Penny Mordaunt Defence Secretary
As reported by the BBC, the new Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt has announced that a new law providing legal protection for soldiers “ on the battlefield” would not apply to Northern Ireland. This was in line with an earlier statement by the NI Secretary Karen Bradley.
Ms Mordaunt said it would prevent “repeated or unfair investigations”.
The protections, which will be put to a public consultation, would not apply to alleged offences in Northern Ireland. The defence secretary is expected to say that lessons from investigating allegations in Iraq and Afghanistan should also be applied to Northern Ireland, although the presumption against prosecution would not apply.
Six former soldiers who served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles are currently facing prosecution. The cases relate to Daniel Hegarty; Bloody Sunday; John Pat Cunningham; Joe McCann (involving two ex-soldiers); and Aidan McAnespie.
Not all the charges are murder. The Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland said that of 26 so-called legacy cases it has taken decisions on since 2011, 13 related to republicans, eight to loyalists, and five are connected to the Army.
But later, the emphasis changed.
Penny Mordaunt has led the backlash over the failure to include Northern Ireland veterans in the “presumption of innocence” scheme, as Karen Bradley is urged to act over the issue.
The Defence Secretary has said she wants to extend proposed protection for troops from repeated investigations into historical allegations to cover veterans of Northern Ireland.
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 it (additional protection) should cover Northern Ireland,” she said during a conference at the Royal United Services Institute on Wednesday.
“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. It is a priority of mine
Ms Mordaunt said she hoped steps to protect those who had served in overseas conflicts – dubbed the “presumption of innocence” scheme – would help deliver a solution to the issue of the Northern Ireland veterans.
She said she had secured agreement with Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley that the concerns of Defence would be formally considered as part of the Stormont House agreement process.
“It is a personal priority of mine that we get this resolved and we stop this chilling effect that is claiming veterans who really deserve our care,” she said.
The Telegraph understands that the Northern Ireland office will announce imminently that the Historic Investigations Unit will proceed in investigating unsolved and controversial killings from the Troubles, including by military veterans.
Political pressure from the DUP, that sees an opportunity to level criticism at Sinn Fein, is suggested as the main reason why the process will continue despite widespread criticism in Westminster and from veterans groups.
Ms Mordaunt’s comments are being interpreted as a clear signal of her position to her opposite number in the Northern Ireland office.
A government official said Ms Mordaunt was offering “wriggle room” to the Northern Ireland Secretary to halt the investigations of former military personnel, whilst also making it clear what department should be held to account for the process.
The Defence Secretary’s intervention comes as a former head of the Army has said it is a “major issue” that plans to protect armed forces from prosecution for historic allegations do not cover Northern Ireland.
British troops facing investigation over alleged offences committed in the course of duty abroad more than 10 years ago will be granted stronger legal protections, under plans to be announced shortly by the Defence Secretary. However, the measures will not apply to cases arising in Northern Ireland.
Lord Dannatt, who was Chief of General Staff from 2006 to 2009, said: “It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not the final step…it doesn’t include Northern Ireland and that’s a major issue.”
Talking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said the answer wasn’t a blanket amnesty, because those who lost loved ones during The Troubles “deserve answers”, adding: “But what we can’t do is go forward with the presumption that those deaths involving the military were wrong”.
Penny Mordaunt will propose legislation to ensure veterans and serving personnel are not subjected to repeated investigations on historical operations.
The proposals, subject to a public consultation, include measures to introduce a statutory presumption against prosecution of current or former personnel.
But there were a string of complaints after Mordaunt’s amnesty announcements, which also included the repetition of a commitment that the UK would be prepared to opt out of the European convention on human rights (EHCR) in future conflicts, with the hope of making prosecutions harder.
Sam Grant, policy and campaigns manager for the human rights group Liberty, said: “War is not a legal black hole. Nothing in the ECHR prevents soldiers from being soldiers – but it is important to have accountability for gross abuses of human rights on the battlefield or off.
A dispute centres on whether the European Convention on Human Rights should apply to solders “on the battlefield” and whether the battlefield should include Northern Ireland. As NI is part of the UK and is clearly within the ambit of the ECHR -unlike Iraq and Afghanistan -it is difficult to impossible to see how alleged offences by solders in NI can be exempted, however unpopular the ECHR is among many Tories. My impression is that Mordaunt is grandstanding and will have to back down.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London