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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 6:37 pm on 20th May 2019.

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Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Conservative, North Shropshire 6:37 pm, 20th May 2019

I will follow your instruction to be brief, Mr Bone, and I apologise to you and to Mrs Moon for not requesting to speak in advance—I was unaware that the debate was taking place.

I will try to keep it simple. As someone who was shadow Secretary of State for three years and Secretary of State for two years, and who did business in Northern Ireland when I was younger and continues to go there, I sincerely thank all those who have spoken very movingly, including my hon. Friend Bob Stewart and Jim Shannon. I thank them for everything they did and all the people they represent—the hundreds of thousands in the military and the security services who did their level best to maintain the rule of law. That is what it was all about. It was the most extraordinary insurgency, which aimed to break the rule of law.

I was in Northern Ireland only 10 days ago, talking to a guy who had worked his way up the ranks and was a senior officer. He was emphatic that he did not want any amnesty, because what he and his men did was defend the rule of law. We all support the Belfast agreement, which is an extraordinary achievement. Politically, it had the support of both main parties in the UK, both main parties in the Republic of Ireland and both main parties in the United States. It would never have begun without all those brave servicemen, policemen and members of the security services who maintained the rule of law. It is very much thanks to them that Northern Ireland is in such a better position now.

We know that during the talks, the Blair Government, like the Major Government before them, had to take some hideously difficult decisions. We know about the infamous letters, but releasing prisoners only two years on from their conviction, after due process, of the most appalling crimes was an incredibly difficult decision. At the time, that was much bigger for many people than the issue of letters, but it has been worthwhile, and we should thank all those who gave it their best. Bluntly, those brave men and women made it impossible for those pursuing the republican cause to get their aims by violence, and made them realise that the only way to pursue their aims was by peaceful means. That was a remarkable achievement.

Today, many people wish Northern Ireland to become part of the Republic of Ireland. The political campaign has not gone away. As United Kingdom representatives, we have to be careful that innocent old soldiers do not get drawn into the current political process. That is what is happening. I will be very careful given your strictures about matters that are sub judice, Mr Bone. I talked to an elderly veteran who had several pieces of paper from military legal departments exonerating him for an incident, yet a rural police force, which I would have thought had better things to do, sent half a dozen police cars around to arrest him. That shows that this has got completely out of hand. There is a real sense of grievance and injustice. Bluntly, the Government have to wake up to this and put it right.

My hon. Friends the Members for Wells (James Heappey) and for Beckenham spoke very well about how tiny the moments were in which the decisions that may lead to these processes were made. I am one of the probably very few human beings who has read every page of the Saville report. I was responsible in Northern Ireland for the various reports that came through from the peace process, which, obviously, we published and reported to Parliament. I doubt any country in the world could have gone to such lengths and such expense to try to get to the truth. On many parts of that terrible event, Saville is very clear—he establishes what happens—but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wells said, there are several tiny moments on which Saville struggles for page after page. In some instances, he does not come to a conclusion. These were split-second moments back in 1972. As my hon. Friend said, people could not remember them a week later, so how on earth are they going to remember clearly new facts?

There are merits in a statute of limitations. I leave that to lawyers, such as my hon. Friend Robert Courts, who is about to speak. It would be completely wrong if the Secretary of State for Defence made a statement tomorrow that there is one regime for soldiers who served in one theatre—Afghanistan or Iraq—and a completely different regime for those who served in Op Banner. That would be absolutely wrong. As my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham said, politicians at the time sent these young soldiers to do their duty—to defend the rule of law. Those soldiers were not told, “Sorry, guys, but in 30 or 40 years’ time you’re going to have a different regime because, bluntly, you will be drawn into a contemporary political campaign.” That is what is happening.

This is my appeal to the Minister. There are two things the Government could do now. First, we do not need statements in Parliament or new legislation; we need an absolute, categorical guarantee from the Government that those who have legally valid pieces of paper exonerating them for incidents in the past will not be subject to a further process unless there is absolutely clear new evidence. Secondly, allied to that, there must not be any process in which a fair trial is not allowed. That is a very long-standing principle. I am not a lawyer, but there has to be clear, absolutely categorical new evidence, and an absolute assurance from the prosecuting authorities that the trial will be fair. It would be very good if the Minister confirmed that.