British army veterans of Northern Ireland Troubles will have ‘sword of Damocles’ hanging over them for another year despite Government’s controversial amnesty plan, MPs warn
- Limitations would end all prosecutions of veterans in Troubles-related cases
- But former defence minister Mark Francois said it would not come soon enough
- And relatives of victims of the Birmingham pub bombings decried the plans
Plans for a statute of limitations which would end all prosecutions of veterans in Troubles-related cases will not come in for a year – leaving them all in limbo.
Secretary of State Brandon Lewis told the Commons he plans to bring the legislation to Parliament in the autumn.
Mr Lewis said his plan for dealing with Northern Ireland’s troubled past also includes a new truth recovery body and an oral history initiative.
But Conservative former defence minister Mark Francois expressed his frustration at the lack of legislation before the summer recess.
He told Mr Lewis in the Commons: ‘Our veterans, many of them in the autumn of their lives, many of them in ill health, will still have to undergo the Sword of Damocles for at least another year.
‘I say to our procrastinating Secretary of State, you are the boy who cried wolf once too often.’
Mr Lewis said the statute of limitations would ‘apply equally to all Troubles-related incidents’.
He added: ‘We know that the prospect of the end of criminal prosecutions will be difficult for some to accept and this is not a position we take lightly.
Ex-soldier Dennis Hutchings, who faces trial in connection with a fatal shooting in Northern Ireland in 1974
Dennis Hutchings (pictured in 1978), 80, is accused of attempted murder in relation to the death of John Pat Cunningham in County Tyrone in 1974
Veterans who served in Northern Ireland are finally set to be freed from the threat of prosecution. Pictured: British soldiers in Belfast in 1976
Seriously ill former Troubles soldier, 80, with only months to live could now avoid October trial
A seriously ill former Troubles soldier set to stand trial in October over a disputed shooting could yet be saved by the Government’s proposals, his lawyer suggested last night.
Dennis Hutchings, 80, is accused of attempted murder in relation to the death of John Pat Cunningham in County Tyrone in 1974.
Mr Cunningham, who had learning difficulties, was shot after failing to stop in response to soldiers’ requests.
Mr Hutchings is charged with attempted murder, rather than murder, as prosecutors cannot prove who fired the fatal shot.
The former staff sergeant in the Life Guards has always maintained he fired warning shots into the air.
It is understood the proposed statute of limitations will not assist those whose cases are currently before the courts as the Government will not interfere with the judiciary.
As well as Mr Hutchings, another soldier has been charged with manslaughter in relation to a shooting in Northern Ireland in 1988.
Convicted IRA member John Downey, named in a High Court ruling as participating in the 1982 Hyde Park bombing, has been charged with the murder of two soldiers in 1972. His case is also likely to proceed. But last night, Mr Hutchings’ lawyer Philip Barden said his team would argue for a stay of proceedings for any legislation protecting veterans to come into effect.
‘We would argue it would be unfair to continue to prosecute Mr Hutchings when a law comes in to bar other prosecutions and would invite the Public Prosecution Service [of Northern Ireland] to drop the prosecution in this case,’ he said.
Mr Hutchings has vowed to clear his name in court. Mr Cunningham’s family have said he should face trial.
The pensioner, of Cornwall, requires kidney dialysis three times each week and has heart problems. Doctors say he may only have months to live.
Last night Mr Hutchings said: ‘I was arrested six years ago and have been dragged over coals ever since. I was told there was new evidence but this has never, ever been produced.
‘I think this legislation might have come too late for me but hopefully it will help the other ex-servicemen who have cases hanging over them.
‘The Government have been spineless. We were sent to Northern Ireland to do a job then abandoned.’
‘But we’ve come to the view that this is the best and only way to facilitate an effective information retrieval and provision process, and the best way to help Northern Ireland move further along the road to reconciliation.
‘It is in reality a painful recognition of the very reality of where we are.’
Speaking earlier during Prime Minister’s Questions, Boris Johnson said: ‘The people of Northern Ireland must, if we possibly can allow them to, move forwards now.
‘(Sir Keir Starmer) will know that the proposals that have been brought forward … are measured, they are balanced and they have a wide degree of support from former Labour prime ministers and former Labour leaders who have considerable more distinction, if I may say, than him.
‘He will recall that it was under that Labour administration that many terrorists were unfortunately given effectively an amnesty, and they were allowed to escape the full consequences of their crimes and that is the reality.’
The Prime Minister added: ‘The sad fact remains that there are many members of the armed services who continue to face the threat of vexatious prosecutions well into their 70s, 80s and later, and we’re finally bringing forward a solution to this problem, to enable the province of Northern Ireland to draw a line under the Troubles, to enable the people of Northern Ireland to move forward.
‘I think someone with greater statesmanship and clarity of vision would have seen that and given these proposals a fair wind.’
But the families of those killed by soldiers in west Belfast in 1971 have urged against a statute of limitations on Troubles prosecutions.
A fresh inquest into the deaths of a woman and nine men in Ballymurphy earlier this year found they were ‘entirely innocent’.
A statement on behalf of the Ballymurphy families said: ‘We see this as the British Government’s cynical attempt to bring in an amnesty and a plan to bury its war crimes.
‘These latest proposals to deny families Article 2-compliant investigations or access to due process of the law will not be tolerated and will be legally challenged.
‘This proposed amnesty shows how low the British Government will go, it will help no-one, it is only being put forward for British veterans, they are the only reason they are rushing this through Parliament.’
More than 3,500 people died during the Northern Ireland Troubles, which stretched from the early 1970s to the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement in 1998, while tens of thousands more were injured.
But relatives of victims of the Birmingham pub bombings described the Government plans as ‘obscene’.
Julie Hambleton, whose older sister Maxine was among 21 people killed in the 1974 blasts in Birmingham, has written to Prime Minister Boris Johnson on behalf of the Justice 4 The 21 campaign group to decry the planned legislation.
‘Tell me Prime Minister, if one of your loved ones was blown up beyond recognition, where you were only able to identify your son or daughter by their fingernails because their face had been burned so severely from the blast and little of their remains were left intact, would you be so quick to agree to such obscene legislation being implemented?’ Ms Hambleton asked.
Julie Hambleton, who lost her sister Maxine Hambleton in the 1974 attack, by the Birmingham pub bombings memorial
Firemen survey the damage, and look for survivors in the Mulberry Bush, after the Birmingham pub bombings.
Maxine Hambleton, 18, who died in the Birmingham pub bombings back in 1974
‘You would do everything in your power to find the murderers and bring them to justice, which is exactly what we campaign for every day.’
The group queried the legislation’s effectiveness at preventing potential acts of violence.
‘How is this considered to be a deterrent for any future terrorist organisations?’ Ms Hambleton said.
‘What your government is proposing is that no matter what city terrorists decide to wreak death and destruction upon, do not worry because the British Government will let you walk away free without any fear of retribution of prosecution.’
Shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland Louise Haigh said the Government had vowed to properly investigate the bombings.
‘To tear up that pledge would be insulting, and to do so without the faintest hint of consultation with those who lost loved ones would be staggeringly insensitive,’ the Labour MP said.
‘The Prime Minister should look victims’ families in the eye, and explain why he wants to close the book on their cases, and why they have been the last to be told about these proposals.’
Two bombs planted in the Mulberry Bush and Tavern in the Town pubs exploded on November 21 1974, killing 21 and injuring up to 220 more.
A flawed investigation by West Midlands Police into the 1974 bombings led to the wrongful convictions of the Birmingham Six.
Nobody has been brought to justice for the blasts despite years of campaigning led by Justice 4 The 21.
In 2019, an inquest found a botched IRA warning was responsible for the victims’ unlawful killings.
However, the coronial process was described as ‘unsatisfactory’ by some of the bereaved, for not prompting criminal charges against any of the perpetrators.
In November 2020, a 65-year-old man was arrested in Belfast in connection with the bombings by officers from West Midlands Police assisted by the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
He was later released and the police investigation continues.
In March, Justice 4 The 21 called on Home Secretary Priti Patel to give a firm commitment within weeks on holding a public inquiry into their loved ones’ deaths.
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