Veterans deserve better than being treated as a political football

Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 22 April 2021. © Richard Kemp

On Monday two elderly former soldiers will appear in court accused of murdering IRA leader Joe McCann in Belfast half a century ago. This is the first time British soldiers have been tried for killing a terrorist during the bloody 30 year campaign. The death was investigated at the time by the Royal Ulster Constabulary and judged to be lawful.

In 2019 Boris Johnson signed the Veterans Pledge, which included ‘new legislation to end repeated and vexatious investigations into historical allegations against our servicemen and women — including in Northern Ireland’. This week Conservative MP Johnny Mercer was forced to resign as Veterans Minister, amid his protest that there was no prospect of such legislation under this government.

Responding, the prime minister said: ‘We are committed to doing more over the coming months, including for those who have served in Northern Ireland.’ Can we believe this? During the 2019 election campaign he promised to maintain the size of the Army. Last month he announced a cut of 10,000. In 2011 David Cameron declared he would enshrine in law the Armed Forces Covenant — intended to ensure fair treatment for all military personnel, veterans and their families, especially in healthcare, education, housing and employment. Ten years later this had still not been done, although in January, introducing the Armed Forces Bill, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told parliament: ‘For the first time ever we are putting into law the Armed Forces Covenant.’

When it comes to the forces talk is cheap. Throw-away lines during election campaigns may win a few votes but ministers know that failing to follow-through will not cost them the next election. Only a tiny fraction of the community was involved in Northern Ireland, Afghanistan or Iraq or knew anyone that was. Our dwindling armed forces of less than 200,000 regulars and reserves represents under 0.3% of the population. Unlike the police, they touch very few people’s lives and, with so many other pressures, not many are likely to have an understanding or interest in defence issues unless confronted by an existential threat.

That is why government ministers have a special responsibility not just to ensure effective defence even when it doesn’t win votes or affect the next news cycle, but also to look after the men and women that serve. Aside from duty of care, morale means everything to fighting troops. As Napoleon famously said, ‘the moral is to the physical as three is to one’, i.e. morale is three times as important as everything else combined. In battle, commanders understand how vital it is that soldiers know they will be given immediate treatment if wounded. That extends beyond the battlefield to healthcare and welfare back home and after their service is over.

Hence the need for the Military Covenant. And to do everything possible to protect soldiers from predatory lawyers who, for political motives or greed, want to see them behind bars. Brian Wood, a Military Cross winner, was investigated for five years before being cleared of alleged war crimes in Iraq and the solicitor that tormented him was struck off. He was one of hundreds of troops persecuted for their military service in Afghanistan, Iraq and Northern Ireland.

I know how it feels, having been rigorously investigated by the police over a killing in Northern Ireland 12 years after it happened. But I had it easy compared to the untold suffering of many who have been hauled in front of never-ending inquisitions more recently. As Johnny Mercer said in his resignation letter: ‘veterans are being sectioned, drinking themselves to death and dying well before their time’.

The Iraq and Afghanistan investigations — virtually all without foundation — were allowed because the government feared intervention by the International Criminal Court and the politically devastating prospect of British troops being dragged into the dock at The Hague. The hounding of Northern Ireland veterans is permitted to appease republicans who are carrying on the war by political means in order to rewrite history, painting their terrorists as freedom fighters and British troops as crazed killers. Any effective action to prevent it would be strongly contested by the government of the Republic of Ireland.

These are not easy situations but neither was soldiering in Northern Ireland, Iraq or Afghanistan. The government has an absolute duty to defend our troops with the strength and courage they themselves summoned up when sent by the government to fight.