A new law to protect former British troops from prosecution over killings in Northern Ireland has been delayed again, prompting a furious backlash against the “completely hopeless” Cabinet minister in charge.
Conservative MPs were privately told that the new Legacy Bill would be brought forward before the summer break.
However, a letter sent by Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, to party leaders in the province reveals that legislation will not be introduced until the end of autumn at the earliest.
The letter, written jointly by Mr Lewis and Simon Coveney, the Republic of Ireland’s foreign affairs and defence minister, calls for discussions on Northern Ireland “legacy issues“ with “their objective to find an agreed way forward that will allow implementing legislation to be introduced in both UK and Ireland by the end of the autumn”.
Conservative governments, including Boris Johnson’s current administration, have promised legislation in successive manifesto pledges, but so far failed to deliver. It is suggested any legislation would offer an effective amnesty not only to British troops, who had served in Northern Ireland, but also to paramilitaries on both sides. The proposal has attracted criticism from victims’ groups.
‘No confidence in Lewis’
Johnny Mercer, the former Defence Minister who was sacked before he could resign over the failure to introduce the legislation, said: “I have got no confidence in Brandon Lewis. He is completely hopeless on this issue of legacy. Brandon Lewis must think veterans are stupid, given the number of times the Government have broken their word on this.”
A murder trial against two former paratroopers over the fatal shooting of an IRA commander in Belfast in 1972 collapsed in May. Just a day after the trial of the soldiers ended, the Northern Ireland office briefed The Telegraph that the new legislation was being prepared.
The collapse of the case also in turn prompted two further prosecutions of British troops, including a former paratrooper for two alleged murders at Bloody Sunday in Londonderry in 1972, to also be dropped.
Another soldier, Dennis Hutchings, aged 80 and suffering from kidney failure that requires dialysis and heart failure, is due to stand trial for attempted murder in the autumn.
It is estimated that more than 200 soldiers still face investigation and possible criminal trial for deaths during the Troubles, suggesting an urgent need for the Government to introduce the new Bill if it wants to avoid the embarrassment of seeing more veterans, often in their 70s and 80s, being taken to court.
Chopper's Politics – Amanda Milling, Mark Francois, Camilla Tominey, Tony Diver
Mark Francois, the deputy chairman of the Northern Ireland Veterans Support Group of backbench Tory MPs, has also accused Mr Lewis of going back on a pledge to bring forward the Legacy bill before the summer break.
On the latest Chopper’s Politics podcast, which you can listen to above, Mr Francois said: “Many of us are now absolutely sick and tired of the endless foot dragging by the Northern Ireland Office and by the Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis, who keeps promising us in private that we’re just about to get a Bill, but we never quite do.
“So he’s becoming rather like the boy who cried wolf, as you remember from the fable. After a while, no one believed anything the boy said anymore.”
He added: “Brandon has been telling us in private that we would have the second reading of a bill by the summer recess, which is now barely three weeks away. The Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, told the Defence Committee last week, that I serve on, that that would not happen until the autumn. So we’ve now got two different cabinet ministers saying two very different things.”
Sources close to Mr Lewis insisted to The Telegraph that proposals for the new law would come forward by the end of this month.
One said: “Brandon Lewis has made more progress on legacy issues than the Government ever has before. It is vital we get this right and deliver the outcomes we all want to see for victims and veterans alike.
“It has been 23 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, if there was a straightforward solution, then it would have been done by now. Our intention remains to bring something forward before summer recess.”
Granting amnesty for all killings ‘fundamentally wrong’
The problems of introducing any form of protective legislation were underlined on Sunday when a cross-community group representing victims and survivors of the Troubles warned the Prime Minister it would be “fundamentally wrong” to grant an amnesty for all killings during the conflict.
In an open letter to Mr Johnson, The Wave Trauma centre said: “Briefings have confirmed that the core motivation behind the policy is not to deal with complex legacy issues in a coherent and sensitive way, but rather to protect veterans from potential prosecution by a de facto amnesty that will include the very paramilitaries who murdered their colleagues as well as thousands of civilians.
“We simply cannot believe that veterans would want that to happen to the families of their fellow service men and women killed during the Troubles.”