BY JAMIE FOSTER
Senior Tories are demanding that Boris Johnson cut the powers of a historic investigations unit (HIU) as part of his deal to get power sharing back on at Stormont. The unit is tasked with investigating the deaths caused by the British Army during the troubles. There are real concerns that the unit will investigate all 302 deaths caused during the period. Tory MPs are keen to ensure that ex-soldiers are not caught up in prosecutions where there is no new evidence. The Prime Minister has promised there will be no prosecutions where there is no new evidence to bring. However this goes against the basis of the HIU which was set up to be ‘victim centred’ and could therefore look into any or all of the 302 deaths.
It is a bit of a mess as there is a clear tension between the Tories’ manifesto commitment to ensuring veterans are not harassed by vexatious prosecutions and ensuring that the HIU is ‘victim centred’. It is feared that the price of bringing Sinn Fein back into power sharing was for the Historic Investigations Unit to investigate all of the deaths caused by the British Army during the troubles. A group of MPs and ex-servicemen are calling for the powers of the HIU to be cut. They want formal reassurances that no veteran will be prosecuted. Iain Duncan-Smith warned, ‘The government must act on that as a matter of priority and not leave this hanging.’ Tory MP and ex British Army officer Richard Drax said “Any further delay is going to cause frustration not just amongst veterans but amongst MPs as well.”
The seeds of this problem were sewn by Tony Blair’s government when they negotiated the Good Friday Agreement. The agreement gave an amnesty to those responsible for IRA killings during the troubles but did not do the same for the British Army. Ever since we have been proceeding on an asymmetrical basis. While it is clear that those who committed crimes should be held accountable for them it is also clear that those who served this country should not be liable to vexatious prosecutions.
It is a very tricky problem for Boris Johnson’s government to solve. It is clear he must do something to protect veterans as set out in his manifesto. Exactly what he can do is the thorny issue. Legislation is promised within 100 days. The pressure on veterans is immense. They have to go on every day not knowing if a prosecution is going to come their way. This is no way to live. It is also no proper basis for a peace in Northern Ireland. There should not be a constant looking backwards over ground that has been thoroughly gone over countless times. As Boris Johnson said it is a time for looking to a bright future not for reliving the past.
Boris Johnson is putting a lot of money on the table to get power sharing back up and running. It is time that Northern Ireland’s people embraced the opportunities before them and built a new future. It must be possible to devise a legislative way out of this situation that gives real reassurance to veterans that they will be left to get on with their lives. It could be a crowning accomplishment of a Boris Johnson premiership if he is to get this right. Equally there is the temptation to forget about it and carry on as if there was no problem. This is not a realistic response to the plight of veterans.
It is up to the newly elected Tory government to show that it is as good as its word. The veterans need protection against the vicissitudes of vexatious prosecutions. It is only keeping faith with the service they have already given to this country to ensure this protection is forthcoming. Power sharing itself is not a good enough prize to put the fate of the veterans at stake. Boris needs to act decisively. It will mark out the integrity of Boris Johnson’s premiership how he deals with this situation. All eyes are on Boris now as he sets out to show that the faith the British public put in him was justified. Let’s hope that he does the right thing.
Jamie Foster is Country Squire Magazine’s Chief Writer.