The new head of the armed forces has vowed to stamp out bogus claims against Troubles veterans, sparking criticism from Sinn Féin.
The party has branded Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir Nick Carter’s comments, made at a media briefing at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire,“extremely insulting”.
Taking up the top post, Sir Nick praised the “remarkable job” done by the British Army in Northern Ireland and said groundless allegations against soldiers risked undermining the Army’s fighting spirit.
“It is right and proper that if our soldiers have done something wrong, then they should clearly be investigated,” he said.
“But only if they have done something wrong.”
Sir Nick added: “What is fundamentally wrong though is if they're chased by people who are making vexatious claims - and that will not happen on my watch. Absolutely not.”
Sinn Féin Mid Ulster MLA Linda Dillon described the comments as hurtful and challenged Sir Nick to meet with families who have made claims over the actions of soldiers.
“I would call on the British Chief of the Defence Staff to provide evidence of any such ‘vexatious claims’,” Ms Dillon said.
“These comments are extremely insulting and will provide further hurt to families and victims of the conflict, some of whom have waited over 40 years for closure by way of an Article 2 investigation or inquest or the timely provision of disclosure in relation to the circumstances surrounding the death of their loved ones.”
However, Ulster Unionist MLA and former soldier Doug Beattie praised the comments from Sir Nick.
“The position we start from in Northern Ireland is one of imbalance,” he said.
“Terrorists have been able to avail of early release from prison, royal prerogatives of mercy or royal pardons, and over 200 ‘letters of comfort’ by the Blair government.
“Too many people have lost sight of the fact that 99% of victims during the Troubles were due to terrorist action, and just 1% of the 47,000 victims were due to the police or army.
“And unlike the security forces, every terrorist act was premeditated with unlawful death the intended outcome.”
Sir Nick's comments came after his predecessor said he was “deeply uncomfortable” at the prospect of veterans facing investigation for actions which occurred during the Troubles.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, who stepped down as Chief of the Defence Staff in June, said it was a political decision as to whether there should be a statute of limitations on historical inquiries.
But he made clear that he was concerned at the way such investigations could play out.
A consultation document issued by Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley on dealing with the legacy of the Troubles does not include provision for a statute of limitations, to the anger of many Conservative MPs.
But Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has pledged to look at “all options” to protect veterans from legacy investigations, amid fears Second World War campaign survivors could be targeted.
Sir Nick said service personnel facing investigation would receive as much help as they needed.
He continued: “The point I’d make is that we as an institution ... are absolutely going to look after those people who are being investigated this way, to the best of our ability.”