British veterans victory: Witch hunts of hounded heroes to finally end

Northern Ireland: Veterans protest against ongoing ‘witch-hunt’

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Hundreds of veterans who fear renewed questioning are to be reassured that they are protected by law. Northern Irish paramilitaries will get the same immunity. A former head of the Army described it as the “least worst” option for resolving the decades-old issue. General the Lord Dannatt said: “This proposal might not suit everybody. But it could be described as progress so I would welcome it.”

He added: “It’s not ideal – but better than where we are now.”

However many ex-servicemen feel the proposal puts them on a par with terrorists, which they find insulting and unjust. Including them is also seen as a bitter blow to victims of the IRA’s 30-year terror campaign.

But Government insiders called it the “best chance” of dealing with Northern Ireland’s painful past. It is understood Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis will announce plans in the Commons today.

Legislation in the autumn will let talks continue with the Irish government. The change should pass into law early next year.

It will set a statute of limitations that stops prosecutions of alleged actions before a specific date – likely to be 1998 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed.

A package of truth and reconciliation measures is set to be included.

The Daily Express campaign Betrayal Of Our Veterans has fought for more than three years for ex-troops to be given immunity for actions they took serving their country.

Some politicians and campaigners said the Government’s move leaves people without access to justice.

Paul Young, of the Northern Ireland Veterans Movement, said: “Any legislation that stops the legacy prosecutions and legacy inquests of the security of forces will be very welcome.

“However, it cannot be legislation that give equivalence between security forces and perpetrators of terrorism.”

Mr Lewis is understood to believe a statute of limitations is the only logical solution to the problem of former troops and police officers being pursued.

Prosecutions clog up the legal system, as police and courts focus on cases that do not have a realistic prospect of success while giving families false hope.

The Good Friday Agreement has already given many terrorists protection from court action – 500 were released from jail early and up to 300 suspects were reassured they won’t be prosecuted.

But 230 Army veterans face reinvestigation – and many more may be affected without a change in the law. The Government insists the planned laws do not amount to an amnesty as they do not grant pardons to those involved. It rejected an exemption to allow investigations for “new and compelling” evidence as that would start a fresh cycle of probes.

A Government insider said: “We want to give Northern Ireland society the best chance of moving forward as one.

“To do that we must confront the difficult and painful reality that the realistic prospect of prosecutions is vanishingly small. While that prospect remains Northern Ireland will continue to be hamstrung.

“Our legacy package will support Northern Ireland to move beyond an adversarial cycle that doesn’t deliver information or reconciliation.”

Tory MP Johnny Mercer, who quit as defence minister over the treatment of Troubles veterans, said the Government is taking the “simple” way out. He said: “A statute of limitations without qualification is an amnesty – something I have always opposed.

“We should not in all conscience cut off pathways to justice where evidence exists, simply because of time passed. Veterans who fought to keep the peace within the strict constraints of the law in Northern Ireland have never advocated this path.

“This was always the simple answer – I understand why the Government is doing this, but I would have done things differently through things like prosecutorial codes.”

Prosecutors in Northern Ireland said recently they intend to drop two cases from nearly 50 years ago.

They said there was no longer a reasonable prospect of key evidence being admissible at the trials of Soldier F, the only one charged over Bloody Sunday killings, and Soldier B, accused of murdering Daniel Hegarty, 15, and wounding his cousin Chris, 16, in 1972.

A legal challenge to the decision to withdraw proceedings against Soldier F is continuing.

The new laws will come too late to help Dennis Hutchings, 80, of Cornwall, who faces trial in

October. They will only apply once the legislation becomes live next year. The Government believes it would be contempt of court to apply it to current prosecutions.

Mr Young added: “Security forces have been the overwhelming focus of legacy prosecutions rather that those that committed ninety percent of terrorist murders And he was sceptical that the new moves would have any real meaning for veterans, saying: “In other words, it cannot be a ‘Chamberlain moment, waving a bill and shouting peace in our time’ if it is not.”

Comment by Lord Dannatt

FOR too many years now elderly veterans have been living in fear of a knock on the door over incidents in the Troubles.

If, as expected, the Government today proposes a statute of limitations to prevent endless investigations of veterans and terrorists, it will be choosing the least worst option, but it will be the kind of progress that is desperately needed.

I have been pressing for some time for such a statute preventing prosecutions over events before April 1998 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed.

This would apply to terrorists – loyalists and nationalists – and the military.

If some soldiers feel this puts them on a par with terrorists, that is why I call it the least-worst option. It’s not ideal but better than where we are now.

Without this, there is the threat of more investigations and more prosecutions.

This might not suit everybody. Indeed, it might not suit anybody. But it could be described as progress so I would welcome it.

There is also a precedent. In 1923 the Dublin government decided to have a statute of limitations covering the terrible incidents in Ireland’s very nasty civil war after independence.

They decided not to investigate so the country could move on. This is a useful precedent which I believe Washington will take note of.

In recent weeks we have seen the difficulty of trying veterans over cases dating back nearly 50 years. The trials of Soldiers A and C and the cases against Soldiers B and F have collapsed or been dismissed due to the inadmissibility of evidence.

But the proposed statute of limitations should also be accompanied by a truth and reconciliation process.

Questions could still be asked so that families could learn how their loved ones died.

Soldiers or terrorists could give answers in the knowledge that they could not be incriminated.

It may help families get to the truth but, sadly, I doubt there will be much reconciliation.

But we have been saying for too long how unfair it is that soldiers in their 50s, 60s and 70s, many in ill health, still live in fear of a knock on the door.

Bear in mind that in most cases soldiers involved in incidents in The Troubles were operating with the rules of engagement and their actions were lawful.

In contrast, terrorists got up and went out to bomb, kill and maim.

There is no moral equivalence between the security forces and the terrorists.

But under this plan a knock on the door would have a different meaning. There would no longer be a threat of prosecution.

And for veterans that would be excellent news.

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