that the Ministry of Defence offers service personnel in that situation today.

I am deeply disappointed that, unlike the scores of groups that our Government fund to research cases on behalf of victims and their families in Northern Ireland, our Ministry of Defence does not take an overview from one case to the next; that it does not contextualise the support that it gives; and that there is no equivalence between the documents retained by our state, those used against our state, and those that protected our state.

As I say, today’s petition is opportune. All the contributions this afternoon have asked us to do more. When I asked the Attorney General on 31 January this year whether any proposal brought forward by the Government would apply equally across this United Kingdom, he not only said yes, but said that it would be plainly wrong to do anything else. I hope he is right.