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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 7:03 pm on 20th May 2019.

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Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland) 7:03 pm, 20th May 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate Damien Moore for bringing the debate.

It is a common truism and an error when people pay credit to debates by saying they are the most important they have heard; on this occasion, that is not an exaggeration. We have been privileged to hear some extraordinary testimony, not just from eye witnesses, but from people who have made it their business to study this awful, tragic business over many years. On the one hand, we have the ugly, unfortunate and unacceptable image of pensioners being dragged from the golf course, but on the other hand we have to look into the eyes of those whose relatives were killed. I am glad that some people mentioned the victims; it is important to mention them.

We have to ask ourselves: are we seriously saying that at no stage, at any time in the 30 years of Operation Banner, no person in British Army uniform committed murder? I think we all know that there were incidents: four soldiers were convicted of murder during that period, although in one instance, the case was then downgraded to manslaughter. All four were sentenced to life imprisonment; all four were released by the royal prerogative after fewer than five years; and all four rejoined the British Army. I have not met a single person serving or formerly serving in the armed forces who has anything but contempt for soldiers who break their oath and act outside the area that they should; that is incredibly important. We have to recognise that there are two sides. Obviously, we have sympathy for people.

In many ways Robert Courts encapsulated the heart of the problem. He implied—he may have meant to do more than that—that we should have prosecuted at the time; the problem is justice delayed. As these cases were not prosecuted at the time, we are led to the present situation. To have prosecuted at the time might have been more sensible.

The hon. Member for Southport said that over 3,000 people died during the troubles; that bears repetition. Probably the most chilling statistic I have ever heard is that more than that number have killed themselves since the Good Friday agreement. There have been over 3,000 suicides in Northern Ireland. That tells us something about the continuation of the horror that has bitten deep into the soul. When we hear the testimony of Jim Shannon—I call him my friend—we realise how raw these emotions still are. That is why, if at all humanly possible, we have to be as dispassionate as we can be. That is not easy. We are talking about points of law, and about decisions that we take in this House that will echo down the ages, for years to come; we have to be cautious and careful in what we say.

My hon. Friend Luke Pollard rightly referred to the chain of command, which has not been discussed overmuch. In some cases, ordinary troops—ordinary soldiers, ordinary sailors, ordinary airmen and women—were let down by the chain of command.

That brings me to the extraordinary speech of Bob Stewart. I was privileged to be in the House on the incredible occasion when he quoted Kipling:

“it’s Tommy this, an’
Tommy that, an’ ‘Chuck him out, the brute!’

But it’s ‘Saviour of ’is country’
when the guns begin to shoot”.

I never saw active service, but from the emotion that he showed on that occasion and has shown today, I felt the real importance of the debate.

The hon. and gallant Gentleman spoke about the yellow card. There has been much discussion about the yellow card, but I think we need to have a few facts. It was amended six times between 1969 and 1972, and was never, ever intended to supersede the common law, which gives the right of self-defence. Nobody ever suggested that the yellow card was anything other than a source of guidance; it did not supersede the common law. The central point is that the law has to apply to all on every occasion.