'Inappropriate' to investigate Army veterans over NI incidents, says ex-British Army chief

Update: A former British Army chief of staff has said charging British soldiers over incidents that happened many years ago would be "very debilitating to the morale of those soldiers and the army generally".

It comes as Britain's Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt faces calls to extend strengthened legal protections to British soldiers facing investigation over alleged historical offences to veterans of the Northern Ireland conflict.

Ms Mordaunt is to set out plans for legislation to ensure veterans and serving military personnel are not subjected to repeated inquiries in relation to past operations overseas.

Speaking to RTE News at One, General Richard Dannatt said: "The possibility of being charged for incidents many years later is very debilitating to the morale of those soldiers and the army generally, this issue needs to be tackled and to be dealt with.

"Nobody is above the law and where things have been done that are wrong, they should be investigated, evidence gathered, if charges are appropriate a trial should be conducted.

If someone is convicted they should go to prison. There's no question about that.

"The vast number of incidents involving the British army during the 38 years of operation in Northern Ireland up to 2007, were conducted by soldiers in accordance with the rules of engagement in accordance with the yellow card.

"It is therefore quite disproportionate and inappropriate that large numbers of soldiers, veteran soldiers, now are being investigated over deaths that have hitherto either not been explained or properly investigated. That has got to stop."

Among those facing prosecution is a former soldier, known as Soldier F, who has been charged with the killing of two people during Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972.

General Dannatt said: "Bloody Sunday - my wider point is that incidents like that were relatively few and far between over the 38 years of that campaign when many hundreds of thousands of soldiers took part. When there is something like Bloody Sunday then it's right and proper, albeit arguably it's too many years after the event, it is right and proper that these things are investigated more thoroughly.

"But the wider point is there is an apparent presumption and I think it is being encouraged by Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland, in particular, to try and change the narrative of history to try and get it into people's minds that British forces, Crown forces as they call them, were oppressing the people that were standing up for their civil rights.

"In the main, that was not true, in the mid to late 1960s the civil rights association that was correct, but the majority of operations that the British Army was involved in were against terrorists - IRA terrorists in the main, but also UVF and UDA terrorists to a lesser extent.

"The actions that those terrorists carried out were in a completely different category to the actions of the majority of soldiers in that period, so it's wrong that so many soldiers are being quizzed and investigated now many years after the event.

If there is compelling evidence then a case should be reopened but one has to ask the question what are we likely to know now that we didn't know 30,40, 45 years ago. I find that one hard to answer.

He added there would not be a level playing field in any possible investigations now.

He said: "If you want to investigate what was happening on 8 August 1974 you can ask the British army and they will tell you what was going on in a certain place at a certain time, we kept very detailed records, the IRA did not do that, nor did the UVF, nor did the UDA.

"My constructive point is I fully understand families want to know how a loved one lost their lives, that is perfectly legitimate, but just because they lost their lives in an unexplained death doesn't mean to say there was wrong-doing by the military.

"What would be much more constructive would be to come up with a process akin to the South African Truth & Reconciliation process so that questions can be asked to identify the facts - this is the point about Penny Mordant's proposition - is those questions are asked with a presumption not to prosecute because I would argue that in the vast majority of cases no wrong-doing was done and therefore the presumption not to prosecute is correct."

Listening to Richard Dannatt's comments, Paul O'Connor, the Director of Pat Finucane Centre has said they were "full of contradictions".

Mr O'Connor said: "I think what we've discovered over the last couple of months is that the NIO and the Secretary of State have been saying an amnesty cannot be applied here, it would be against the law, and people within the military wing of the Tory party are demanding an amnesty, and today we finally have a statement that that's not possible.

"Richard Dannatt himself has said if there's evidence of wrongdoing then that should be investigated and where it reaches the test for prosecution there should be a prosecution, those decisions are not made by Sinn Féin, they're not made by the former chief of staff of the British army, they're made by the Prosecutions Service.

"I really think they're playing to their own gallery, they're playing to the veterans gallery, which is quite a powerful one, there's several hundred thousand people in Britain who served here, so it's a very powerful lobby, particularly against a background of Brexit."

They've been saying many many things over the last couple of months that are legally simply not possible and the Secretary of State has admitted that to us and NIO officials have admitted to that to us repeatedly that what is being said by the Ministry of Defence simply isn't possible.

"It would, theoretically, be a violation of Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights."

He went on to say that there is no witch hunt against British soldiers that served in the North.

Mr O'Connor said: "What families are simply saying is a) we have not had investigations, so there is a legal judgement to that effect, the Thompson judgement, and where there is an investigation and we see this every day in our news headlines around the Ballymurphy inquest, where there's evidence of wrongdoing the prosecution service should, independently, make a decision on whether the criminal law was broken.

"Many people have raised the possibility of a South African-style process that has been rejected some years ago. We have asked the Defence Committee on two occasions to privately meet families that we work with who suffered through State violence and he tells us he doesn't have the time to travel to Belfast.

"Yet he speaks out on these issues continuously. I think there's a massive disconnect between what's happening on the ground.

"I heard Richard Dannatt saying that he was of the view that the people of the Bogside were satisfied with the outcome of the Saville Inquiry, I would suggest to your listeners that the former chief of staff of the British Army is in no position to make judgement on what the people of the Bogside feel about the Saville Inquiry."

Earlier: Calls to extend legal protection to Northern Ireland veterans

British Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt is facing calls to extend strengthened legal protections to troops facing investigation over alleged historical offences to veterans of the Northern Ireland conflict.

Ms Mordaunt is to set out plans for legislation to ensure veterans and serving military personnel are not subjected to repeated inquiries in relation to past operations overseas.

While the move was welcomed by MPs pressing for an end to historical investigations in Iraq and Afghanistan, there was concern that it did not cover the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Penny Mordaunt has said military veterans should not face repeated investigations (Stephan Rousseau/PA)

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 Derry in 1972.

Tory MP Johnny Mercer, who is refusing to vote for Government legislation in the Commons until it ends such historical inquires, said the announcement 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.

“We need to redouble our efforts and see what we can do to apply legislation to stop this process taking place.”

General Lord Dannatt said peers will try to amend the legislation to cover the Northern Ireland Troubles (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

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.

“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 told the Press Association.

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

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, who is expected to unveil the new measures within days, 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 British 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.

Mrs May said at the time that the move should end an “industry of vexatious claims” which has seen veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan pursued through the courts over alleged mistreatment of combatants and prisoners over a decade after the supposed events took place.

- Press Association

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