Richard BenyonMain Page: Richard Benyon (Conservative) - Newbury)
Department Debates - View all Richard Benyon's debates with the Northern Ireland Office
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 243947 relating to immunity for soldiers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I extend my gratitude to Karen Webb-James for starting this e-petition, which has attracted over 146,000 signatures, including 238 from my constituency, and calls on the Government not to
“prosecute the military for its work in Northern Ireland”,
and to prevent
“criminal investigations after a period of time.”
I am pleased to address this topic and the sentiment behind this e-petition. Through the Defence Committee’s 2017 report, “Investigations into fatalities in Northern Ireland involving British military personnel”, and written evidence to the Committee from individuals such as Professor Richard Ekins, we have learned more about the extent of this issue, and we have discovered that there could easily be prosecution of our armed forces personnel who were involved in other, more modern, theatres of conflict. I know that right hon. and hon. Members will want to refer to those instances. I pay tribute to all those who have served in operations, especially those who have died in the service of our country.
Given the nature of the petition, I am concentrating my remarks on the situation in Northern Ireland; I hope hon. Members will see that there is good reason. In recent days, the Government have unintentionally drawn a distinction, when it comes to immunity, between those who have served in Northern Ireland and those who have served in other theatres. I hope to address that lack of parity later.
The Government responded to the e-petition on 1 April, stating:
“This Government is unequivocal in our admiration for the Armed Forces whose sacrifices ensured terrorism would never succeed. However, our approach to the past must be consistent with the rule of law… This Government will always salute the heroism and bravery of the soldiers and police officers who served to protect the people of Northern Ireland, and in too many cases paid the ultimate price. It is only due to the courageous efforts of our security forces that we have the relative peace and stability that Northern Ireland enjoys today. Our security forces ensured that Northern Ireland’s future will only ever be decided by democracy and consent, and never by violence. Over 250,000 people served in Northern Ireland during Operation Banner, the longest continuous military deployment in our country’s history, the vast majority with courage, professionalism and great distinction. This Government will never forget the debt of gratitude we owe them.”
Despite the Government’s unwavering gratitude to our armed forces, there remains a disproportionately high, and arguably unnecessary, number of investigations in the light of the number of killings attributed to the armed forces in Northern Ireland. In a speech in this Chamber in 2017, the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) said:
“The reality today is that 90% of the resources of the legacy investigation branch…are devoted to investigating 10% of the deaths during the troubles, and 10% of its resources are devoted to investigating 90% of the deaths.”—[Official Report, 10 January 2017; Vol. 619, c. 68WH.]
This e-petition seeks to address that issue.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The armed forces were there from the outset to protect peace; the terrorists were there to inflict harm on people. That is an important distinction to make.
I hold veterans and serving members of our armed forces in the highest regard. I hope and believe that that sentiment is shared across this Chamber. In my short tenure as the Member of Parliament for Southport, I have sought to spend a considerable proportion of my parliamentary time raising issues pertinent to those who have served or continue to serve in our armed forces. I am glad to do so again today, although I think that many hon. Members would agree that this issue should have been resolved some time ago.
I welcome this debate, and I thank all hon. Members from across Parliament who are present, including my right hon. and hon. Friends. I am also delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer). His perseverance and unrelenting dedication to our veterans has encouraged the Government to act more swiftly on this issue. While policing and justice issues in Northern Ireland are now ordinarily devolved to the Northern Ireland Executive—or, in their absence, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—the legacy of the troubles remains a matter for this Parliament and the UK Government to contend with. To do justice to the issue, we must meet it with the upmost respect and candour.
In a debate on this topic last May, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham) reminded us of the incredibly high number of lives lost during the troubles in Northern Ireland: an astonishing 3,500 people were killed in those terrible years. Let us break that figure down. Approximately 3,000 of those victims were killed by non-state forces—republican terrorists and loyalist paramilitaries. Some 370 were killed by security forces. A total of 722 members of the security services— mainly British soldiers—were also killed. Twice as many soldiers were killed by terrorists as terrorists were killed by soldiers. That should give us British citizens tremendous confidence in our armed forces. It is proof of the commendable restraint shown by the British Army and the Police Service of Northern Ireland at that time.
All those killings, bar a few outstanding terrorist cases, have been investigated fully—often repeatedly. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), a distinguished and gallant veteran, said last week in an urgent question on the subject that he had been through the process more than once. He is not alone in that. Despite the investigations, matters are complicated further by subsequent developments, poor record keeping, the passing of former servicemen and women, the hundreds of royal pardons that have been granted over time, and the over 500 prisoners released on licence until the year 2000.
The entire process so far appears to have been rigged against our armed forces and in favour of terrorist groups. That does not provide closure or justice. Terrorists and illegal paramilitary forces cannot and must not be viewed or treated as being equal to the police and armed forces, as if they were somehow standing on shared moral ground; they never have done, and never will. However, the legal framework would have us believe that the words “terrorists” and “servicemen and women” should be treated equally in the context of Northern Ireland—they should not.
Having said that, I appreciate the need for closure felt by everyone involved in those tragic years of our great nation’s history. Likewise, I respect the implications of the Good Friday agreement, and understand the pain and suffering endured by the victims’ families, who yearn for justice. Where crimes have been committed—they do happen, albeit rarely—the rule of law should be applied, those involved should be investigated, and prosecutions should be forthcoming. However, let us be clear: in the midst of conflict, those instances are the exception, not the rule. The overwhelming majority of our servicemen and women believe in the preservation of life and the rule of law. They swore to uphold those values in making their vow to the Queen and the people of the United Kingdom when enlisting into the armed forces, and they believe in those values today.
Let us look at some key historical facts. Operation Banner was the longest military engagement in the history of the British Army. During the troubles, as I mentioned, there were more than 3,500 deaths, some 60% of which were murders carried out by republican paramilitary terrorists, mainly from the Provisional IRA. Approximately 30% were carried out by loyalist paramilitaries. British and Irish state forces were responsible for 10% of the deaths; almost all of those occurred as a result of entirely lawful or yellow-card actions, when soldiers and police officers were instructed to act to preserve life and uphold the virtues of the rule of law.
Another stark fact about that period is that a member of the security forces in Northern Ireland was three times more likely to be killed than a member of the IRA, which contrasts with today’s theatres of war, where members of terrorist organisations are three times more likely to be killed than members of the armed forces. That point alone depicts the unrelenting bravery of those who served in Northern Ireland.
Let there be no doubt that paramilitary terrorists were responsible for almost 90% of deaths in Northern Ireland, including more than 3,000 unsolved murders. If we consider that in comparison with the 10% of deaths that have been attributed to those who were serving with the armed forces at the time, we may begin to understand the relentlessness faced by those victims and their beloved families, and the burning injustice faced by our veterans who are being routinely investigated.
The Good Friday agreement, which was hailed as a triumph in 1998, advanced long-term peace in Northern Ireland. For some, however, it may also have inadvertently equalized those who sought to defend the Crown and those who sought to bring it down in the most violent fashion, and have tilted the scale in favour of the terrorists by authorising the early release from jail of many—too many.
Terrorists killed more than 1,000 servants of the Crown involved in Operation Banner. The victims were members of several armed forces divisions, such as the Army, the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force, the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Irish Regiment. Police forces, including the Royal Ulster Constabulary and other constabularies, also lost hundreds of lives at the hands of the terrorists. We cannot do anything to bring those men and women back to their families and loved ones, but we can do something to honour them: ensure that justice is done.
What did the UK Government do instead? They went to explicit lengths to show mercy to people who had been found guilty of the most heinous crimes. One of many examples is Sean Kelly, the infamous Shankill bomber. Prior to 1998, Kelly had been found guilty of murdering seven people and condemned to nine life terms in prison. As it turned out, he barely served seven years.
Despite efforts to investigate the unsolved murders that occurred during the troubles in Northern Ireland, of which the Historical Enquiries Team set up by the Chief Constable is the most prominent, it is saddening and frustrating to see how little real effort has been put into prosecuting the perpetrators of approximately 90% of the crimes committed, while those who fought to preserve the state have been subjected to multiple investigations. Some of those investigations started more than four decades ago and have been opened and closed multiple times, with no consideration for the old age and welfare of those being investigated.
Break in Debate
I served for more than three years in Northern Ireland, on seven operational tours. I first went there in 1970. Sadly, I lost six men who were directly under my command, and many more in my unit. Almost 50 of the men under my command were wounded—35 in one incident. I have been involved in several fatality shootings. I think I have the right to speak for Northern Ireland veterans today.
We were sent to Northern Ireland by our predecessors. The Glosters were sent in, I think, August or September 1969. We were sent to save lives, to look after people. We were given a yellow card, which was approved by Parliament, and that yellow card told us what we could and could not do under fire. We trained very hard on it. We memorised it. We rehearsed it. Colleagues are nodding their heads. We practised on exercise incidents so that we would learn.
Army training screams out against opening fire in peacekeeping. That decision is an incredibly difficult one to make and it is very difficult in an urban environment because soldiers are thinking, “If I open fire, who else am I going to hurt?” How many times did I see instances of our soldiers not firing when under fire because of the possibility that children or women would be caught in the crossfire? That tactic was used by our opposition. There is huge inhibition to opening fire, and the decision to do so has to be made in milliseconds by our young men. By the way, I worked with some young women on operations, but not in the infantry. When that decision and those actions are judged, it is in some courtroom, warm and nice with time and lawyers. A judgment is being made about a decision taken by someone who is panicking like hell.
My right hon. Friend is right: it was taken a long time ago. We must remember that most of our young men were 18 or 19 years old. They were kids. My soldiers looked so young that they could have been in year 9 or 10 at school.
Firearms were used as a last resort. On the yellow card it says, in capitals:
“FIREARMS MUST ONLY BE USED AS A LAST RESORT”.
That was drilled into us. A challenge had to be given before someone could open fire, unless doing so, it says on the yellow card, would increase the risk of injury or death to others or oneself. That challenge was clear: “Army. Stop or I fire.” Again the yellow card is specific: opening fire was allowed only if lives were endangered by someone firing a weapon at a soldier or someone they were protecting, or if someone was planting or throwing an explosive device—the card specifically mentions petrol bombs. One third of my platoon were injured by petrol bombs in 1970 on the streets of Londonderry, at the Rossville Street/William Street junction—one third burned, and we had not opened fire at all. And nor did we. If someone is driving at a soldier, that soldier is allowed to open fire. Finally, if a terrorist has killed someone or is in the act of killing someone, a soldier can open fire if they cannot make an arrest in any other way.
We could only open fire with aimed shots, not with machine gun fire; we did not do it automatic. We had to use “the minimum force”—that, again, is on the yellow card—and we had to be careful that we did not hit innocent people. That little phrase stopped so many British soldiers from firing, particularly in Belfast on the Falls Road.