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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 7:16 pm on 20th May 2019.

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Photo of John Penrose John Penrose The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 7:16 pm, 20th May 2019

It is good to have you looking after the second half of the proceedings, Mr Bone. I echo the repeated compliments and tributes to my hon. Friend Damien Moore, who led this tremendously important debate, kicking off a set of angry, passionate and emotional contributions from colleagues, many of whom have served in Her Majesty’s armed forces. Even those who have not—including those who have confessed to being lawyers—have been incredibly understanding and sympathetic to the plight being discussed today. My hon. Friend rightly started by saying that the vast majority of the deaths caused during the troubles were caused by terrorists. A very small minority can be attributed to the actions of Her Majesty’s armed forces.

I should pause to say that, if we listen to veterans, we find that this is not just a question of prosecutions, although those are difficult enough and require a lot of support. It is also a question of the repeated and unending investigations before any prosecution ever happens. In fact, in most cases no prosecution has ever happened but people live in fear of the knock on the door, the cavalcade of police cars turning up at 5 am, and the repeated interviews, which are often, as my hon. Friend James Heappey eloquently put it, about events that not only happened 30, 40 or 50 years ago, but happened in the fog of war, and were hard to remember, define and record a few days later, let alone decades further on.

We heard a catalogue of worries, concerns and justified outrage, and comments about betrayal, injustice and lawfare. I thought one of the most telling contributions was made by my right hon. Friend Richard Benyon, who intervened early in the debate. He is a former Green Jacket and I think his point was widely accepted. It was that soldiers went out to protect innocent civilians, whereas terrorists went out specifically to kill and maim. His point was that there should be no moral equivalence between those two purposes. That point has been made many times by other Members during the debate.

One of the most powerful speeches that I have heard in a long time was made by my hon. and gallant Friend Bob Stewart. Equipped with his yellow card, which he had kept all this time since his tours in Northern Ireland, he made the point about decisions made in milliseconds that get re-examined at leisure in peaceful courtrooms many years later. That approach to justice is extremely hard to justify. He also eloquently made a point that others made when he said, “We always acted within the law. If we did not, we should be prosecuted.” That point has been made repeatedly by other people here—in fact, my hon. Friend the Member for Southport made it in kicking this thing off. He said that the rule of law must be applied but that for servicepeople breaches of those laws were a very rare exception and not the norm.

Nobody here is trying to pretend, and I have not heard a single person say, that those breaches of the law should not be treated with the utmost care, gravity and severity, but nor should we pretend that they were common, ubiquitous or frequent. When we try to maintain a sense of proportion and balance, which many people have rightly pointed out is widely felt not to have been achieved, it is essential that we do not forget that central fact.

Gavin Robinson made the correct point that sacrifice does not come in different grades. He said that any solution must work under article 2 of the Human Rights Act, and he is right about that. He also made a crucial distinction between an amnesty and a statute of limitations, a point echoed later on, and rightly said that we must do more before, in what I thought was one of the more affecting moments, reading out a very sombre and sober list of names of some of the people killed in just the few weeks before the Bloody Sunday outrages.

The Select Committee Chair, my right hon. Friend Dr Lewis, was extremely careful in his views. He said that we need to make progress, and in fact we are making some progress, but we have not made nearly enough. He then mentioned the Nelson Mandela approach; I will come back to that point, because it is central to any potential action and solution that we may want to come to later.

I will try to ensure that not only do I leave a few moments for my hon. Friend the Member for Southport to respond, but that at the end of this I suggest some actions that can be taken. People have said repeatedly, and rightly, that words are all very well; politicians, as we all are here, are good at words. I am afraid that as a Westminster Hall debate, this does not end in legislation per se, so we cannot debate a law here this afternoon, but we can at least start to move toward actions, and I hope to be able to propose some of those.