By Richard Kemp and Henry Robinson
A version of this article appeared in The Daily Express on 1 October 2018
A British soldier and an Official IRA member, we were on opposite sides during the Northern Ireland conflict. Later, both of us were involved in the process that led to peace and greater prosperity across the province. Today we are gravely concerned about the turn of events that threatens to see many elderly British veterans hauled into court, charged with murder for actions they were involved with while serving decades ago. The aim is to criminalise them individually and collectively.
This is being driven by Sinn Fein, who want to re-write history, with the IRA cast as heroic and honourable soldiers in a just war and the UK armed forces and police as the criminal oppressors. To adapt Clausewitz’s dictum, it is a continuation of war by other means.
This should have come as no surprise: it has been the Republicans’ agenda all along. Neither of us holds a brief for Sinn Fein. But we don’t blame them for this situation — they are merely exploiting an opportunity that has been handed to them on a plate. Culpability lies entirely with the British government for the spectacle of former soldiers in their declining years being arrested in their homes, taken in for police questioning, subjected to months of investigation and dragged into the dock.
Every one of these soldiers was exonerated by proper legal process at the time of the events concerned. Retired soldiers are easy pickings, but the real prize for Sinn Féin is the Royal Ulster Constabulary and particularly the Special Branch which above all was responsible for the intelligence penetration that defeated the IRA and forced Sinn Fein to the table.
Meanwhile the peace process secured early release for Republican prisoners and letters of comfort for terrorists ‘on-the-run’. This amounts to amnesty and has effectively de-criminalised them.
During the peace negotiations, the possibility of an equivalent amnesty for British soldiers and police accused of wrongdoing during the Troubles was discussed but roundly rejected by their leaders who refused to allow their own to be equated to the terrorists they spent decades combating. Yet ministers took no alternative action to safeguard the men who fought under government orders, despite the fact that these vexatious prosecutions were foreseen by many, including both of us.
This is part of a pattern that shames this country. Thousands of soldiers have been investigated and some prosecuted for spurious allegations of war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq over more than a decade, and this continues today. The reasons are the same as for Northern Ireland: moral weakness and prioritising appeasement of anti-British extremists above protection of the troops sent in to fight against them.
Successive governments created this mess and now ministers must sort it out before any more ageing ex-soldiers are put in the dock. A statute of limitations or a form of amnesty equivalent to that enjoyed by the terrorists have both been recently proposed. These options could end the hounding of elderly servicemen and police, but would also play into Sinn Féin’s hands, officially equating soldiers to terrorists. Failure to act would be even worse, enabling the continued persecution of security forces members while providing a yet greater boost for Sinn Féin’s agenda.
What is the solution? Immediately suspend Troubles-related legal action against every member of the security forces who has previously been exonerated through official investigation and legal process pending the conclusion of the present consultation into the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past. Then legislate to prevent such political prosecutions against British forces involved in any historic conflict. This is not to say that security force members who commit crimes should not face legitimate justice.
But as is the norm when deploying forces to foreign countries, the government must reserve to its own courts legal jurisdiction over soldiers on duty in a war zone or equivalent, not leave them at the mercy of foreign or international courts or domestic sectional interests with political rather than judicial motives.
We don’t underestimate the challenges. Irish Republicans have smelt blood over these prosecutions and will threaten a breakdown of the peace agreement. There are also the self-imposed constraints of European human rights legislation and the International Criminal Court, both of which played a part in the pursuit of soldiers who fought in Afghanistan, Iraq and Northern Ireland and have the government running scared.
The course we propose may also be painful for those who seek truth and justice for relatives killed during the Troubles. But look at it in context. Republican terrorists unlawfully killed over 1,800 people. No matter what agreements are reached and how much they are appeased, they will refuse to reveal why they killed them and who ordered it. British soldiers and police killed around 350, the overwhelming majority lawfully while protecting innocent people.
We have seen the horrors of conflict in Northern Ireland from both sides and we know the sacrifices demanded of the men and women who are sent in when politics fail. Only by honouring its moral responsibilities to those who fought in the past can the government earn the trust of those it expects to fight in the future.
Richard Kemp completed seven tours of duty as an infantryman in Northern Ireland between 1979 and 2001 and was responsible for intelligence on Irish terrorism at the Joint Intelligence Committee from 2003-2006.
Henry Robinson was a member of the Official IRA from 1978. He was convicted of shooting and wounding a paramilitary rival in 1981 and served two and a half years in prison. He founded Families Against Intimidation and Terror in the late 1980s and has played a leading role in peace-making and defending human rights in Northern Ireland and Colombia.