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

That is indeed one of the points I will make when we come to the actions. I will briefly mention Jim Shannon, who made one of the most emotional contributions; he served, I think, in Northern Ireland himself, and he is absolutely right in his enjoinder that we must all be honourable and do right by our veterans.

One of the most thoughtful examples of controlled anger of the afternoon came from my hon. and gallant Friend Johnny Mercer, who said that we must do more. I think everybody here would agree with that. He also said that we are not asking for an amnesty for war crimes and that a statute of limitations, pure and simple, cannot work because there should never be a time limit on serious criminal behaviour, although he also said that something around the announced presumption of non-prosecution looks promising. In a point that I think we would all echo, my hon. Friend was also rightly contemptuous of the false narrative of hope that the legal teams of the lawfare profession are using to manipulate victims’ grief.

I will not go through everybody, but I wanted to say that my right hon. Friend Mr Duncan Smith rightly stated the point I was just making: the fact that this is UK law rather than service abroad cannot be used as an excuse for failing to help Northern Ireland service versus service abroad. That cannot stand, and it is a deep injustice.

I am under pressure of time, so I will gloss over some of the other comments, but they were all valid. My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset, himself a former Grenadier Guard, made the point that our words must match our actions, and he is right. My hon. Friend the Member for Wells, a former rifleman, asked how legal cases can justly be tried decades later, after the fog of war has passed.

My right hon. Friend Mr Paterson, himself a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and thus a man with personal experience of many of these policy issues, said something that, again, I think would be echoed rightly around this Chamber: no further legal process should happen unless there is clear and categorical new evidence, a point also made by my hon. Friend Robert Courts, who said we should not go anywhere near what used to be called the double jeopardy rule, under which someone cannot be tried twice for the same offence.

What must we achieve? We must achieve an answer that will do several things. Of course it must work for veterans in the armed forces, but it must also work for former police officers, prison guards and wardens too. They are not in the armed forces and they work on a different legal basis, but the answer must work for them as well. It must work for innocent, peaceful Catholics and Protestants alike in Northern Ireland—people who have never served or wanted to serve, but were potentially in the line of fire from some of the actions that look place.

Our answer must work for the victims and the families of the victims. We have heard some of that, but it needs to be emphasised. Most importantly, it must work in court so that, when the inevitable legal challenges come from the lawfare brigade, this thing is robust and stands up; if it does not, we will have failed in our duty to protect our former servicemen and women. There is no point coming up with something that sounds great, but falls over the first time a clever lawyer pokes it in court. That will not stand.

Finally—I have treble-underlined this in my notes—our answer must draw a line and allow people to move on. It must allow not only the victims and the veterans, but the whole society in Northern Ireland, to draw a line. That is why I come back to the point made by the Chairman of the Defence Committee. There is not an exact comparison between Northern Ireland, which is a unique place, and South Africa, but there are many parallels. We must find some way of creating an approach that will allow people to get closure, truth and justice.

What I hope and expect we will do is, first, to publish very soon the results of the consultation so we can all see what people in Northern Ireland genuinely think about the details of the questions. Secondly, promptly after that, I expect us to announce the Government response, which must be actions, not words. The Stormont proposals are a starting point, but there are genuine concerns on all sides about the details of those proposals. They cannot stand as they are, but they are a good starting point and we need to work on the details of how we modify them so that we can bring forward a Bill.

The crucial thing is the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green: when natural justice collides with the law, the law must change. That is what we do here.