In March, the Public Prosecution Service announced its decision to prosecute “Soldier F” for the murders of James Wray and William McKinney. They were among 14 civilians shot dead at a civil rights march in 1972, otherwise known as Bloody Sunday. The PPS decision caused anger and upset for the families of the other 12 civilians killed. The sister of William Nash, for whose death no soldier will be prosecuted, described her heartbreak and devastation.
Last week, it prompted a letter to the Prime Minister from Johnny Mercer. The backbench Tory MP explained that he could no longer support her government due to “the historical prosecution of servicemen and women… being dragged back to Northern Ireland”. It has given fresh prominence to a debate on whether or not there should be a statute of limitations – effectively an amnesty – on historical prosecutions for crimes committed against civilians by military personnel in Northern Ireland.
The vast majority of military personnel posted to Northern Ireland served with courage and distinction. But atrocities were also committed by Armed Forces serving there. From high-profile events like Bloody Sunday and the Ballymurphy Massacre to individual cases like that of Majella O’Hare, a 12-year-old girl who was shot twice in the back by a soldier on her way to church one Sunday morning.
Yesterday I spoke to Majella’s brother Michael about the new Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt’s comments and Labour’s lack of response. He said the pain the victims’ families feel years later is real, and their quest for truth is legitimate. Because there is no amnesty on grief and little closure without justice.
Armed Forces are, rightly, subject to Service and civilian law, and people from all communities should expect justice where crimes are committed. Johnny Mercer’s letter failed to acknowledge this. There is no reference to ‘victims’, ‘truth’ or ‘justice’. He attacked the government for failing to protect former soldiers, whilst wilfully ignoring its duty to citizens.
It is part of an insidious narrative that has emerged from the right on this issue. It begins with the notion that prosecutions are a “witch-hunt”, as DUP Jeffrey Donaldson has claimed. It then seeks to argue that whilst British soldiers are facing “persecution”, paramilitaries are being absolved of all responsibility.
This is simply not true. Of the 26 prosecution cases brought since 2011 in relation to legacy issues, 21 have involved Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries. This narrative leads to a false dichotomy – either you support an amnesty on historical prosecutions (and therefore ignore a victims’ right to justice), or you hate our country and our Armed Forces.
Rather than show leadership by reaffirming the right to justice for victims’ families, Mordaunt has exacerbated tensions in making deeply hurtful and unhelpful statements. Last week, she appeared to support Mercer in a comment the day after his letter to the PM. On Wednesday, she made what the Tánaiste, Simon Coveney, diplomatically referred to as “loose comments” when she said a statute of limitations should apply to Northern Ireland.
They have been made worse by confusion on where the Labour frontbench stands on this issue. Whilst clarification was posted on social media last night, it was vague, mentioned Northern Ireland just once, and does not call out Mordaunt for her comments. Nia Griffith’s statement will do little to reassure victims and their families. Labour must acknowledge that its comments and response on this issue have been underwhelming and inadequate.
There must be a concerted effort now to set the record straight on where Labour stands – and that must be with the victims’ and their families, and in opposition to the comments made by Penny Mordaunt and Jeffrey Donaldson. As an immediate step, the Labour frontbench must publicly make these three commitments:
- To reaffirm that we do not support a statute of limitations on historical prosecutions for military personnel in Northern Ireland.
- To condemn the comments made by Penny Mordaunt this week, and call on her to withdraw her comments immediately.
- To assert our commitment to victims’ and their families in Northern Ireland, including their right to justice.