Penny Mordaunt appeared ready to go to war with fellow ministers today as she revealed her hope of ending repeated investigations into alleged offences by British troops who served during the Troubles.
The new Defence Secretary unveiled plans for a law that will stop soldiers being probed over incidents more than ten years old unless compelling new evidence comes to light.
While the amnesty will not immediately extend to those who served in Northern Ireland, Ms Mordaunt said it was a ‘personal priority’ of hers to make this a reality in the future.
Such a move would be at odds with plans by the Northern Ireland office, which will soon announce a new taxpayer-funded unit tasked with investigating the alleged offences of Northern Ireland veterans.
It comes after a public consultation found an ‘overwhelming majority’ did not support such an amnesty, while there was ‘broad support’ for such a body set up to examine 1,700 deaths during the Troubles dating back to 1968.
Ms Mordaunt, making her first major speech as Defence Secretary, faced immediate criticism for not extending the amnesty to veterans of the Troubles (pictured)
Penny Mordaunt today unveiled proposals for a law that will stop soldiers being investigated over incidents more than ten years old unless compelling new evidence comes to light
Ms Mordaunt said she feared the Government was in danger of repeating the mistakes of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (Ihat) with veterans of the Troubles.
‘I do think [additional protection] should cover Northern Ireland,’ she said during a conference at the Royal United Services Institute.
‘The problem is that we have failed on the whole ‘lawfare’ issue because we have been waiting for other things to happen. This is not going to be resolved overnight.’
The amnesty comes amid calls for many British military veterans, now in their sixties and seventies, to be jailed for their roles in violent clashes almost 50 years ago.
Among those currently facing prosecution is a former soldier, known as Soldier F, who has been charged with the killing of two people during Bloody Sunday in 1972.
Tory MP Johnny Mercer, who is refusing to vote for party legislation until it ends such historical inquires, said the law was a ‘good start’ but needed to go further.
‘It’s unfair to all sides, and the only people who are enjoying this process and making something are legal teams,’ he told Sky News.
‘Northern Ireland represents a particular challenge, the way that conflict was framed in the time, it was not classed as war even though it had many traits of wartime activity.
The cabinet minister (pictured last week) said she hopes to extend protection to troops from repeated investigations into historical allegations to cover veterans of Northern Ireland
Among those currently facing prosecution is a former soldier, known as Soldier F, who has been charged with the killing of two people during Bloody Sunday in 1972 (pictured)
‘We need to redouble our efforts and see what we can do to apply legislation to stop this process taking place.’
The chairman of the Commons Defence Committee, Conservative MP Julian Lewis, welcomed the moves to prevent soldiers being ‘lawyered to death’.
He suggested a South African-style ‘truth recovery’ process for Northern Ireland, where deaths were investigated but there were no prosecutions to follow.
Up to 200 ex-soldiers and police have been investigated for alleged crimes while serving in Northern Ireland
The Ministry of Defence has estimated there are between 150 and 200 former soldiers and police officers under investigation for alleged historical offences.
There are at least three prosecutions against British soldiers under way, including one against Soldier F, who is due to face murder charges over his role in Bloody Sunday in 1972.
Another veteran, known as Soldier B, is in his seventies and said to be unwell but faces prosecution for allegedly shooting dead 15-year-old Daniel Hegarty and wounding his cousin Christopher in Londonderry in 1972.
The figures will reignite fears of a witch-hunt which would see British military veterans, now in their sixties and seventies, jailed for their roles in violent clashes almost 50 years ago.
Last year, the Hegarty family won the right to seek the prosecution of Soldier B again after the High Court quashed the PPS’s 2016 decision not to bring criminal charges, ruling it was based on ‘irredeemably flawed’ reasoning.
The Government has said Soldier B will be offered ‘full legal support’, although the decision to prosecute another soldier over Troubles violence has sparked fury among ex-servicemen.
One former paratrooper who served with Soldier B said: ‘What makes the blood boil is that there is nothing even-handed about this or the Bloody Sunday charges because those from the other side who killed soldiers and civilians are not being pursued with the same determination.’
‘Given that sort of immunity has already been effectively granted to so many people on the terrorist side of that bitter and awful conflict, what’s good enough for Nelson Mandela should be good enough for us and we ought to draw a line in this way,’ he said.
The former head of the Army, General Lord Dannatt, said peers would try to amend the legislation to extend it to Northern Ireland when it comes to the House of Lords.
‘What we can’t allow to go forward is the presumption that those deaths in which the military were involved were wrong,’ he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
‘Soldiers did their duty, got up in the morning, sometimes they came under attack. They returned fired.
‘They didn’t set out to murder people. Terrorists set out every morning to murder people and successfully did so. There is a huge distinction to be drawn.’
The proposals, which will be subject to a public consultation, include measures to introduce a statutory presumption against prosecution of current or former personnel for alleged offences committed in the course of duty abroad more than 10 years ago.
It will stipulate that such prosecutions are not in the public interest unless there are ‘exceptional circumstances’, such as if compelling new evidence emerged.
Ms Mordaunt said: ‘We all owe a huge debt of gratitude to our armed forces who put their lives on the line to protect our freedom and security.
‘It is high time that we change the system and provide the right legal protections to make sure the decisions our service personnel take in the battlefield will not lead to repeated or unfair investigations down the line.’
The Defence Secretary is also expected to reaffirm her commitment to derogating from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) before the UK embarks on significant military operations.
In 2016, Theresa May announced that the Government will adopt a presumption that it will take advantage of a right to suspend aspects of the ECHR at times of war.
General Lord Dannatt said peers will try to amend the legislation to cover the Northern Ireland Trouble
A timeline of Bloody Sunday and the Troubles
August 1969 – British Government first send troops into Northern Ireland to restore order after three days of rioting in Catholic Londonderry.
30 January 1972 – On ‘Bloody Sunday’ 13 civilians are shot dead by the British Army during a civil rights march in Londonderry.
British troops in Northern Ireland during the Troubles which began in the late 1960s and lasted until 1998 with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement
March 1972 – The Stormont Government is dissolved and direct rule imposed by London.
1970s – The IRA begin its bloody campaign of bombings and assassinations in Britain.
April 1981 – Bobby Sands, a republicans on hunger strike in the Maze prison, is elected to Parliament. He dies a month later.
October 1984 – An IRA bomb explodes at the Grand Hotel in Brighton, where Margaret Thatcher is staying during the Tory Party conference.
Early 1990s – Margaret Thatcher and then Sir John Major set up a secret back channel with the IRA to start peace talks. The communications was so secret most ministers did not know about it.
Johnathan Ball (left), 3, and Tim Parry (right), 12, were killed in 1993 after IRA bombs exploded in the small town of Warrington, Cheshire
1993 – Two IRA bombs hidden in litter bins detonated on Bridge Street in Warrington Cheshire, killing 12-year-old Tim Parry and three-year-old Johnathan Ball and injuring dozens of civilians.
April 1998 – Tony Blair helps to broker the Good Friday Agreement, which is hailed as the end of the Troubles. It establishes the Northern Ireland Assembly with David Trimble as its first minister.
2000s – With some exceptions the peace process holds and republican and loyalist paramilitaries decommission their weapons
2010 – The Saville Report exonerates the civilians who were killed on Bloody Sunday leading to a formal apology from then Prime Minister David Cameron to the families.
2019 – Prosecutors announce whether to brig charges against the 17 surviving Paras who fired shots that day.
Q&A: All you need to know about Soldier F and the Bloody Sunday prosecution
One Army veteran – a former lance corporal in the Parachute Regiment known only as F – is to be prosecuted for two murders and four attempted murders on Bloody Sunday.
Here are some of the key questions on the landmark announcement by Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service (PPS).
– Were prosecutors able to rely on the testimony and findings of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry?
No. The long-running probe by Lord Saville ran under the terms of the Tribunal of Evidence Act 1921. As such, it was not bound by strict rules of admissibility of evidence that criminal proceedings are governed by. So while Saville may have reached certain conclusions about the soldiers, the PPS could not rely on the same evidence for criminal proceedings – and effectively had to prove the cases afresh. Explaining why 18 suspects avoided prosecution, the PPS repeatedly highlighted this issue – stressing that evidence given to Saville, sometimes by the soldiers themselves, was inadmissible.
Lord Saville chaired the Bloody Sunday inquiry, looking into the events of 1972 (PA)
– Can the families challenge decisions not to prosecute?
Yes. All families have the right to formally request a review of a PPS decision not to prosecute. If that independent assessment of the decision does not recommend a reversal, there are other legal options. Bereaved relatives could ultimately challenge the decisions in the High Court by way of judicial review.
– What next for Soldier F?
An official summons to appear before a district judge will be served. When he receives that letter, proceedings become active. The case will then progress through the magistrates’ court before a decision is taken on whether it will be passed to the crown court for trial. Experience with the Northern Ireland legal system would suggest it could be many months, potentially years, before the cases comes to trial.
– Where would a potential trial be held?
While family members might like to see Soldier F brought back to Londonderry to face justice, security concerns would likely prevent the trial being heard in the city’s Bishop Street courthouse – a building targeted by a dissident republican car bomb earlier this year. Belfast Crown Court is a more realistic venue. This is where other major Troubles related cases are held. The building is linked to a local police station, making it easier to transport high-profile defendants to court.
– Will there be a jury?
This is a timely question. For decades, any cases linked to the Troubles have been held without a jury. A judge instead decides guilt or innocence in proceedings formerly known as Diplock trials. However, another military veteran who is facing a conflict-related attempted murder charge – 77-year-old Dennis Hutchings – is currently challenging the decision to sit without a trial in the UK Supreme Court. The judgment in that case may well impact whether Soldier F’s trial will be tried by judge or jury.
– Will the soldier’s identity be revealed?
Anonymity orders covering the 17 soldiers and two suspected Official IRA men were imposed during the Bloody Sunday inquiry and remain in place. The decision on whether Soldier F’s identity will continue to be kept from the public will be addressed during the future court proceedings. In respect of other cases, some veterans have retained their anonymity, others have not.
– If convicted, would Soldier F be eligible for a reduced sentence, like paramilitaries found guilty of Troubles-related offences?
Security forces veterans are eligible to apply for early release. Anyone convicted of a Troubles-related offence and serving their sentence in Northern Ireland would be covered by the terms of the controversial element of the 1998 Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement, which enabled hundreds of convicted terrorists to walk free on licence after serving two years behind bars.
As it stands, the scheme would not include Bloody Sunday, as it only covers offences committed between 1973 and 1998.
But legislation proposed by the Government to give effect to a range of new legacy mechanisms – set out in the 2014 Stormont House Agreement – includes a provision to extend the early release scheme to cover offences committed before 1973, changing the start date to January 1968.
So, if that becomes law, anyone convicted of an offence related to Bloody Sunday (January 1972) would be covered by the early release scheme. Those proposals, which have been subject to a recent public consultation, would also extend the provision to those serving sentences in Great Britain.
– How much evidence did the PPS examine?
The Police Service of Northern Ireland murder probe was launched in 2012 and the first soldier was arrested and questioned in 2015. The first police evidence files were passed to prosecutors in November 2016. Additional files were handed over in March and September 2017.
In total, they included 668 witness statements. Also numerous photos, video and audio evidence.
A total of 20 suspects were interviewed – 18 soldiers and two Official IRA men. One of the veterans died last December so the PPS consideration of his case was discontinued. Four other soldiers included in the Saville Report died before the police had completed their investigation.
The evidence files given to the PPS accounted for 40 lever arch files, containing a total of 20,000 pages. The PPS also examined the full Saville Report – 5,000 pages – and 100,000 pages of additional underlying material spanning the years 1972 to 2010, including the 1972 Widgery Report. So, 125,000 pages all together.
– What about other legacy cases? Is there a disproportionate focus on investigating security force members, as some claim?
In the last eight years, the PPS has taken prosecutorial decisions in 26 other cases related to the Troubles.
Thirteen of those related to alleged offences involving republican paramilitaries, with eight prosecutions taken.
Eight of the 26 cases related to alleged loyalist paramilitary activity, with decisions to prosecute in four instances.
Three cases involved former soldiers, with prosecutions mounted in each one.
Two cases involved police officers and both resulted in a decision not to prosecute.
– Could there be a future amnesty for veterans?
This remains an issue of intense controversy in Northern Ireland.
Last year, the Government angered some of its own backbenchers, and Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, when it did not include a statute of limitations on prosecutions of ex-service personnel among proposals for dealing with Northern Ireland’s toxic past.
Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley said such a measure would be unacceptable, because it would also have to cover terror suspects accused of historic crimes.
The prospect of a statute of limitations met with vocal opposition in Northern Ireland. Both Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists voiced concern, as did the Irish Government and representatives of the victims sector.
The DUP and some military veterans in Northern Ireland made the point that any such statute would, by law, have to be extended to also cover former paramilitaries – something they branded unacceptable.
Mr Williamson is still considering the potential of a statute of limitations for ex-service personnel focused on overseas conflicts, including Iraq and Afghanistan. Victims campaigners insist such measures must not include Northern Ireland.
Who were the victims of the Bloody Sunday shootings?
Patrick Doherty, 31. The married father-of-six was shot from behind as he attempted to crawl to safety from the forecourt of Rossville Flats.
Gerald Donaghey, 17. The IRA youth member was shot in the abdomen while running between Glenfada Park and Abbey Park. While Lord Saville said it was probable that he was in possession of nail bombs when he was shot, he stressed that he was not preparing to throw a nail bomb at the time and was shot ‘while trying to escape from the soldiers’.
John ‘Jackie’ Duddy, 17. The first to be killed on Bloody Sunday, he was running away when he was shot in the chest in the car park of Rossville Flats.
Hugh Gilmour, 17. The talented footballer and ardent Liverpool fan was hit with a single shot as he ran away from the rubble barricade in Rossville Street.
Michael Kelly, 17. The trainee sewing machine mechanic was shot once in the abdomen close to the rubble barricade in Rossville Street by a soldier crouched some 80 yards away at Kells Walk.
(Top row, left to right) Patrick Doherty, Bernard McGuigan, John ‘Jackie’ Duddy and Gerald Donaghey. (Bottom row, left to right) Gerard McKinney, Jim Wray, William McKinney and John Young
Michael McDaid, 20. The barman died instantly after being shot in the face at the barricade in Rossville Street.
Kevin McElhinney, 17. The grocery store worker was shot from behind as he crawled towards Rossville Flats.
Bernard ‘Barney’ McGuigan, 41. The father-of-six was going to the aid of Patrick Doherty, waving a white handkerchief in his hand, when he was shot in the head with a single round. He died instantly.
Gerard McKinney, 35. The father-of-eight was running close behind Gerald Donaghey in Abbey Park when the bullet that killed both of them hit him first.
William ‘Willie’ McKinney (not related to Gerard), 27. The keen amateur film-maker recorded scenes from the march with his hand-held cinecamera before the shooting started. The camera was found in his jacket pocket as he lay dying after being shot in the back in Glenfada Park.
William Nash, 19. The dockworker was struck by a single bullet to the chest close to the rubble barricade in Rossville Street.
James Wray, 22. Engaged to be married, the civil rights activist was shot twice in the back in Glenfada Park.
John Young, 17. The menswear shop clerk was killed instantly with a single shot to the head at the rubble barricade.
(Top row, left to right:) Michael Kelly, Michael McDaid, Hugh Gilmore. (Bottom row, left to right) Kevin McElhinney, William Nash and (bottom right) John Johnston, who some consider a victim of the shooting but whose death was put down to a brain tumour
John Johnston, 59, was shot twice by soldiers positioned inside a derelict building in William Street. He died four months later in hospital, but while many consider him the 14th victim of Bloody Sunday, his death was formally attributed to an inoperable brain tumour.