The PFC will oppose proposals in a report from the Westminster Defence Select Committee which recommends the protection from prosecution of British soldiers and RUC personnel, regardless of the evidence against them.  This "Statue of Limitations", while coupled with a "truth recovery mechanism", would enforce the law differentially between civilians and uniformed members of the military and police.


"Priority - Protect Our Troops!"

The Committee's report prioritises what it calls the British government's "moral responsibility" and "commitment to the Armed Forces Covenant" and  "sets out the steps the Government must take in the next Parliament — as a priority.  These would include protecting ex-soldiers facing investigations into historical allegations arising from Operation Banner" (the official name for all British Army operations in NI during the conflict). 

The Defence Committee appears to see nothing morally questionable in applying the law selectively against civilians and not against soldiers or police.

The Committee disregards the proposals made by the Northern political parties (and both governments) set out in the Stormont House Agreement (SHA) that provide for the setting up of different mechanisms to address the diverse issues arising from the conflict.

The Committee also disregards London's obligation (under the European Convention on Human Rights) to set up independent and robust investigations into ALL outstanding conflict-related deaths.

Just yesterday, the NI Secretary of State, James Brokenshire, told the Irish News he would be proposing draft legislation and a parallel consultation process in the coming weeks. A proposal welcomed by the DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson- yet today his party colleague & Committee member, Gavin Robinson, has welcomed the recommendation of this report that effectively ignores the Stormont House Agreement in lieu of impunity for former soldiers!

Flawed understanding

The Committee's recommendation arose from a parliamentary debate where a "Statute of Limitations" was first proposed by DUP MP Jeffery Donaldson, applying only to cases already investigated.

But this misses a major point - that killings caused by British soldiers during the conflict have NEVER been properly investigated - hence the legal obligation to investigate now. 

Prior to 1973, the only investigations into deaths caused by the British Armt were carried out by the Royal Military Police (RMP).

The Lord Chief Justice held in 2003 (in the Kathleen Thompson case) that:

" was not open to them (RUC) to delegate that critical responsibility to another agency such as the Royal Military Police".

This finding is upheld in every Historical Enquiries Team (HET) report into killings by British soldiers that the PFC has seen.

Further, both British domestic courts and the European Court of Human Rights have repeatedly held that the UK government was in breach of its procedural duty to investigate state-related deaths occuring during the conflict. (McCann ECtHR 1995 & McKerr group of cases  to ECtHR, 2001).

The establishment of the HET in 2005 was part of a package of measure to deal with this violation. However those cases reviewed by the HET did not met the necessary requirements under the law to amount to proper, Article 2 compliant investigations. (HMIC Report, July 2013).

It is therefore a fallacy that these cases are repeatedly being subject to re-investigation after re-investigation.

A statute of limitations would amount to impunity for state actors for their actions during the conflict - and flies in the face of domestic and international law.

The experts advising the Committee, including QUB's Professor Kieran McEvoy, advised the Committee that:

"Were a statute of limitations to apply to just state actors then it would leave the UK open to the charge of state impunity."

However the Committee concluded that a statute of limitations coupled with a truth recovery mechanism, such as the establishment of the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval as envisaged under SHA would somehow make this okay and a plausible option?

The revelations that have come to light this week during the inquest into the death of Barney Watt at the hands of the British army in 1971 clearly demonstrate the importance of robust, Article 2 compliant investigations that can address the flawed, biased "investigations" that took place at the time.

The Defence Committee's conclusions are outlined below:

 "(We recommend) the enactment of a statute of limitations, covering all Troubles-related incidents, up to the signing of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, which involved former members of the Armed Forces. This should be coupled with the continuation and development of a truth recovery mechanism which would provide the best possible prospect of bereaved families finding out the facts, once no-one needed to fear being prosecuted.

Although it is beyond the strict remit of the Defence Committee, we would encourage the next Government to extend this provision to include former members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and other former security personnel. It will also be a matter for the next Government to decide, after appropriate consultations, whether the statute of limitations should also cover all Troubles-related incidents.

If the 1998 legislation had not ensured that future convictions for terrorist crimes—however heinous—would result in nothing more than a short prison sentence, then there would be a case for arguing that natural justice required investigations to continue, no matter how long after the event.

We believe that to subject former Service personnel to legal pursuit under the current arrangements is wholly oppressive and a denial of natural justice. It can be ended only by a statute of limitations. Our expert witnesses agreed that the UK Parliament has it entirely within its power to enact such a statute and we call upon the Government in the next Parliament to do so as a matter of urgency."