A Belfast view

Contrary to some recent press coverage, Northern Ireland is not, and has not been, a place where soldiers are regularly convicted of murder for doing their duty. More than 300 people - about 10 per cent of the total casualty figure - have died at the hands of the security forces since 1968.

Although many died in disputed circumstances, only 33 prosecutions have been brought and four convictions sustained: an acquittal rate of more than 90 per cent.

Human rights organisations have stressed the absence of legal accountability for the use of lethal force. They also highlighted other legal defects, such as the ambiguity of the term "excessive force", poor investigation of the incidents and inadequate procedures at inquests. The possible conflict with international law will be examined by the European Court of Human Rights.

Few actions by the security forces have had such an impact on the level of trust in our legal system. The lack of any redress for the killing of 13 people by Private Clegg's regiment in Derry in 1972 - Bloody Sunday - is still a cause of discontent.

Despite that, those who campaign for Pte Clegg are right to say that he should not be made a scapegoat for past failures to protect human rights in Northern Ireland. The law in relation to lethal force has long needed reform.

Yet to compare his case to that of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four, as some have done, is disingenuous. Pte Clegg had immediate access to legal advice, was not mistreated in custody, and faced no press campaign seeking his conviction.

He was a young soldier operating in dangerous circumstances, but was trained in the use of a weapon and was found to be continuing to fire after any threat to life had passed. If he is released solely because of political pressure, John Major will find it difficult to convince many in Northern Ireland that equal treatment under the law is part of the post-ceasefire settlement. He will also find it more difficult to resist calls for the release of many other young men who have used lethal force in Northern Ireland.

Stephen Livingstone, a university law lecturer, is a member of the Committee on the Administration of Justice, Northern Ireland's main independent human rights body.

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