To amnesty or not to amnesty? The UK government is squeezed from both directions, as up to 200 former soldiers face Troubles investigations

A wholly predictable row is brewing over government plans to exempt the Northern Ireland Troubles from amnesty plans for soldiers being drawn up by the Ministry of Defence. If they weren’t exempted a different row would be as inevitable.  Guardian correspondents Owen Boycott and Ben Quinn report that up to 200 former soldiers are being investigated for alleged criminal acts in Northern Ireland, following the single prosecution announced over Bloody Sunday. They also claim that the NIO and the MoD are at odds over the exemption and some Tory MPs are up in arms. They write:

As many as 200 former members of the British security forces are under official investigation for alleged criminal actions during the Troubles as a rift opens up between the Northern Ireland Office and the Ministry of Defence over how to deal with historical accusations.

There are at least three prosecutions against British soldiers under way. A former Parachute Regiment lance-corporal, identified only so far as “Soldier F”, is due to stand trial for murder and attempted murder for his role in the 1972 Bloody Sunday killings. Altogether, it is understood that between 150 and 200 former soldiers and police are under investigation for alleged actions taken during the Troubles.

The figure, which is an MoD estimate, has surfaced as the government is coming under intense pressure from Tory backbenchers – as well as thousands of current and former service personnel who protested last week against the prosecutions of troops over actions on Bloody Sunday and other occasions.

One veteran was told in a letter from his MP, a former security minister, that prosecutions of British soldiers were being driven by a “cultural Marxist hatred of our national history” on the part of the “liberal establishment”. The comments were made by Sir John Hayes in a letter to a former soldier who posted it on an official Facebook page being used to organise a march this Friday in support of troops facing charges over killings during Bloody Sunday and on other dates

As the MoD and Northern Ireland Office pursue separate reviews and policy priorities, Gavin Williamson, the defence secretary, has been trying to reassure service chiefs and veterans’ organisations. His department is currently preparing a bill for the Queen’s speech that would impose a statute of limitations on prosecutions relating to alleged offences committed outside the UK and dating back more than 10 years – unless there are exceptional circumstances or new evidence.

However, in correspondence seen by the Guardian, the Northern Ireland Office this month sought to reassure a Belfast-based campaign group that any scheme would not cover Northern Ireland. Relatives For Justice had expressed alarm at a recent announcement in parliament by the armed forces minister, Mark Lancaster, that the MoD was working “closely with the Northern Ireland Office on new arrangements, including to ensure that our armed forces and police officers are not unfairly treated”.

The Northern Ireland Office told the group in an email that what Lancaster was referring to was not at odds with what the Northern Ireland secretary, Karen Bradley, had said to them privately and what it said the MoD was “considering in an international context”.

“What we want is a way forward which provides for evidence of wrongdoing to be investigated and, where evidence exists, prosecutions to follow,” the Northern Ireland Office letter reiterated.

Paul O’Connor, director of the Pat Finucane Centre in Derry, which supports the families of Troubles’ victims, also recently had a meeting with Bradley at which he sought reassurances that there would be no amnesties for soldiers involved in the Troubles.

“She was very clear that she would not introduce any amnesty and that the MoD was doing its own thing and that was about Iraq and Afghanistan,” he told the Guardian, adding that the MoD is “playing games but the problem is that is unsettling people in Northern Ireland”.

But in a reflection of the Tory right’s position on the issue, Sir John Hayes went as far as saying in his letter to the veteran there should be no retrospective charges against any troops “irrespective of any actions they are alleged to have committed”.

His stance was praised by other veterans on the forum, where many angrily fulminated against a “betrayal” by MPs.

Figures obtained by The Detail show that 1,186 of the Northern Ireland deaths are still part of the caseload of the Legacy Investigation Branch (LIB) of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). The figures represent an increase on numbers reported last year.

Of the 1,186 killings that the PSNI’s Legacy Investigation Branch is assessing:

  • 5% are attributed to republican paramilitaries.
  • 23% are attributed to loyalist paramilitaries.
  • 5% are attributed to the security forces.- or 338 killings.
  • For the remaining 3% of deaths, the background of those primarily responsible is unknown.