A limited amnesty not only for soldiers but for all? Another case of a Boris Johnson election wheeze, without understanding what he’s proposing?

The High Court in Belfast

On Armistice Day Boris Johnson is announcing what he would like to think sounds like a partial amnesty for former soldiers involved in the Troubles as well as foreign engagements like Iraq and Afghanistan. The subject is of course emotive but the substance is far from clear.

What does the proposal to draw a line under Troubles prosecutions really mean?

Mr Johnson said the party will introduce legislation to ensure the Law of Armed Conflict has primacy and that peacetime laws are not applied to service personnel on military operations.

Under the proposals, the Tories would amend the Human Rights Act so it does not apply to issues – including deaths during the Troubles in Northern Ireland – that took place before it came into force in 2000.

Well first, the Troubles were not “ armed conflict”, like Iraq or Afghanistan. Legally it  was  domestic violence with the army acting in aid of the civil power.  Are the Troubles now being recategorised?  Would it even be legal at this stage?

The Telegraph has learnt that the current draft of the manifesto includes a promise to end ‘ongoing… prosecutions’. It is unclear if ministers could ever intervene in active criminal court proceedings, and on Sunday night the Government refused to comment further. ..

Ben Wallace the defence secretary disposed of that one. Ongoing cases could not be affected.

The commitment follows pressure on successive prime ministers to end the so-called witch hunt of troops for alleged crimes committed in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as in Northern Ireland.

But the most controversial measures are being planned for the manifesto which will “consider legislation that draws a clear line under the past, bringing to an end all ongoing investigations, inquests and prosecutions from the Northern Ireland Troubles”.

More than 200 ex-soldiers are understood to be under current criminal investigation for deaths during the Troubles.

Ministers will attempt to curtail these by amending the 1998 Human Rights Act to provide a presumption against prosecution for historical offences. The change will prevent prosecutions where “no new evidence has been produced and when accusations have already been exhaustively questioned”.

The change is designed to protect military personnel from repeated inquiries and will specify that the Human Rights Act “doesn’t apply to issues – including any death in the Northern Ireland Troubles – that took place before the Act came into force”.

The manifesto pledge will be welcomed by veterans who have been campaigning for a change in the law and also emphasises clear daylight between Mr Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn on the issue. The Labour leader is distrusted by veterans of the Northern Ireland conflict over his long-running support for Sinn Féin, at the time seen as the political wing of the IRA, and its demands for a united Ireland.

Mr Johnson will say on Monday: “If I’m elected on Dec 12, I want the message from my government to our armed forces to be louder and clearer than ever: we salute you and will always support you.”

Among the soldiers already charged with offences during the Troubles is a 70-year-old former paratrooper, known only as Soldier F, who is accused of two counts of murder and five of attempted murder over the Bloody Sunday shootings in 1972.

Another soldier Dennis Hutchings, 78, who is dying from kidney failure, will stand trial in March over the shooting of a man with learning difficulties in 1974.

Mr Hutchings said on Sunday: “Anything that prevents these witch hunts must be a good thing and it is not before time that the Government did something. It is going to come too late for me and a few others already going through the courts  but there are more than 200 other cases in Northern Ireland waiting to be opened after they have dealt with me.”

This  threadbare announcement will be interrogated for substance it so far lacks.

“ Attempts to curtail” the Human Rights Act 1998 is a telling phrase.

It’s already conceded that  prosecutions for pre- 1998 incidents would go ahead if there was compelling  evidence.  But is a new Act intended to have a chilling effect on the gathering of new evidence on “shoot to kill” and collusion cases?  You can imagine  loud cries of new cover up already.

What now will be the impact on the proposal already in a draft Bill to set up an independent Historical Investigations Unit?

The Defence Select Committee on which the proposal is based was forced to adopt its logic and extend its range to the police and ultimately everyone. Is this therefore to become  an amnesty for  terrorists such as was proposed by Peter Hain in 2006 but dropped under a storm of protest on the grounds that the security forces who had been barely called to account would unfairly benefit?

People would still be able to take their case to the Court of Human Rights  as the defence secretary Ben Wallace conceded.  In a revealing slip he located the court in the Hague where the International Criminal Courts sits, not Strasbourg.  Anybody with any knowledge of the subject would not make that mistake. Yet another case of a UK minister not taking the trouble to master his brief?  Litigants backed by strong support might well welcome  the added  publicity  of the British government in the dock at Strasbourg.

Wallace mentioned a  bar on repeat inquests  dating back to the 1970s. But the inquests being supervised by the senior judiciary were either postponed or were held under blatantly  unsatisfactory  law since replaced. They were not mere repeat or vexatious hearings as anyone paying attention to the Ballymurphy hearings can testify.  What will be the future for similar inquiries?

In February it was announced that ,

 The Department of Justice is to set up a Legacy Inquest Unit in the Coroners Service to process Troubles inquests.   It aims to speed up legacy inquest arrangements and deal with outstanding cases. Allocations in the new budget will cover the estimated cost of £55m over six years. There are currently 52 legacy inquest cases relating to 93 deaths at various stages of the investigation and inquest process. The cases relate to deaths between the 1970s and 2000s.

The new unit will operate under the remit of the Lord Chief Justice.The six-year programme includes an initial 12-month period to recruit necessary specialist staff and set up new systems.

There has been tension between the MoD and the NIO over how to handle the legacy  for months after lengthy public consultation . The MoD seems to have won a round.  We may well suspect that yet again that the wider ramifications for dealing with the past were scarcely considered and that election grubbing is the main motivation.

They will not be left there.

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