Nick speaks against Northern Ireland soldier prosecutions

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con)

My right hon. Friend is explaining what the practical and legal obstacles to this amendment might be, including the operation of the European convention on human rights. If the Government concede that there is no moral equivalence between the actions of terrorists and the actions of the military, should not the application of the law also recognise that in some way? If this amendment is not possible, what other means might there be to ensure that brave members of the armed forces are not unnecessarily and wrongly pursued nearly half a century later?

Karen Bradley

I do not wish to detain the Committee for significantly longer than I already have, but I suggest that I spend some time with my right hon. Friend explaining the thinking behind the Stormont House institutions and how we would get to a situation where there was not this disproportionate focus on the armed forces and law enforcement.

9.30 pm

At the moment, all but one of the coronial inquests being looked at by the Lord Chief Justice relate to former military and law enforcement personnel. We also have a police ombudsman, who looks at wrongdoings of police officers, and a PSNI legacy investigations unit, 30% of whose case load deals with killings by the military and law enforcement. That cannot be considered proportionate, given that only 10% of the killings during the Troubles were by members of the military or law enforcement. It cannot be the case that only 70% of the investigations by the PSNI legacy investigations unit are looking at terrorist killings, all of which were crimes. We need to get that balance right. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), who chairs the Select Committee but was also a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office at the time of the Stormont House talks, has often spoken to me with great passion about how important it is that we redress this. The status quo is simply not acceptable. We are consulting on how the Stormont House institutions would make that better, but I would welcome representations from all hon. and right hon. Members in this Chamber to that consultation, so we can make sure we get this right.

As a Conservative who believes fundamentally in the rule of law, central to which is the independence of our prosecuting authorities, I believe that however well-intentioned the amendment from my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks, it leads us into some very dangerous territory. It would undermine and erode hard-won support for the criminal justice system within Northern Ireland. It would be used by those who wish to rewrite the history of the Troubles to reinforce their claims that the UK Government has “something to hide” and is primarily concerned with covering up the actions of our armed forces. It will be seized upon by those who wish to portray the British state as the oppressor and the armed forces as human rights abusers—that is still language used by dissident republicans to boost recruitment today and who continue to pose a severe threat. It will create further uncertainty for those whose cases are currently before the courts, and it is not clear whether their cases would have to be adjourned to the end of the financial year. I regret to say that it will also simply play into the hands of those who wish to establish some moral equivalence between those who attacked the rule of law and those whose job it was to defend it.

I sympathise immensely with my right hon. Friend’s intentions, and I want to work with him to achieve the aims that he has set out so eloquently, but, for the reasons I have stated, I simply cannot support the amendment, and I urge him to withdraw it.

To read the debate in full, please see the Hansard report here.