20 May 2019
Iain Duncan Smith speaks in a debate on giving immunity to Northern Ireland veterans

Iain Duncan Smith tells MPs that any stronger legal protection against prosecution being brought in for military veterans absolutely must include veterans who served in Northern Ireland.

Mr Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, and to have served under Mrs Moon’s.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), that there is not an awful lot more to be said, but I will say it anyway because the e-petition demands that we reiterate and re-reiterate the reality of what has been going on. I congratulate those who started e-petition 243947 on their work, and my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore) on his very good and powerful speech.

I have not spoken about this subject pretty much since I left Northern Ireland, but I listened with great interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), and it brought back an awful lot of memories of Northern Ireland. I was a young platoon commander like the ones he described, not that long out of Sandhurst. I do not know that I learned very much at Sandhurst; it all had to be re-learned after I left. I remember large periods of incredible, intense boredom, followed by massive periods of panic and fear—literally almost alongside each other. I lived in the masonic car park with my company, in an old caravan that had a hole on the side by my bed. I was damp the whole time I was there, because the rain lashed through the whole of the winter.

I remember the fear in my young guardsmen’s eyes when they were caught up in an incident. It came not from the idea of what might happen to them, but mostly from what they might have to do, and what they might get wrong. The yellow card, which was drilled into us before we left, scared the living daylights out of me before I even set foot in Northern Ireland, and I know it was the same for my young soldiers. As my hon. Friend said, some of them were 18 years old and had very low levels of education. They were in an urban environment that they had never been in, and they were armed and acting in support of the police, as a quasi-police force. We expected them, in a moment, to make the kind of judgments that highly paid, brilliant legal brains would stall at. Those young men had to make those decisions for themselves, as my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, and they bore the burden by themselves—too often, without support.

I take the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View made. I have a real problem with our relationship with the armed forces in this country. We expect them to do the right thing and go to war. I still remember my father, who served with great distinction in the second world war, telling me that many of his friends who had been incarcerated in prisoner of war camps for a number of years came home to find their families in near destitution, because the then War Office had decided that, as they were living comfortably in a prisoner of war camp, their pay could reasonably be cut in half; they would have no need for the other bit. It forgot that, or did not even bother to find out whether, they had dependants living at home, who, by the end of the war, were in deep poverty and starving. I am afraid that that is the kind of relationship that we have percolating through after every single operation. We treat our veterans of Northern Ireland in much the same way.

I am sad to say that the Government, and previous Labour and Conservative Governments—I am not necessarily speaking of mine, but all Governments—are determined to find the reasons why we cannot do things, but never the reasons why we can. Our servicemen and women get put in operations, genuinely risk their lives, and do not complain about it. They do that on the general assumption that a paternal Government would oversee their wellbeing if they were wounded, if their families were hurt or if they ended up in a difficult situation in which they might be prosecuted.

Too often, in the slightly politically correct conversations that take place outside Parliament when Ministers are interviewed, they start equivocating about who was doing what. We get equivocation about the terrorists versus the soldiers. I did not serve with particular distinction, but when I was in Northern Ireland, I had to find a cache of a large number of armour-piercing Garand—an American rifle—rounds. I thought to myself that they were on their way to somebody who would do a snipe on one of our patrol vehicles. They would have gone clean through it, and would have killed anything on the inside. Terrorists were setting up another attack, like those the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) described, on people who were there to keep the peace. There is no equivalence between those who go out to kill people, and those who go out to defend people but may end up having to kill people as a result. That stands above all else. That is what we do as soldiers. That is what we know we are about.

That is particularly the case with British soldiers, who I still believe to this day are the best trained, and most reasonable and decent, troops on the ground. They always operate with a real sense of restraint. They do not even have to be taught about that; there is an instinctive sense of restraint that comes from their training. We now find that 90% of the cost of these prosecutions is going on 10% of the incidents. Where is the natural justice in that?

I want to raise an issue. I had friends who never came back, and I want to talk about Robert Nairac. I saw him a few nights before he went to Northern Ireland, and he never returned. What happened to him—a brave young man trying to do his job—was horrific. He was not just killed but tortured and dismembered. He disappeared, and no one has ever owned up to knowing where his body is buried. No one has owned up to doing it, although we have a fair suspicion of who it was. His poor parents have gone to their grave with no conclusion to the sad tragedy of Robert Nairac. He is typical of many people, both soldiers and non-combatants, who disappeared in Northern Ireland. Where is the justice in the fact that families such as his will never see those responsible prosecuted for their filthy, foul actions? There is no natural justice in pursuing British soldiers, rather than the people who tortured and killed Robert Nairac, because it is easier.

Worse than that are the letters of comfort that were given out. I find it astonishing to discover that letters of comfort are given quietly to those on the run. Why are they on the run? Because they have committed atrocities and cannot come back. That is about Government and perhaps about the Belfast agreement—but in a funny sort of way, not really; otherwise, that would have been done publicly. It would have been shouted from the rooftops if it were an equivalent process, but it never was.

As my hon. Friends have said, the endless nightmare for soldiers who served in Northern Ireland was that they were three times more likely to die than the terrorists who they were after. The likelihood of death was greater on the streets there than in other operations before or since. Why was that? Because our soldiers walked through the streets in plain sight, and were targets every single moment that they were there.

I recall the sheer fear I felt as a young platoon commander on the first commemorative Sunday of Bloody Sunday in the Bogside. I remember having to keep a patrol safe as over 100,000 very angry people talked about tearing them limb from limb if they found them, and knowing that at any stage, any one of my patrol could have been taken away, never to be seen again. Those were the kinds of decisions that one had to make. That still resonates, even today.

Ultimately, I simply urge the Government to do the right thing—to recognise that it is quite ridiculous that soldiers who have been cleared in previous investigations should ever be pursued again, unless there is absolute, categorical and clear evidence, beyond what is needed to meet the burden of proof, that they have done something that nobody knew about before. These men, who are in their 70s, should never face that, but they do. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham mentioned one man who was arrested by a stream of police cars and taken away immediately, as though he had committed some foul offence and might run. The overcooking—the nonsense—that the police get up to on these matters sometimes is quite ridiculous.

I do not want these men to be treated differently, but I say quite categorically that if there is to be a statute of limitations, it must cover veterans of Northern Ireland. I understand that those who served in other operations may well be covered, but because Northern Ireland veterans served in the United Kingdom, UK law will override anything that the Government might do. That absolutely cannot be allowed.

I give my Government fair warning that I will simply not put up with shunting Northern Ireland veterans to one side while seeking some sort of general political cover, as though we had done something for them. We will not have done anything unless we deal with all our servicemen and women, who have had the bravery and courage to serve their country. There can be no second-class treatment.

There is debate about whether it should be stated that prosecutions must be based on new evidence, or whether there should be a statute of limitations. I would be content with observing this one principle: no servicemen or women who served in Northern Ireland should be arrested and pursued, particularly after cases against them have been dismissed, simply because the police have nothing better to do with their time than find out whether they did something. It is time that the Government acted on that.

I urge the Minister and his colleagues to recognise that those of us who served in Northern Ireland did not ask to. We did not, in a fit of passionate patriotism and bravery, suddenly volunteer to go there on our own. We were told to go there because we were soldiers. That was the command. We were told that it was an operation; it was not some other affair, as we now seem to hear. We went on that operation—Op Banner was an operation—and did our duty.

Bob Stewart

It was Operation Banner. Soldiers did 28 days in Northern Ireland and were awarded a General Service Medal, which is the recognised medal for serving in combat zones such as Malaya, Aden and Borneo. Northern Ireland is on the clasp for the General Service Medal, so it is an operation like any other.

Mr Duncan Smith

I agree. The other day, I made the point that I have an Operational Service Medal for Rhodesia, as it was then, and a General Service Medal with a clasp for Northern Ireland. I assume that the operations were recognised as equivalents—I do not remember a distinction. I was never told that I was on a subset of an operation in Northern Ireland, but that I could go on a real one in Rhodesia. I can tell hon. Members, without a shadow of a doubt, that Northern Ireland was the more frightening of the two.

The Minister must say loudly to all those who have the privilege of running Departments, and even to the Prime Minister, that this simply cannot stand—it is a deep injustice. Those who served need us to stand up for them, because they have nobody else. Their families need us to stand up for them, because they have nowhere else to go. Successive British Governments have too often failed their servicemen and women because they were mealy-mouthed about how to support them. That has to stop; we must now protect them.

I have one last phrase for the Minister. When natural justice collides with the law, we must change the law to protect those who protected us.