Defence secretary Penny Mordaunt sparks backlash over veterans pledge

Minister promises to make it a 'personal priority' to protect Troubles veterans

Lizzy Buchan
Political Correspondent
Thursday 16 May 2019 09:53 BST
Penny Mordaunt says measures to protect British soldiers facing investigations should cover Northern Ireland veterans

Penny Mordaunt has pledged to end the “chilling” threat of probes into past offences by British troops who served in Northern Ireland.

The new defence secretary went off-script in her first major speech, saying she believed soldiers who served during the Troubles should also be covered under proposals for alleged offences committed more than a decade ago.

Her comments will raise eyebrows as the plans do not include Northern Ireland, which is being considered under a separate consultation on legacy issues by the Northern Ireland Office.

Amid a row in Tory circles over such prosecutions, the potential leadership contender said she would make it a “personal priority” to protect Troubles veterans.

“I do think it should cover Northern Ireland,” Ms Mordaunt told a naval conference in London.

“The problem is that we have failed to make progress on the whole ‘lawfare’ issue because we have been held up waiting for other things to happen.

“It is not going to be resolved overnight. It is a personal priority of mine that we get this resolved and we stop this chilling effect that is claiming veterans who really deserve our care and respect.”

Ms Mordaunt said she had discussed her concerns with Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley, and insisted she would learn from the mistakes of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, which degenerated into the “pursuit of profit” by “legal firms interested in making a quick buck”.

“This is not about preventing someone who has committed a crime facing justice. This is about stopping an industry that surrounds these processes which is not about the pursuit of justice,” she said.

However Downing Street said Northern Ireland was covered by a separate process and the Ministry of Defence‘s views were simply being fed in.

It comes amid anger from Tory MPs over prosecutions of British troops, including Soldier F, who has been charged with the killing of two people during Bloody Sunday in 1972.

The news also prompted mixed views from Northern Ireland parties.

DUP MP Gavin Robinson demanded clarity and said it would be “shameful” if “leadership ambitions are taking priority over a coherent plan to end persecution of veterans”.

He said any proposal to protect veterans from prosecution would “apply equally across the UK”.

But Sinn Fein MLA Linda Dillon said “any attempt to create immunity for the British Army was wrong”.

“No British soldier should be above the law and whether crimes have been committed in Ireland or Iraq, those crimes should be investigated and those responsible held to account,” she said.

Ms Mordaunt also reaffirmed a pledge to derogate from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) before significant military operations, which ministers say would prevent veterans from being hounded through the courts.

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In 2016, Theresa May announced that the government will adopt a presumption that it will suspend aspects of the ECHR during times of war to end an “industry of vexatious claims” against soldiers years later.

But human rights groups expressed outrage at the plan, saying “war is not a legal black hole”.

Sam Grant, policy and campaigns manager at Liberty, said: “Nothing in the ECHR prevents soldiers from being soldiers – but it is important to have accountability for gross abuses of human rights on the battlefield or off.

“Derogation will not prevent the proper investigation of credible allegations of abuse during wartime: it is simply not possible to derogate from the right to life or the prohibition on torture.

“It will only serve to undermine the fundamental rights and hinder accountability upon which both soldiers and civilians rely.”

Liberal Democrat defence spokesperson Jamie Stone said the move would set a “deeply concerning precedent” over the UK’s commitment to human rights in conflicts.

He said: “The ECHR is totally separate from the EU and this Tory government do not have any mandate to tear up the UK’s commitment to human rights and the rule of law.

“The UK must condemn and reject abuses of human rights in whatever form they take, including in cases of torture.

“Far from hindering our armed forces, the ECHR has strengthened them, whether by allowing gay people to serve openly or by requiring the government to equip British soldiers properly when it sends them into combat.

“This regressive step would see us diminished further in the eyes of our global allies and is unjustifiable.”

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