Prosecuting British Veterans of the Troubles Risks Opening Pandora’s Box

Union Flag Flying Over Soldiers on Parade
Image credit: Defence Images is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Over the past few months there has been much attention paid by the media and the public to the internal divisions that are ravaging the Conservative Party. However, the most interesting point of disagreement within the Conservative Party has gone mostly overlooked by the media, and that is the divisions over retrospectively prosecuting British military veterans for historic crimes, specifically British Army veterans of the “Troubles.” This issue has been dividing the conservatives for many years, but what has brought the issue to the foreground is the Overseas Operations Bill and the trial of “Soldier A” and “Soldier B” over the death of Joe McCann, an official IRA commander. The Overseas Operation Bill proposes ‘a five-year limit on criminal prosecutions’ for soldiers who served in conflicts like Afghanistan and Iraq; while the British government have only assured Army veterans of the “Troubles” that they will only be investigated if “new and compelling evidence” is brought forward. This lack of protection from prosecution for British veterans of the “Troubles” compared to British veterans of Afghanistan, or even ex IRA members, has led Johnny Mercer, a British veteran himself, to resign as Defence Minister over Boris Johnson’s decision to treat British veterans of the “Troubles” like “second class veterans”.

The government is seeking to protect British overseas veterans from prosecution because of an anxiety that British soldiers will not feel comfortable carrying out the requirements of their job and making hard decisions if they have an underlying fear that in a couple of years the government will “go after them.” Inextricably linked, Boris Johnson may also be wanting to protect veterans who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq from the prospect of malicious and politically motivated prosecutions. This is because he fears that veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars – wars which have consistently been accused of being anti-islamic and Islamophobic in nature by some – will be unjustifiably accused of war crimes or misconduct against a majority Muslim population. The irony of this is that Boris Johnson has not included British veterans of the “Troubles” in the ‘Overseas Operations Bill’ for political reasons, which are multi-faceted in nature. Boris Johnson has decided to exclude British veterans of the “Troubles” from the ‘Overseas Operations Bill’ because he fears that if he protects British veterans from any future prosecution it will stir up memories in the Republican community of how the British government covered up police and military misconduct. Furthermore, while British governments generally have a bad reputation amongst the Irish Republican community, Irish Republicans are very hostile towards the Conservatives in particular, given that the Conservatives were in government during Bloody Sunday and the Hunger Strikes. Similarly, the Conservative Party have been the party to consistently adopt the hardest line towards the Irish Republicans. As a result, Boris Johnson may be hoping that by not protecting British Army veterans from potential prosecution the Conservative party, and the British government in general, will gain more trust in the Irish Republican communities, causing them to become more anglophile.

This constitutes a severe miscalculation from Boris Johnson because the vast majority of Irish Republicans, even the younger generation, will never have their views towards Britain moderated, making the attempt to redress Britain’s failures in Northern Ireland redundant. Inextricably linked, allowing for the potential prosecution of British soldiers who served during the “Troubles” will not ease sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland; rather it will inflame those tensions by reaffirming Irish Republicans’ views of “evil” and “imperialistic” Britain, increasing the likelihood of sectarian violence and calls for Irish unification. This re-opening of old wounds would likely escalate to the point where the soldiers’ families are being threatened by breakaway IRA factions. This will thereby cause Northern Ireland to relapse back into the eye for an eye sectarian violence that pervaded it in the 1970s and 1980s and destroy the progress that has been made since 1997. 

Furthermore, there has already been slight unrest from loyalist youths at, what they perceive to be, the PSNI’s decision to unfairly target ‘pro-British actors over historic crimes.’ This frustration from Unionists has been simmering for many years due to British soldiers being prosecuted while former IRA commanders are given immunity from prosecution and allowed to be part of the Northern Ireland government. The Unionists feel as though IRA paramilitaries are portrayed as freedom fighters – thereby given a free pass – while British soldiers are treated as war criminals. Consequently, if this unfair treatment is allowed to continue then the Unionists will react with unbridled fury and renew paramilitary attacks against Republican communities, thereby stoking up sectarian violence again on both sides and reducing the British government’s ability to mediate. Finally, this willingness to leave British soldiers open to potential prosecution when former IRA members are in positions of power will undermine the Conservative argument against Jeremy Corbyn that he is unpatriotic and too sympathetic towards Irish Republicans and the IRA.

There are those who assert that even with these drawbacks British veterans of the “Troubles” should be prosecuted if they are suspected of wrongdoing because it is the right thing to do. I am quite sympathetic to this position, because generally speaking British military veterans should be able to be prosecuted for any misconduct they have committed, but given the current circumstances British military veterans of the “Troubles” should be exempt from any potential prosecution. The first reason why British veterans of the “Troubles” should be exempt from any potential prosecution is because of how British veterans of overseas conflicts, including Afghanistan and Iraq, are protected from criminal prosecution after five years. The Afghanistan and Iraq wars are conflicts in which you could reasonably argue that there have been as many British military misconduct allegations as there have been in Northern Ireland. As a result, why should British military veterans of the “Troubles” be open to potential prosecution indefinitely while veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are exempt from prosecution after five years?

However, the primary reason why the current circumstances – circumstances that will change in the foreseeable future – demand that British veterans of the “Troubles” be exempt from any potential prosecution is because of the Good Friday Agreement and the fate of past IRA members and commanders. In the late 1990s all sides reached a consensus that the cycle of sectarian violence must end and all sides must work together to reach a political compromise. One of the ways they did this was by early releasing hundreds of IRA and UVF soldiers from prison. This did not include IRA fugitives who had never been able to be charged for their crimes. 

The British government, under pressure from Sinn Fein (a political party with very close links to the IRA), tried to ‘devise a formal scheme’ to allow fugitives to return, but it was opposed by Sinn Fein as the scheme would have included British soldiers. As a result, Tony Blair devised a secret scheme in collusion with Gerry Adams – rumoured to be an ex-IRA commander – which excluded British soldiers, with it ostensibly being designed to ease sectarian tensions and prevent further IRA attacks. This secret scheme manifested itself in “comfort letters,” which were sent to 150 IRA fugitives linked to 300 killings, reassuring them that they were no longer wanted and could return home. In February 2014 John Downey, an IRA and Sinn Fein member accused and charged with killing four soldiers in the 1982 Hyde Park bombing, produced a “comfort letter” causing the trial to collapse – the Met Police were seemingly unaware of these “comfort letters.” Although since the existence of these secret “comfort letters” has been made public, the Met Police have begun to investigate six IRA members, and the government have asserted the letters do not constitute immunity, the letters have been ruled to be lawful and have not officially been withdrawn. 

Furthermore, it is also difficult to understand how prosecuting British soldiers can be justified when, as has been alluded to, the British government allowed Martin McGuinness – a former IRA commander – to become Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland without having already faced any charges for his crimes. This willingness to treat McGuinness as an equal and not a terrorist culminated in his famous handshake with Queen Elizabeth II and visit to the Peace Centre in 2013. If the Queen is willing to shake the hand of the man responsible for Lord Mountbatten’s death and Colin Parry is willing to invite him to give a “peace lecture” — when he has never been punished — then how can prosecuting British soldiers for their actions in the troubles be justified? 

Finally, Sinn Fein, the most prominent Irish Republican Political Party, has long been considered by the British intelligence community to be the political wing of the IRA due to how many Sinn Fein members were concurrently members of the IRA. In spite of this connection, and allegations that Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein from 1983 to 2018, was an IRA commander, the British government have been willing to treat both Sinn Fein and Gerry Adams as their equal. Even after allegations emerged that Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein had prior knowledge of the 2004 IRA Northern Bank Robbery, which was designed to derail the peace process – and failed to try to stop it, the British government did not target Sinn Fein or Gerry Adams.

After the collapse of the trial of “soldier A” and “soldier B”, and the potential threats against their families, the British governments seem to understand the need to protect British veterans of the troubles from future prosecution, promising to introduce new legislation. Former Prime Minister Theresa May has warned this will mean the government will need to provide legal protection to paramilitaries, but Theresa May is ignoring the fact that many former Republican paramilitaries have been granted legal protection for many years. These reports have provoked the ire of victims of British military violence, with the Irish Prime Minister arguing that these crimes must be dealt with under the independent Historical Investigations Unit. However, the victims of British army violence are forgetting that many victims of Republican violence have never received justice either and they fail to be exercised about ensuring Republican paramilitaries are brought to justice. 

The people who argue that British soldiers should be charged and convicted for any misconduct during the “Troubles” are well-intentioned but risk irrevocably damaging the peace process given the precedent that has been set and the spirit of the peace process. During the Good Friday Peace Process, it was decided that in order to reconcile all sides, they would have to draw a line under previous episodes of sectarian violence rather than setting up courts and commissions designed to prosecute people for their actions during the “Troubles” – which would only restart the sectarian violence. Although, there have been many difficult episodes since the Good Friday Agreement both sides have remained committed to this sentiment. The best illustration of this sentiment existing comes from Tim Parry, who said that he would “never forgive” Martin McGuinness or the IRA, but was willing to forge a relationship with him as he was ‘sincere in his desire for peace and maintaining the peace process at all costs’. All sides have lost and sacrificed so much already, rather than continuing to rip open old wounds and seek retribution for prior episodes of violence it would better for Northern Ireland if they acknowledged that everyone has done bad things and agreed to peacefully coexist. The alternative is that Northern Ireland is destined to repeat the cycle of sectarian violence and unrest.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.