Sunday 28 May 2017

Police probe into Troubles killings 'could destroy peace process'

Henry Bellingham, pictured, raised concerns about the decision to charge great-grandfather Dennis Hutchings
Henry Bellingham, pictured, raised concerns about the decision to charge great-grandfather Dennis Hutchings

Jon Vale

Northern Ireland's peace process risks being destroyed by a police investigation into historic killings during the Troubles, a Tory former minister has said.

Sir Henry Bellingham (North West Norfolk) said allowing the Police Service of Northern Ireland's Legacy Investigation Branch to continue could "imperil the entire peace process" while also undermining morale among Britain's armed forces.

He also raised concerns about the decision to charge great-grandfather Dennis Hutchings.

The former soldier is accused of the attempted murder of a man with learning difficulties more than 40 years ago.

In a Westminster Hall debate, Northern Ireland minister Kris Hopkins acknowledged that historic investigations in Northern Ireland had focused disproportionately on the security forces instead of terrorists.

But the minister said this would change with the new historical investigations unit, which would shift the focus.

Sir Henry, who led the debate, said: "We've got to find a way forward.

"We've got to actually draw a line under this. We've got to see the scrapping of the legacy investigation branch.

"I fear that if we don't draw a line under this, then we will not just be undermining the morale in our armed forces and betraying veterans, we could also imperil the entire peace process as well."

MPs heard that the legacy investigation branch established last year is investigating more than 900 cases, at a cost of more than £33 million (€39m).

Among those under investigation is Hutchings (74) from Cornwall.

Sir Henry said the incident had already been investigated a number of times, adding: "Now, can we move on to April 2015, because by now, in very poor health, there was a dawn raid on the Corporal Major's house in Cornwall.

"He was arrested, taken to Northern Ireland for four days of questioning, and then charged with attempted murder, of course a charge he vehemently denies.

"In the intervening 42 years there are no witnesses left, three of the members of the patrol have died, there's no forensic evidence, there are no weapons left.

"I was certainly taught at law school that one of the key tenets of criminal justice is the need for credible, current and corroborated evidence.

"It's beyond belief he's been charged, and there's no conceivable way he could ever receive a fair trial without proper evidence. These charges actually fly in the face of all the basic rules of criminal justice."

Mr Hopkins, who served in Northern Ireland, said the Government had always shown it was prepared to face up and account for where it had got things wrong, and that it was right criminal prosecutions were kept separate of political influence.

He added the new historical allegations unit, part of the Stormont House agreement, planned to examine the cases chronologically and be concluded within five years.

It would also have a statutory duty to act "in a balanced, proportionate, transparent, fair and equitable way", Mr Hopkins said.

He added: "This should create a more proportionate approach for dealing with the past, and ensure that the balance of investigations is rightly on the terrorists who caused so much pain and suffering, rather than disproportionately on brave soldiers and police officers who sacrificed so much to protect us."

Online Editors

Promoted articles

Also in this section