This has been an extremely emotional debate in which many hon. and gallant Members have spoken passionately about their personal experience in Northern Ireland. We expect the highest standards from our armed forces, and that requires them to operate within the rule of law, in accordance with the rules of engagement. Military operations in Northern Ireland were highly stressful, so a high level of training was central to ensuring that discipline was maintained.
Many Members have spoken about the restraint they had to exercise during their service in Northern Ireland, and they described their exemplary behaviour. The actions of a few in the armed forces during Operation Banner, which, in the case of the Bloody Sunday killings, Prime Minister David Cameron described as “unjustified and unjustifiable”, let down their colleagues and made the overall task more difficult.
We have heard many examples of how stressful the process has been for the individuals and families involved. The hon. Members for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), and for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), asked what sort of new evidence would be considered appropriate when looking at investigations. We need that important question answered. Many families have been left in limbo while investigations drag on, as have members or former members of the armed forces.
The legacy investigation branch of the PSNI is reviewing all deaths attributed to the security situation in Northern Ireland between 1968 and the Belfast agreement in 1998. However, it is not only deaths attributed to security personnel that are being investigated. We therefore need to be careful about talk of soldiers being prosecuted or being easy targets for prosecution, and terrorists getting away scot-free, because that is simply not true. Any decision by the legacy investigation branch to prosecute is referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland. That is an independent process, without UK Government involvement.
As I said, we must be careful about the language we use. In March, the Northern Ireland Secretary was forced to issue an apology to the House for what she described as her “deeply insensitive” comments on state killings in Northern Ireland. She referred to her “inaccurate” comments on the actions of soldiers during the troubles. In her statement to the House, she declared:
“What I said was wrong. It was deeply insensitive to the families who lost loved ones in incidents involving the security forces.”
She added that any evidence of wrongdoing should be
“pursued without fear or favour, whoever the perpetrators might be.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 656, c. 74.]
That is crucial to the ongoing peace process. If we do not want to lose sight of what we have achieved in Northern Ireland and what we continue to want to achieve, we must be sensitive to the victims on both sides.