BY JAMIE FOSTER
It appears that the government is backing away from an amnesty for service personnel who may be accused of committing offences during the Northern Irish troubles.
Senior Tory MPs had proposed a statute of limitations to prevent anyone having served during that time being prosecuted. Following concerns voiced by victims groups, Sinn Fein, the DUP and the Irish government, it would appear the proposals will not be made reality. It is another reminder of how lopsided the Good Friday agreement was when it provided amnesty to IRA ‘on the runs’ through a series of comfort letters while leaving British forces to face the possibility of future prosecutions.
Tory MP Johnny Mercer told the Mail online ‘I never thought I’d see the day when my Government would stand aside and watch pensioner veterans being dragged to court for claimed-offences for which they have already been investigated, often over forty years ago, at the behest of the very people they were fighting on behalf of the crown. It’s insane and a total loss of moral compass.’
There is a real concern that an industry is being built up bringing trumped up legal cases against ex servicemen in relation to Northern Ireland. Police and prosecutors in Northern Ireland deny that ex servicemen are being targeted in this way. Nonetheless it is a real fear for veterans of the Northern Irish conflict that they may be faced with malicious prosecution after all this time.
Statute of limitations are not a routine part of English law. Crimes can be prosecuted, depending on their severity, throughout a person’s life if they are suspected of committing them. There is a real question over whether statutes of limitations should be used more widely in the interests of justice. This is a tricky question in relation to cases like historical child sex abuse cases. At present these are brought to trial although there is some criticism over the quality of the available evidence over time. In Northern Irish ex servicemen cases, things are a lot more straight forward. In the main these cases have already been investigated and no action brought on the available evidence. It seems clear that it is not in the interests of justice to try to resurrect these cases after such a long interval especially in light of the fact so many convicted prisoners were released under the Good Friday Agreement.
If crimes were committed by British ex servicemen no one is above the law. In these cases, however, a time has come to say enough is enough. In cases where an investigation already cleared someone there should not be further action all these years later. The peace in Northern Ireland is based on a reconciliation process that required victims of terrorists to accept that those terrorists should be allowed to walk free. It is entirely wrong in light of that for the law to be going after men just because they were on the other side of that conflict. If a line was to be drawn in the sand so that reconciliation could be achieved surely everything on one side of that line stood to be forgiven together?
It is about time this government did something concrete to help ensure that our ex servicemen do not have to face any more than IRA fighters have to face from the troubles. Our ex servicemen deserve protection from prosecutions that may arise now. In cases where they have already been investigated and cleared there should be no further action against them. Our country owes a debt of gratitude to our ex servicemen and should do all that is necessary to ensure that this debt is paid. Given that IRA men convicted of murder walk the streets under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement it is only right and proper that ex British Forces should not have to face any further reckoning either. Let us put the troubles behind us and move on. Here’s hoping that the Government does the right thing and finds a way to provide the amnesty that has been called for.