Austen Morgan: Three ways in which a new prime minister can improve the Northern Ireland legacy plan

22 Jul

Austen Morgan is a barrister at 33 Bedford Row. His next book, ‘Pretence: why the United Kingdom needs a written constitution’, is to be published later this year.

‘All change: all change!’? On 7 July, during the flight of the ministers, Shailesh Vara MP returned to the Northern Ireland Office (NIO), this time as secretary of state. And on 5 September, Liz Truss could become the new prime minister to replace Boris Johnson.

This summer, Vara – a solicitor – may well review his department’s principal legislative commitment, the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill; this passed the commons on 4 July, and is due to have its second reading in the lords on 13 September.

It is not controversial in Great Britain, Tory MPs trusting the Government to finish its work in defence of veterans.

During the Troubles (1968-98), some 3,750 people were killed: 60 per cent by republicans; 30 per cent by loyalists; and the remaining 10 per cent by the state (soldiers more than police).

It is believed that Vara’s junior ministers – Conor Burns MP and Jonathan Caine – would welcome a revision of legacy policy, though perhaps for different reasons.

Conor Burns (the companion to Lady Thatcher until her death in 2013) may yearn for the Johnson-approved policy initiative by Brandon Lewis on 18 March 2020, when the Irish government – we now see – was excluded from Northern Ireland policy, and the roof did not fall in.

Lord Caine is facing the informal lawyers’ and judges’ party in the lords this autumn. Some of its members may accept briefs from the new establishment in Northern Ireland: the NGOs, academics, and human rights community, promoting lawfare premised on their transitional justice concept.

This involves the 60 per cent of republicans continuing to benefit from a de facto amnesty; while aged and often ill military veterans are prosecuted for historic killings (the 30 per cent of loyalist terrorists being shifted increasingly to the state camp with the dubious – and non-legal – concept of collusion).

The Malone House Group (of which I am a member) – a NGO recognized at Strasbourg – supported Lewis’s direction of travel, even though we had criticisms of the Bill when it appeared in May 2022. We gave evidence to the Northern Ireland affairs committee in the Commons on 15 June 2022.

We were ranked against the five-party coalition at Stormont, which failed to implement any legacy policy when it had the responsibility, and, at Westminster, has been simply anti-government: the DUP’s client victims are not the SDLP’s and vice versa; while the Alliance Party of Naomi Long represents the NGOs and quangos rather than a democratic, non-sectarian third way.

The NIO could usefully think about the following three big ideas, with a view to introducing government amendments in the Lords and greatly improve its bill.

First, giving the Operation Banner veterans of 1969-2007 the same protections as provided for in the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Act 2021. This was the project of Johnny Mercer, who fell out with Boris in April 2021. The Act came fully into force in June 2021.

As a backbencher, Mercer helped the Government get its legacy bill through the commons, even though Northern Ireland veterans applying for immunity was legally different. Then, also on 7 July 2022, he returned to government as an enhanced minister for veterans’ affairs in the Cabinet Office (not the Ministry of Defence).

Second, turn the common law on Article 2 procedural (of the European Convention on Human Rights) into statute law. This needs explaining – and the suspension of disbelief.

During the Troubles, article 2 substantive (right to life) was violated by the United Kingdom (UK), because the state failed to protect its people from republican and loyalist terrorism.

Then, in 2001, Strasbourg invented article 2 procedural, which has turned out to require the UK to implement retrospectively expanding standards of investigation for – not all Troubles-deaths – but the ten per cent of state killings.

(If you want to know why Dominic Raab, the Lord Chancellor, is keen on a UK Bill of Rights, look no further than these procedural breaches by the state on top of the substantive breaches – when no responsibility, legal or moral, is foisted upon terrorists.)

Then, on 15 December 2021, the Supreme Court, in case called McQuillan, firmed up an idea that a person could only access Strasbourg rights in domestic law through the Human Rights Act 1998, which entered into force on 2 October 2000.

This decision despatched a torrent of case law, particularly in Northern Ireland, about state bodies never meeting the increasingly exacting standards of Strasbourg. There could be no more so-called non-article-2-compliant cases for deaths before 2 October 2000.

Parliament should now simply legislate this ‘McQuillan rule’, in the process affirming respect for the judicial branch of government after the Brexit fallings out. It would also strengthen the rule of law in Northern Ireland.

But there are two lesser problems, which Parliament could tackle if the Supreme Court does not do so in time.

First, the Supreme Court applied a Strasbourg ten-year rule to push back the date to 2 October 1990. Second, the late Lord Kerr – in Finucane’s case in its 2019 reprise – added another two years (not without judicial controversy), to embrace solicitor Patrick Finucane’s murder at the hands of loyalists on 12 February 1989.

And third (going back to the Bill), the Government could cut through the Gordian knot: the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR).

This is to be the immunity granting body. But reconciliation (understood as peace in the Belfast Agreement) and information recovery are contradictory objectives.

As things now stand, it is veterans who will need the ICRIR the most. The IRA is likely to boycott the body, but the legacy practitioners will supply victim applicants targeting state forces and loyalist colluders.

It is time – with the twenty-firth anniversary of the Belfast agreement approaching – to do what Andy Burnham did in Gordon Brown’s government in 2009-10 regarding the 1989 Hillsborough stadium disaster in Sheffield: he released the documents to a publicly-appointed independent panel, with all human rights (not just article 2 procedural) properly protected and the focus on information recovery.

That would require the shutting down of all criminal and civil litigation in Northern Ireland. But the relatives – with or without the rewriters of history – would get, by reading the files, as humanly close to the truth as it will ever be possible to do.

Legislating in an amended bill for ‘Operation Banner’ equivalence, the McQuillan Supreme Court rule, and the release of the documents, must surely be a more attractive proposition for a new conservative prime minister in the autumn than pressing on with the status quo.

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Sarah Ingham: It’s time British politicians stopped using the Armed Forces as set dressing

22 Jul

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

Meanwhile, in Ukraine, war continues. As the leadership candidates launched a volley of misguided blue-on-blue attacks, which dismayed Conservative supporters but delighted their political opponents, it has been easy to forget about the bitter fighting east of the Dnieper.

The sorry, bathos-filled end to the premiership of Boris Johnson and the subsequent battle to be his successor has ensured Ukraine has become the latest far away country of which we know little. It’s been hard to know which was the bigger weapon of mass distraction: the 40.3 degrees at Coningsby or the 31 votes for Tom Tugendhat.

Who knows, but if the recent few days of hot weather had come a fortnight ago, the media’s hysteria might have been focused on the rising mercury in our thermometers rather than on the wandering hands of Chris Pincher.

Whether Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss ultimately prevails, the in-tray on the new prime minister’s desk in Number Ten will be overflowing. At the top of the pile will be inflation running close to ten per cent and the cost-of-living crisis, both of which stem from the self-inflicted disaster of lockdown – that dog which has yet to sigh, let alone bark, in the leadership contest.

Moscow’s “special military operation” in Ukraine is further weakening Europe’s fragile post-lockdown economies. Commodities have become the Kremlin’s favoured weapons of war. As Russia gradually restricts the supply of gas, oil, and coal to Europe over the coming months, it could well strangle industrial output. Its blockade of the Black Sea has interrupted the supply of grain from Ukraine, the world’s fifth largest supplier of wheat.

Vladimir Putin might well have taken to heart Vladimir Lenin’s maxim that every society is three meals from chaos, or MI5’s reported view that Britain is four meals from anarchy. With the 2010 Arab Spring across the Middle East and North Africa being triggered by high food prices, Moscow has a blueprint for destabilisation.

On Wednesday, the EU Commission unveiled its emergency gas rationing plan, demanding its member states cut energy use by 15 per cent. Ursula von der Leyen, Commission President and former German defence minister, complained “Russia is blackmailing us.”

(Having induced smirks of condescension from a German delegation back in 2018 when he warned them not to be dependent upon Russian energy supplies, Donald Trump is enjoying the last laugh, not least when he checks the $/€ exchange rate.)

After beating back the Russian invaders from the outskirts of Kiev, the Ukrainian forces are seemingly locked in the grind of attrition to reclaim territory in the country’s south and east lost since February. The reports from the frontlines are contradictory, with little clarity about who might eventually win through.

Two weeks ago, the first units of Ukrainian soldiers arrived in the UK for enhanced training. About 10,000 personnel are expected to be trained over the next few months at sites around Britain, “using the world-class expertise of the British Army,” according to Ben Wallace.

The first state-on-state war in Europe since 1945 – perhaps leading to yet more economic and political upheaval across the continent – should be a matter of the gravest concern to anyone aspiring to become prime minister.

Instead, we have recently been treated to military cosplay. Truss, the Thatcher tribute act, in a tank; Johnson joyriding in a Phantom jet. Then the supporters of Penny Mordaunt – who was gazetted the same day as broadcaster Dan Snow and a Labour councillor – implying that as an Honorary Captain in the Royal Naval Reserve she can command a warship, from which most will mistakenly infer an aircraft carrier.

Who else played buzz-phrase bingo to enliven the longueurs during the two leadership debates? Was your pen poised to cross off ‘tax cuts’, ‘service’, ‘military service’, ‘reporting for duty’, ‘ready to serve’, ‘ready to lead’, ‘front-line’, and ‘my country’?

It is time for all MPs to stop using the Armed Forces as props. It is natural for politicians to want to bask in the public’s goodwill towards service personnel, but they should be mindful the current reverence for the military is an historic anomaly. It linked directly to how few have undertaken any form of military service, and admiration for those who saw combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Old-school sit-com series and comic films such as Dad’s Army (1968-77), The Army Game (1957-61), Carry on Sergeant (1958) and Private’s Progress (1956) cannot be made today. Their reek of “casual racism, homophobia, white privilege, colonialism, transphobia, bullying, misogyny and sexual harassment”, identified by Mordaunt in her critique of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum (1974-81), is indeed unacceptable.

As crucially, the millions who fought in the Second World War or who were national servicemen are fading away. And with them goes not only mass first-hand military experience, but also irreverence for the Forces and their “blanco and bull”.

Britain’s Armed Forces have become ever smaller, down from 871,000 in 1952, coinciding with the Korean War, to 179,000 in 2012, following the Coalition’s cuts to defence. Their strength today is around 159,000 personnel. Successive governments have decimated them, while lauding their ethos.

After VE Day 1945, in a message to all ranks, Dame Leslie Whateley, Director of the Auxiliary Territorial Service, told the 200,000 women under her command:

“You have already proved that you know the true meaning of service, ‘An act performed for the benefit of a cause and not necessarily to the benefit of an individual.’”

Just as Clement Attlee tried to balance the demands of the fledgling National Health Service with National Service, there are some choices to be made between welfare or warfare.

The example of self-effacing public service has been set for 70 years by the Services’ Commander-in-Chief. In these perilous times of war in Europe, MPs would be wise to avoid giving the impression that they regard Britain’s Forces primarily as a scenic backdrop.

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Sarah Ingham: NATO’s tough new posture on Russia is worth little if it ignores China

8 Jul

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

Among the must-see gigs in London in the past week were, depending on taste, Adele at Hyde Park, Ed Sheeran at Wembley… and Mike Pompeo unplugged.

On Monday, the all-too-apt 4th July, the former US Secretary of State and CIA Director gave a wide-ranging assessment of current global strategic landscape. He focused on the West and the rest, in particular authoritarian regimes, the most prominent of which is China.

The launch of Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine on 24th February was a reveille in defence ministries and armed forces across Europe for a swift reassessment of their current military capabilities.

Last week’s NATO summit in Madrid endorsed the alliance’s new Strategic Concept, the first in a decade. It stated that Russia is ‘the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area’.

On this side of the Channel, pressure is growing to protect the size of the Army. After all, British boots might have to be on the ground to strengthen NATO’s Eastern flank. At a time described by NATO as ‘critical’ for international peace and security, the possibility of cutting troop numbers by about 10,000, down to 72,500, is still being considered.

A fortnight ago, in his first major speech, General Sir Patrick Sanders. the new Chief of the General Staff (CGS), likened the situation confronting Europe to 1937. Back then, not only was the National Government’s military readiness woeful, but civil defence measures to protect the population almost non-existent.

Stanley Baldwin failed to heed his own long-standing warning that ‘the bomber will always get through’. Cinema newsreels of firestorms in the Spanish cities and Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica, based on German bombing of a Republican village in April 1937, showed what happened when those bombers succeeded.

Despite all the positives in connection with the UK’s defence policy – the second highest rate of military spending in NATO, the UK’s contribution to Ukraine, the projected 2.5 per cent GDP spending commitment, the outstanding Ben Wallace – the proposed cuts to Army numbers are indeed ‘perverse’, as Sanders stated. He added: ‘You can’t cyber your way across a river… It takes an army to hold and regain territory.’

On Sunday Richard Dannatt, a former head of the Army now freed from the conventions of serving commanders’ omertà, stated that troop cuts are madness and will leave the Army at breaking point. He called for the planned cuts to be reversed and instead for more investment in land war-fighting capability.

Current and future Army strength should not just be seen in the context of its 100,000+ soldiers during General Dannatt’s tenure as CGS (2006-09), but also of NATO’s commitment last week to placing 300,000 troops on high readiness.

Although NATO’s recent focus has been on Ukraine, last week China came formally onto its radar. The era of strategic ambiguity is over, as the Strategic Concept made clear: ‘The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values.’

The alliance’s language was far from diplomatic. China strives to subvert the rules-based international order; it seeks to control key technological and industrial sectors, as well as critical infrastructure; its malicious cyber and hybrid operations and disinformation not only target allies, but harm Alliance security. In short:

‘The PRC employs a broad range of political, economic and military tools to increase its global footprint and project power, while remaining opaque about its strategy, intentions and military build-up.’

Pompeo, whose interview at Policy Exchange can be seen on YouTube, was also keen to convey the threat from China. To paraphrase: the current kowtowing to Beijing must stop.

While none of us want to sound like a foil hat-wearing conspiracy theorists, the origin of Covid-19, which has so far killed six million people, remains opaque. Western governments’ panicked response to this latest coronavirus has led to a self-inflicted economic calamity. In turn, such calamities have a historic propensity eventually to turn into political upheaval.

Beijing is surely familiar with the military strategist Sun Tzu. Writing in circa 500 BC, two of his maxims were ‘All warfare is based on deception’ and ‘The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.’

Over the past two decades, the West has become reliant on cheap Chinese imports. These goods might yet come at a heavy price. While it is easy to be sniffy on environmental grounds about teenagers’ love of Shanghai-exported fast fashion, few are willing to start examining Beijing’s deeper reach into our society.

Unless we are certain that the Chinese Communist Party’s interests are compatible with our own, we should never have considered allowing Beijing to have a stake in our critical national infrastructure, such as developing the Hinckley Point C nuclear power station or allowing Huawei to be involved in the British telecom sector. As Pompeo said on Monday, ‘There is no such thing as a private Chinese company.’

Does the China Investment Corporation, part of Beijing’s sovereign wealth fund, still have its holding in Thames Water? We should start questioning the extent of the PRC’s reach into Britain’s elite universities, too.

Pompeo, a key advisor to Donald Trump, demanded ‘reciprocity’ from China; the same freedom of speech and movement accorded to the West’s citizens in China as Chinese citizens are given in the West.

Both he and NATO have expressed concern about deepening Russo-Chinese ties. Should such concern be vindicated, it must be wondered why Britain is letting China to penetrate so deeply into its social fabric. After all, it is unthinkable that Margaret Thatcher or any other prime minister would have tolerated Moscow’s infiltration of Britain’s private companies and institutions during the Cold War.

It would be ironic if Europe re-casts its defence only to discover that Russia is a second-order problem. It must be wondered what Sun Tzu would have to say about Britain gearing up to fight enemies abroad only to find out that they have been warmly welcomed within.

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Tom Tugendhat: We must step in to fund supported housing for military veterans

24 Jun

Tom Tugendhat is MP for Tonbridge and Malling and Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

Tomorrow’s Armed Forces Day celebrations are a time for the country to thank the men and women who serve now, and the estimated 2.4 million British veterans who have served and sacrificed in the past.

It is a time to honour their service, but it is also a time to reflect about how we as a country can better serve their needs in the future.

However well our Armed Forces protect the physical and mental health of those who serve, we know that the very act of service can take a heavy toll.

According to research from the King’s Centre Military Health Research, PTSD is nearly twice as common in ex-service personnel as in the general public. Among those deployed in a combat role it is more than four times as high.

Too many homeless veterans are still sleeping rough on the streets of British cities and towns. Nearly 2,000 veterans live in supported housing, which is largely funded by charities and competitive grant funding, and as many as 4,000 of our service men and women are in urgent housing need.

Veterans who find themselves homeless often have complex needs. They need specialist provision with higher levels of staffing and greater expertise. Such services do exist – and they transform lives – but the financial future of these services remains uncertain.

As it stands there is currently almost no central direct government funding ringfenced for supported housing for British military veterans. It is the only sector of supported housing where the majority of funding comes from charities.

But many charities have withdrawn support. The main providers of specialist housing for veterans estimate up to 35 percent of charitable funding has been lost in the last decade.

That means that some vital facilities have either closed or scaled back. Riverside Housing’s specialist veterans’ support service, the Beacon, just a short distance from the world’s largest British army garrison in Catterick, has helped to support and provide accommodation for nearly 350 veterans affected by homelessness over the course of ten years.

However, the Beacon had to cease offering specialist support services to veterans in October last year, including support for PTSD, substance abuse, and physical disability. Its statutory funding had dwindled from £242,072 in 2012/13 to just £50,750 by 2020/21. That means it can no longer offer a place to live for veterans with complex needs.

What these services are crying out for is a sustainable funding stream that allows them to plan effectively and meet the needs of our veterans.

The four leading providers of supported housing for veterans, Riverside, Launchpad, Alabaré, and Stoll, estimate less than £3 million a year would secure the future of the 966 units that already exist, and provide 200 more to meet demand.

This is not just a way of meeting our responsibility as a society to those who risked their lives in our service. It is an investment in positive outcomes. Properly funded specialist supported housing gives veterans the stability they need to rebuild their lives.

It reduces costs to the NHS and other support services, by leading to fewer visits to A&E, reduced demand for GP and community mental health services, and fewer complications caused by drug and alcohol problems.

It allows veterans to get their finances in order, and to focus on living productive, fulfilling lives. It breaks the spiral that leads to rough sleeping, when positive outcomes become harder, and more expensive, to deliver.

It also means we get full value from other important investments. For example, veterans can now receive specialist mental health care as part of a new NHS service called Operation Courage.

Service men and women are trained to soldier on independently. It is well recognised that veterans take longer on average than others before asking for help and a lot of the issues that occur as a result of service can take several years to present themselves.

Because of this independence veterans are very reluctant to ask for the support they need in mainstream homeless services and homeless hostels are not suitable especially for those with complex needs.

Veterans need to be around and supported by people who understand the experiences they have gone through.

The current administration should be proud of its record in helping British military veterans. In his first week in office after becoming Prime Minister, Boris Johnson created the UK’s first ever Office for Veterans Affairs (OVA).

The OVA’s Veterans’ Strategy Action Plan released earlier this year contained pledges to ensure consistent data on veterans’ homelessness and to end veterans’ rough sleeping by 2024.

In this action plan by the end of this year the Department for Levelling Up has pledged to conduct research to understand the supply of supported housing, including that which meets the needs of the veteran community, and to provide an understanding of any needs gap.

As part of this review, I strongly urge DLUHC and the Treasury to recommend that central Government provides long-term, ringfenced statutory funding to cover all the supported housing needs of our military veterans, including those with the most complex needs.

The Government of the United Kingdom greatly values the contribution of all our veterans.

My worry is that these vital services have been left without statutory funding not because of a lack of empathy, or even political will, but because the funding situation is complex and therefore the issue has fallen through the cracks.

But when the issue falls through the cracks, so do the veterans; and that simply cannot stand.

We have the best servicemen and women in the world. They have served and supported us. It is our duty to support them when they need it.

Any readers of this wishing to show their support for statutory funding for supported housing for British military veterans can sign up here.

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Brandon Lewis: My Northern Ireland legacy plan. No longer will our veterans be hounded about events that happened decades ago.

9 Jun

Brandon Lewis is Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and is MP for Great Yarmouth.

The challenge of how to address the legacy left by the Troubles in Northern Ireland is one that has faced us for nearly 25 years. Successive Governments have tried and failed to bring forward credible, workable proposals. Since the signing of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement in 1998, there has been no agreement on the approach to legacy issues in Northern Ireland that has proved possible to deliver, and every year that goes by the opportunity to establish the truth about the 3500 murders in the Troubles becomes ever more remote.

Undoubtedly, this is one of the most complex and sensitive areas of policy I have ever worked on during my time in Government, but this month I brought forward the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill. Finally, victims and survivors of the Troubles will be able to get more information, more quickly about what happened to them and their loved ones, and no longer will our veterans be hounded and hauled in for questioning about events that happened decades ago.

No longer will those who served – and we have explicitly included veterans of the security services and the Royal Ulster Constabulary – be subjected to a witch hunt over their service in Northern Ireland, enduring perpetual cycles of investigations and re-investigations.

While Labour continue to debate whose side they are on among themselves, they have presented no viable alternative proposal that would deliver for victims and veterans alike. This is perhaps not a surprise when their Shadow Secretary of State stood up in Parliament this week and announced that the Labour Party want to ensure that ‘the rights of victims and veterans equal the rights of terrorists’; an appalling insult to all those who have suffered unimaginable pain and trauma following the decades-long conflict.

The current system for addressing legacy issues is disjointed and chronically dysfunctional. It is delivering neither justice nor information to the vast majority of families. We cannot claim to comprehend the intensity of the pain and suffering that victims and their families have endured in the pursuit of information and justice all these years on. For many of them, it is clear that the pain they feel today is just as raw as it was then. I have been moved by their bravery and determination to get to the truth, and it is a determination that I share.

Undeniably, it is an incredibly difficult reality to confront that the chances of securing a successful prosecution for a Troubles-related crime are negligible, because of the passage of time and the quality of evidence now available. Two-thirds of Troubles cases are more than 40 years old, and we have seen case after case collapse in recent years. Our Legacy Bill is a definitive move to a model that focusses primarily on information and reconciliation in recognition of that fact.

This legislation will help ensure that more victims and survivors – the overwhelming majority of whom are victims of terrorist violence – are able to obtain answers about those who caused them harm.

The Bill will establish a new independent commission for information recovery, the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery, with all the powers necessary to conduct robust, effective and thorough investigations into Troubles-related deaths and serious injuries. The powers will be supported by a legal requirement of full disclosure from Government departments, security services and agencies. If there are uncomfortable truths that come out about the conduct of the Government during the course of this process, then we will have to take responsibility for those. And others will also have to do the same.

In exchange for a truthful account, given to the best of their knowledge and belief, of their involvement in a Troubles-related death or serious injury, the new commission will be able to grant individuals immunity from prosecution. If terrorists do not comply or are not deemed to have cooperated or given a truthful account – and many feel bound by a ‘code of honour’ not to do so – then the result of the Commission’s investigations will be passed to prosecutors and those suspected of crimes will be pursued.

There will be nowhere to hide, no ‘letter of comfort’ to get them off the hook. I have made clear on the floor of the House that the scheme initiated by the Labour Government at the time for the so-called ‘on the runs’ has no legal basis and will not be able to be used to prevent prosecutions under this new process. 

This new approach is the result of much debate and deliberation: we have taken the time to get this right. It reflects the hugely challenging compromises that have been made to support the peace process since 1998 by the British and Irish Governments. This includes the early release of prisoners, the process of secretly decommissioning weapons, and an effective amnesty for those who provide information to the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains. While we believe that those decisions were right for the peace process, it is also true that the overall approach to legacy had not been adjusted to reflect those changes.  

Michael McDowell, who served as the Irish Government’s Attorney General between 1999 and 2002, has himself outlined the ‘de facto moratorium on investigation and prosecution of IRA members’ that the Irish Government has implemented since 1998. While many may not be willing to confront this fact, we believe we must be honest about the reality of where we are, not where we wish we were.

There has been a huge imbalance in the focus of legacy investigations, which has resulted in faith in the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland becoming increasingly strained. Some estimates suggest that armed forces veterans are 50 times more likely to be prosecuted than those who were members of terrorist organisations.

Specialist law firms who campaign on legacy issues, funded primarily by legal aid, have been able to peddle false hope and profit from the pain of those seeking answers about what happened to their loved ones. Until now, the primary way to do that has been through protracted and adversarial legal processes that are delivering neither justice nor information in the overwhelming majority of cases.

This feeds a pernicious and distorted view of the past, promoted and peddled by those with a vested interest in presenting the British state as the aggressor,  when the truth is that terrorist organisations were responsible for the vast majority of deaths in Northern Ireland.

We must halt the rewriting of history and set the events of the Troubles in their appropriate historical context. That is why the Bill will also set up a major new oral history initiative. It will be one of the most ambitious and comprehensive approaches to oral history that has been attempted, will draw on established international models, and will concentrate on collating lived experiences and testimony from those who want to share their stories.

We will also establish an expert-led memorialisation strategy that will lay the groundwork for new structures and initiatives to commemorate the events of the past in a way that is inclusive but also, crucially, fair and balanced. 

I will also be commissioning an official history of the UK Government’s policy in Northern Ireland – conducted independently of the Government – which will also help to develop a clearer understanding of what happened during the Troubles.

Taken together, I believe this will represent a hugely significant step towards enabling lasting reconciliation for all of Northern Ireland’s people, but it will require honesty in confronting the painful reality of where we are and the many difficult compromises already made in the name of peace.

As the historic Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement approaches its 25th anniversary next year, now is the moment to move forward in finally dealing with the terrible legacy left by the Troubles. This legislation will be hugely challenging for many, but compassion and commitment to truth and accountability is the only way we can move forward in peace, bring understanding and reconciliation for the next generation and enable Northern Ireland society to look forwards, rather than continually backwards at its divisive past. 

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Lewis confirms a truth-and-reconciliation approach to legacy issues in Ulster

17 May

Earlier this month, we reported that the Government seemed to be leaning towards “an approach which prioritises ‘truth and understanding’ over increasingly hail-Mary shots at securing criminal justice” for legacy issues in Northern Ireland.

This seemed likely to involve a trade-off, whereby individuals received immunity from prosecution if they offered honest testimony to future investigations into historic offences from the Troubles.

And lo, this morning Politico reports that Brandon Lewis has adopted just such an approach:

“…ex-combatants from all factions will be shielded from civil or criminal action only if they give honest and fulsome accounts to a new body called the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery.”

This follow’s Boris Johnson’s essay in the Belfast Telegraph (which we looked at this morning) in which he wrote that:

“But the 1998 Agreement bestows other commitments on the British Government that go beyond its position as a co-guarantor. One of those is to take difficult decisions: to assume a burden of responsibility, and indeed unpopularity, when consensus cannot be reached.”

Taken together, this suggests that the Government is resolved to press ahead with this version of its legacy proposals even if, as seems very likely, local parties in Northern Ireland continue to object. This is fine; London is if anything normally far too reluctant to “assume the burden of responsibility” for good government in Ulster.

As we wrote in our initial report, there is a trade-off here. The offer of immunity means that people will lose any prospect of securing justice in a court of law, even if that prospect has become an increasingly spectral one as time marches on.

But in exchange, we might be able to set the historical record straight before an increasingly elderly cohort of ex-servicemen and former terrorists take the evidence to the grave.

(It remains an open question whether the terrorists, at least the republican ones, will actually cooperate with a structure set up by the British Government. But if the end result is the IRA opting out of immunity, I don’t suppose many people in Westminster will be too upset.)

The Northern Irish legacy legislation. There will be no amnesty. But will there be a statute of limitations?

4 May

Last year, we wrote about how and why Conservative MPs were putting pressure on the Northern Irish Office to expand protections for ex-servicemen to cover veterans of the conflict in Ulster.

This campaign has not gone away. In December, Mark Francois called on Brandon Lewis to resign over the Government’s failure to bring forward legislation to end prosecutions; just last month protesters ‘blockaded’ the NIO because several former soldiers are facing fresh prosecutions with no new evidence.

Yet the weight may finally be over: early in April the Secretary of State indicated that there would be developments “within weeks”, and the Times reported that “the British government is believed to be close to finalising legislative proposals on so-called legacy killings”. Meanwhile, Leo Docherty told the Daily Telegraph that:

“I’m pleased to say, we expect from the Northern Ireland Office a bill that will give closure to veterans of (Operation) Banner, of whom there are some 300,000. We expect this bill to give closure with honour and finality and I expect that to come forward very soon.”

What is not yet clear is what form it will take. A straightforward amnesty is deeply unpopular on all sides in Northern Ireland.

There is also anger amongst unionists that existing legacy structures are perceived to disproportionately target state security personnel whilst former terrorists enjoy de facto amnesties. We reported last month that Lewis is planning new legislation that will make it clear that New Labour’s controversial ‘comfort letters’ scheme has no basis in law.

He offered an indication as to his line of thought in this report from the Derry Journal:

“When you move through a process that isn’t driven by a prosecution but which is driven by an investigation to get to the truth on a balance of probabilities like the coronial courts then you are seeing people able to get to the truth and to get an understanding”.

Lewis in the same piece emphasises that a statute of limitations does not mean that historical investigations will cease:

“One of the things I think that gets slightly misread in terms of the Command Paper we published last summer is that, yes, it does outline a statute of limitations as a sort of foundation to develop a wider package….I need to be really clear about this – we will continue investigations.”

He specifically references the inquiry into the Ballymurphy massacre, and how difficult it was to get “some recognition of the truth and understanding of what happened” in that case. In the end, the judge-led inquiry took evidence from over 150 witnesses, including “more than 60 former soldiers”, according to the BBC.

Taken together, this suggests the Government may be planning an approach which prioritises ‘truth and understanding’ over increasingly hail-Mary shots at securing criminal justice.

After all, as the Secretary of State has pointed out, nature sets its own statute of limitations: time passes, mortals age, and many of those involved may not be with us for too much longer. Lifting the threat of prosecution may encourage people to engage with ongoing investigations and ensure that victims and their families get at least the truth, if not justice.

Whether or not this will make unionists or nationalists happy is another question.

But it perhaps ought not to be the decisive one. This may be yet another area where a toxic political dynamic suits many of the local players even as it fails to serve the long-term interests of Northern Ireland as a whole. As the author Brian Rowan said of amnesty proposals:

“If we don’t go there, then we aren’t going to have a legacy process and with the wars over, we’re going to spend the next 30 years fighting the peace”.

For so long as it remains part of the United Kingdom, the Government is ultimately responsible for ensuring that Ulster receives not only peace, but order and good government. It cannot content itself with being a sort of constitutional child-minder. If Lewis thinks his proposals (whatever their final shape) are in the best interests of the Province, he should enact them.

The Government’s critics over small boats. Plenty of opportunism, no convincing alternatives.

15 Apr

The small boats carrying migrants will be tracked across the channel.  When these step onto British soil – doing so illegally – they will be met by the armed forces.  They may be screened and sent to Rwanda which will be paid for taking them.  Once they have arrived there, they won’t be able to apply for asylum here.

Such is the picture that the Government is painting of the scheme announced yesterday.  To say that it provokes a long list of questions would be an understatement.

Such as: is it really the role of the armed forces to act as a police force?  Just how many and what proportion of arrivals will be sent?  How much will the scheme cost taxpayers – including that of the Greek-style reception centres in which some arrivals will apparently be held here, and where and how many of these will there be?

In practice, will the arrivals dodge the authorities, not claim asylum, and vanish into the wider population?  Above all: will the plan really work as a deterrent, and survive the coming blitz of human rights-based legal actions?

This mass of questions comes from both the Left and the Right.  The Left’s critique is based on the claim that the scheme is both cruel and useless – a critique less punishing than it may sound, since if the plan is the second it can’t really be the first.  The Right’s boils down to the second.  The cry is: “we’ve heard it all before”.

To make a fair judgement, it is essential to understand what the scheme actually is and isn’t.  It is not, repeat not, offshoring – an Australian-style scheme in which people apply for asylum from abroad.

At its core is the separation of people into legal and illegal streams, under the terms of the Nationality and Borders Bill, which is currently passing through Parliament.  Those entering illegally once removed abroad will not be allowed to apply for asylum here at all.

In short, the scheme is not primarily aimed at asylum seekers as a whole.  Nor even at all those who will be entering the country illegally once the Bill becomes law.

It is targeting a relatively new and potentially destabilising crime racket – the small boats phenomenon – which sees unscrupulous gangmasters paid to organise a potentially deadly journey.  Remember the 27 people who drowned outside Calais last December.

Boris Johnson argued yesterday that this parallel illegal migration system is deeply unfair to those who arrive legally – not to mention all those who voted to take back control of our borders.  This is incontrovertible.

And any accurate judgement on the scheme will understand the context correctly.  The Prime Minister’s critics argue that this is the first time that a British Government will refuse sanctuary to a mass of people most of whom are found by the authorities to be genuine refugees – evidence of extremism, even of fascism.

The Government will claim in the courts that it is obliged to ensure that refugees are sheltered – but not necessarily that they are sheltered here in Britain.

Whatever you may think of the legal arguments, the political realities are unarguable.  First and foremost among them is an open secret that neither Ministers nor their critics want to acknowledge: namely, that this is the most immigration-friendly Government in recent history, stretching all the way back to New Labour.

Johnson has junked the net target for controlling immigration numbers, going instead for his beloved “Australian-style points-based system“.

There is now no annual limit on semi-skilled work permits; qualification requirements and the salary threshold has been lowered; an unlimited number of foreign students can stay on for up to two years; the obligation to first advertise jobs in the UK has been dropped.

Pre-pandemic, Brexit was seeing a boom in net non-EU migration: it rose to 282,000 by the end of 2019 – the highest level ever recorded.  The year to March 2020 showed an overall net migration figure of 313,000.

Then there are the other refugee schemes.  The Government’s opponents will raise its stuttering scheme for Ukrainians.  Its supporters can counter with its offer of refuge to up to three million Hong Kongers.  Where is the racism there?

An accurate representation of the Government shows not a cartoon of wicked monsters imposing a nazi regime – or even of ruthless strategists set on trapping Labour –  but a snapshot of desperate politicians at their wits’ end.

For the fact is that the number of asylum applications from small boats rose from 2,012 in 2020 to 23,000 by November last year.  Where is the upper limit?  The evidence suggests that, even taking the closure of other routes into account, the gangmasters have stumbled across a revolutionary discovery.

Namely, that it isn’t at all hard to sail a small boat full of people seeking a new life in Britain from the long Normandy coastline, regardless of the stance of whatever government holds power in France.

Yes, France – which when I last looked was a liberal western democracy.  And that’s the point: the small boats aren’t sailing to Britain from Tartus in Syria, say; or from Karachi, full of Afghans who have somehow got there.  They’re coming from a European country that is already a safe haven.

The Government’s scheme may not work.  But it is only reasonable to ask its critics the question: what would you do, then?

I exclude from their list the ridiculous Yvette Cooper, whose opportunistic party has no answers, and which gave us when in government the spectacle of illegal immigrants cleaning the then Home Secretary’s office.

There are two alternatives – one coherent, one not.  The former is to give away control to the gangmasters rather than taking it back ourselves: stand back, shrug shoulders, and let events take their course.  Whatever changes there may be in migration polling, the voters wouldn’t stand it for a moment.

A British Marine Le Pen would be on 25 per cent of the vote.  Or more.  And how could such a policy remotely be proclaimed as fair?

Then there is letting people apply for asylum from abroad.  That might stop the small boats were the number of potential migrants to remain roughly as at present (though I doubt it).  But there were 84 million refugees worldwide in 2020. And they are far from being the only people potentially eligible to claim.

Obviously, only a proportion of the whole number would opt to come to Britain if given the option of claiming asylum at a British Embassy.  But the fact is that there is no upper limit on the number we would be obliged to take.

Like other governments, ours is struggling with worldwide obligations shaped three quarters of a century ago, and which are now hopelessly out of date.

Which is why Johnson and company should be cut a bit of slack on the Rwanda plan (which is not unlike the EU’s deal with Turkey over migration in 2016, as it happens).

Priti Patel is wrestling with a Home Office dysfunctional at best and mutinous at worst.  And Downing Street was paralysed over the issue last year.  It looks as though the arrival of Steve Barclay as Chief of Staff, representing a new reliance by Johnson on Conservative MPs, has swung the balance.

But now this policy has been announced, it must be effected.  The real struggle will surely be not with Tory critics, whose numbers have been small, but with the courts – and with a mass of obligations in urgent need of ovehaul.

Gerald Howarth: The West is guilty of weakness and complacency in the face of Russian aggression

11 Mar

Sir Gerald Howarth was Minister for International Security Strategy from 2010 to 2012 and is a former Chairman of the APPG on Ukraine.

As the horror in Ukraine unfolds before our eyes, we stand in awe of the extraordinary courage of the Ukrainian people yet also stand helplessly by, unable and unwilling to send in military force to challenge this appalling, unprovoked aggression.

We need urgently to take stock if we are to prevent the whole of Europe sliding into the abyss of a continent-wide conflict.

We are where we are today for three overlapping reasons. First, the West has been progressively weakened in both its confidence in its values and in its willingness to fight for those values.

We have reduced our armed forces to a level where we now freely admit that we cannot undertake any major operation except in partnership with others. As we mark the 40th anniversary of the Falklands campaign, it is a sobering thought that our capacity to repeat that operation is questionable.

The fall of the Berlin wall led to immediate demands for a ‘peace dividend’ which has been taken so many times that we are left with armed forces substantially reduced from their 1990 strength of 312,000 to a mere 150,000 today – 25 per cent smaller than Ukraine’s forces.

Yes, we have offensive cyber capability – this was one of the few pluses to emerge from the dreadful 2011 Review my ministerial colleagues and I had to undertake resulting from the £160 billion deficit bequeathed our Coalition Government by Gordon Brown – and the RAF has established a new Space Command.

But the Royal Navy will shortly be down to six destroyers and eight new Type 26 frigates (replacing 13 Type 23s), the Army to a strength of just 78,000, and the RAF will have woefully few F-35 Lightnings, and faces and the imminent scrapping of the C-130 Hercules workhorse. By contrast, in 1982, we had 13 destroyers and 35 frigates, losing two of each type (as well as two other ships) to enemy action.

That today’s platforms are in theory much more capable than those they replace misses the point. As we found out a few weeks ago, an F-35 at the bottom of the sea is no use to anyone. The 2021 defence review must be revisited and the defence budget increased.

Secondly, we have shown an extraordinary naivety. Despite Vladimir Putin’s annexation of part of Georgia in 2008, Crimea in 2014, relentless support for pro-Russian dissidents in the Donbas, the attempted murder of a former Russian agent in Salisbury, the imprisonment of Alexei Navalny, and his declared ambition to rebuild the Soviet empire, we have assumed he would not venture further.

However, since he was able to undertake all these with complete impunity, he clearly calculated that the same would apply to today’s aggression.

I have been pointing out for years that the temptation for him to annex the territory between the Donbas and Crimea, giving him land access to the latter, must have been great. The humiliating retreat from Kabul last August, led by a very weak US President, and the much-trumpeted declaration that NATO would not set foot in Ukraine, all served as green lights to Putin, who gambled that, yet again, he could attack his sovereign neighbour with impunity.

The man respects only force and we have pulled our punches.

Despite all these warning signs, we have deliberately chosen to ignore them. Anyone who has had the temerity to challenge this appalling complacency has been dismissed as a Cold War warrior or worse.

(One of the few to do so has been General Sir Richard Shirreff, not only a commander with operational experience but also a former NATO Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe (DSACEUR), with all the strategic experience that role confers. My advice to Ben Wallace, our excellent Defence Secretary, is to get General Richard into his office immediately.)

Thirdly, we have been guilty of a consistent 30-year complacency. We had assumed that the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin wall, and the emergence of perestroika in the new Russia heralded a safer dawn. We should beat our swords into ploughshares, was the cry. My generation has enjoyed an entire lifetime of virtually unbroken rising prosperity, liberty, and security.

But we failed to acknowledge that these priceless benefits actually come with a price tag. Thomas Jefferson’s wise adage, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance”, has been forgotten.

Despite all those warnings – and I have no space here to articulate similar warnings about the rise of China under its repressive Communist Party – we gaily waved aside Vlad The Invader’s onward tyrannical march, preferring to obsess about issues like gender fluidity and pulling down memorials to the nation’s past benefactors. Even now, it seems the bishops cannot bring themselves to pray for victory to the heroic people of Ukraine.

What is particularly galling is that the UK, along with the USA and Russia itself (note: not France or Germany), is a signatory to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum under which, in return for Ukraine’s surrendering its entire arsenal of nuclear weapons, the parties agreed to respect Ukraine’s ‘independence, sovereignty and existing borders’.

It is a pity Sir John Major, whose signature is on that document, has found time to attack Boris Johnson but no time to denounce the persistent and flagrant violation of the document he signed on behalf of us all.

This litany of strategic failures raises the very real prospect of a wider war in Europe. If Putin succeeds in subjugating Ukraine, who now believes he will stop there? He has made clear his bitter resentment at the collapse of the Soviet Union, a resentment shared by many Russians, and has declared his determination to rebuild it.

Will he be tempted to go for Moldova? Or drive a corridor through Lithuania to the Russian Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, probably under the now familiar mantra of protecting Russian-speaking people? Can we be certain that NATO, despite its welcome new-found resolve, would be willing to invoke Article 5?

There must be no misunderstanding: one hostile foot on NATO territory triggers Article 5. It must vigorously reinforce its Eastern flank with troops and heavy armour as well as in honing its cyber capabilities. In addition, we need a massive information campaign to counter the propaganda lies being fed the Russian people.

The Prime Minister has led the battle to beef up the NATO and international response, but more needs to be done. Failure now to increase the political, economic and military pressure will not only imperil European security, but will send a signal to other despots that the West really has lost the will to fight for its values.

If it does, the world will become a much less safe place. As Dr John Hulsman urged here this week:

“What is required is a rapid change in British strategic thinking. Britain’s calling is to lead the Anglosphere, a great power almost no one has given nearly enough thought about.”

Sarah Ingham: A real war puts the West’s culture warriors in cruel perspective

4 Mar

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.