Politics

New Law To Protect Veterans Who Served In Northern Ireland Coming 'Soon'

The existing Overseas Operations Bill, which is going through final Parliamentary stages, does not include Northern Ireland in its scope.

The Government says a new law to protect veterans who served in Northern Ireland will soon be brought forward.

The announcement in the House of Commons follows Johnny Mercer's resignation as Minister for Defence People and Veterans over the lack of legal protection for UK veterans of the Troubles.

Addressing MPs, the new Veterans Minister Leo Docherty said: "A bill will soon come forward from the Northern Ireland Office that will protect our Northern Ireland veterans of Operation Banner and address the legacy of the Troubles."

Former British Army officer and Conservative MP Bob Stewart said: "That's very good news."

Mr Stewart said the current conditions mean veterans who served in Northern Ireland are treated as "second class" compared to those who served overseas.

Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey said: "I am glad to hear the minister say at the despatch box the Government promises legislation on Northern Ireland shortly – we will look hard at that.

"But when it comes to dealing with the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland, we remain committed to the only way forward which must be based on the Good Friday Agreement and, in particular, on the broad agreement reached at Stormont House with victims at its heart."

The Commons announcement comes following Johnny Mercer's resignation as Minister for Defence People and Veterans over the lack of legal protection for UK veterans of the Troubles.

British Army Ferret armoured vehicles in Londonderry
British Army Ferret armoured vehicles in Londonderry, 1972 (Picture: PA).

Mr Mercer, a former British Army officer, has been heavily involved in the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill.

The proposed legislation, which is going through its final stages in Parliament, does not include Northern Ireland in its scope.

In his resignation letter to Boris Johnson, he stated that Northern Ireland veterans "deserve the protections of the Overseas Operations Bill like everyone else".

Mr Mercer said that not including those who served during the Troubles in legal protections for veterans was his "red line", adding: "I am deeply proud of my predecessors who served in Northern Ireland.

"They are not second-class veterans. They deserve the protections of the Overseas Operations Bill like everyone else.

"I made promises on your behalf that we would not leave them behind and would walk through simultaneous legislation for them.

"No discernible efforts have been made to do so, and I can see no prospect of this changing.

"I have no choice but to leave Government and campaign for them in Parliament."

In his resignation letter, Johnny Mercer made reference to the Veterans' Pledge, signed by Mr Johnson during his Conservative Party leadership campaign in 2019, as a move to end 'vexatious' claims and unfair trials against former service personnel, where no new evidence has come to light and existing accusations have been heard exhaustively in the courts.

The plans included making amendments to the Human Rights Act, so it did not apply to incidents that happened before it came into force in October 2000, including those during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland Veterans Commissioner Danny Kinahan said he wants to see engagement over legacy prosecutions.

"We have all got red lines. I don't want to see any veterans going to court that don't have to or shouldn't be, but there are cases that must go there from all sides," he told the BBC, pointing out that 90% of killings were carried out by terrorists or non-state forces.

"I don't support anything that stops someone who should be going to court going to court, but we do need to put some limit here because you have cases here bubbling on, people who served 30/40, sometimes close to 50, years ago and from all the people you talk to, we're not likely to get any prosecutions from it and we're about to spend an absolute fortune going through it."

Mr Kinahan mooted a limit of 10 years for all cases, saying "I think it has to be for everyone.

"We need to minimise the number of cases that are coming up, let society move on and at the same time, try and find a way for families to find out what happened to their loved ones and help them."

Cover image: Burned out houses in Conway Street, Belfast, Northern Ireland, during the Troubles (Picture: PA).