Flaws in the system of investigation into charges of British army misconduct “on the battlefield “ have been dramatically exposed in the disgrace of the solicitor Phil Shiner. In the Commons and in the press, it has reinforced calls for Theresa May to speed up the promised reform of how human rights law applies to ex-soldiers who served not only in Iraq but in Northern Ireland.
The Shiner case will no doubt boost her well established scepticism about how human rights law is invoked against the state.
Critics of the system insist that the Shiner case proves that the system of trawling through a long list of claims against the Army is wide open to abuse and should be replaced by a more selective “ rotten apple “ approach. Over Iraq there is a strong case.
But it is a mistake to place allegations of army misconduct in Iraq and Northern Ireland in the same frame. There are big differences as well as some similarities. In the Iraq war, British law could be applied and enforced on one side only. The Northern Ireland Troubles were intimately domestic. The processes and the public accountability that go with them are quite different.
BBC NI have reported the PSNI’s answer to the secretary of state James Brokenshire’s claim that there’s too much concentration on army cases
Paramilitary cases outnumber cases against the security forces by more than two to one. That may still seem too many but how else are they to be assessed other than by looking at the claims? A category review does not imply that prosecutions are imminent and “hauling people out of bed at six in the morning” isn’t necessary. ( It didn’t happen to Gerry Adams who was allowed to report for interview).
The PSNI’s recital of the facts amounts to a defence of the operational independence which British ministers have always piously defended until now. It provides evidence that secretary of state James Brokenshire was wrong to criticise them. The police have been thrust loudly complaining into the breach until or unless agreement is reached on setting up the long trailed independent Historical Investigations Unit. This would be financed by an extra £150 million from London ove five years, contingent on agreement among the local parties and promised in the Fresh Start agreement. If Brokenshire thought his comments would help to goad the parties into ending their deadlock on dealing with the past, he now knows differently. He only managed to widen the gap at the worst possible time. He must resist climbing on a backbench bandwagon, like we heard in a debate on the Army Covenant in the Commons yesterday, when the DUP and right wing Conservatives made common cause.
I close by encouraging the minister and his colleagues, and their colleagues in other departments that are involved in this issue, to give serious consideration to the introduction of a statute of limitations, that would protect the men and women who have served our country, and who deserve that protection.
“I recognise that no one is above the law, but when cases have been investigated in some cases not just once, but twice previously, and when the men and women who served our country have been exonerated, only to find years later that those cases are being reopened, then I think there is something wrong
Sir Gerald Howarth
I think it is absolutely immoral that those men who fought in that filthy war, wearing the Queen’s uniform, facing an enemy wearing civilian clothes, lurking in the shadows amongst a civilian population, having done their best for their country are now being dragged from their beds at six o’clock in the morning in dawn raids and being dragged off to Northern Ireland.
“I think it’s unacceptable and I’m afraid to say to my friend on the front bench this is not a matter simply for the police services of Northern Ireland, or for the prosecuting authorities.
“It is, as I’ve told the Prime Minister, a matter for ministers.
So the pressure is on ministers to make a change. But whatever distinctions may be made between the conduct of soldiers and paramilitaries, a “statute of limitations” for soldiers alone has to be out of the question.
A statute of limitations for one? A statute of limitations for all.