Penny Mordaunt to grant legal protection to veterans facing historical allegations but Northern Ireland won't be covered

Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt has faced calls to extend strengthened legal protections to British troops facing investigation over alleged historical offences to veterans of the Northern Ireland conflict.

The new law, which covers conflicts other than in NI, would protect forces personnel from investigation over actions on the battlefield abroad after 10 years, except in "exceptional circumstances", Mordaunt announced.

While the move was welcomed by MPs pressing for an end to historical investigations in Iraq and Afghanistan, there was concern that it did not cover the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

When asked why protections would not be extended to soldiers who fought in the Troubles, Ms Mordaunt responded: "I do think it should cover Northern Ireland."

Addressing members of the Royal United Services Institute, she added: "The problem is that we have failed on the whole 'lawfare' issue because we have been waiting for other things to happen.

"This is not going to be resolved overnight. It is a priority of mine."

She said she feared the government was in danger of repeating the mistakes of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (Ihat) with veterans of the Troubles.

She said she had secured agreement with Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley that the concerns of defence would be formally considered as part of the Stormont House agreement process.

"It is a personal priority of mine that we get this resolved and we stop this chilling effect that is claiming veterans who really deserve our care," she said.

Among those currently facing prosecution is a former soldier, known as Soldier F, who has been charged with the killing of two people during Bloody Sunday in Londonderry in 1972.

Another is veteran Dennis Hutchings, who, despite at the time receiving a letter informing him he would not be prosecuted, is facing charges relating to his time in Northern Ireland.

  • Northern Ireland veteran refers to politicians as "bloody cowards":

He is charged with attempted murder and grievous bodily harm with intent, despite the letter informing him there would be "no prosecution of any military personnel arising out of this incident".

Speaking to ITV News he described politicians as a "bunch of bloody cowards".

He said: "They are terrified of Sinn Fein, that's why they won't make the decisions that they should be making.

"If they're making it for other conflicts, it should apply to all conflicts."

He added: "99% of them (politicians) are cowards, 1% of them make some effort to try and stand up and speak on our behalf, but unlike Johnny Mercer - who stands up to be counted, that's what they've all got to do."

An excerpt of the letter sent to Mr Hutchings, telling him he would not be prosecuted. Credit: ITV News

Johnny Mercer, a former British Army officer and Tory MP, said: "The biggest elephant in the room here is Northern Ireland, the defence secretary wants to extend this legislation to Northern Ireland, that's what i want to see happen."

He added: "It's a good start, it's a public consultation but we need to get this process moving, it's gone on for far too long."

War veteran Simon Weston, who suffered severe burn injuries while serving in the Falklands, told ITV News he believes criminals from Northern Ireland are receiving different treatment to soldiers.

He said: "There's an amnesty being offered to people who deliberately went out and committed crimes and yet our soldiers who may have made mistakes are not going to be absolved from that."

The chairman of the Commons Defence Committee, Conservative MP Julian Lewis, welcomed the moves to prevent soldiers being “lawyered to death”.

He suggested a South African-style “truth recovery” process for Northern Ireland, where deaths were investigated but there were no prosecutions to follow.

“Given that sort of immunity has already been effectively granted to so many people on the terrorist side of that bitter and awful conflict, what’s good enough for Nelson Mandela should be good enough for us and we ought to draw a line in this way,” he told the Press Association.

Penny Mordaunt has said military veterans should not face repeated investigations Credit: PA

The former head of the Army, General Lord Dannatt, said peers would try to amend the legislation to extend it to Northern Ireland when it comes to the House of Lords.

“What we can’t allow to go forward is the presumption that those deaths in which the military were involved were wrong,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

“Soldiers did their duty, got up in the morning, sometimes they came under attack. They returned fired.

“They didn’t set out to murder people. Terrorists set out every morning to murder people and successfully did so. There is a huge distinction to be drawn.”

General Lord Dannatt said peers will try to amend the legislation to cover the Northern Ireland Troubles. Credit: PA

The proposals, which will be subject to a public consultation, include measures to introduce a statutory presumption against prosecution of current or former personnel for alleged offences committed in the course of duty abroad more than 10 years ago.

It will stipulate that such prosecutions are not in the public interest unless there are “exceptional circumstances”, such as if compelling new evidence emerged.

Ms Mordaunt, who is expected to unveil the new measures within days, said: “We all owe a huge debt of gratitude to our armed forces who put their lives on the line to protect our freedom and security.

“It is high time that we change the system and provide the right legal protections to make sure the decisions our service personnel take in the battlefield will not lead to repeated or unfair investigations down the line.”

The Defence Secretary is also expected to reaffirm her commitment to derogating from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) before the UK embarks on significant military operations.

In 2016, Theresa May announced that the Government will adopt a presumption that it will take advantage of a right to suspend aspects of the ECHR at times of war.

Mrs May said at the time that the move should end an “industry of vexatious claims” which has seen veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan pursued through the courts over alleged mistreatment of combatants and prisoners over a decade after the supposed events took place.