Ex-Conservative defence minister claims arrest of soldier in relation to Bloody Sunday was 'wrong'
A Conservative former defence minister has raised concerns over the arrest of a former member of the Parachute Regiment on duty in Londonderry on January 30 1972, branding it "wrong".
Asking an urgent question on the issue in the Commons, Gerald Howarth spoke about the events of Bloody Sunday, saying: "These soldiers of the Crown were not hired killers, they were seeking to do their duty to their country in a filthy civil war where the enemy was dressed in civilian clothes indistinguishable from the local population."
Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Northern Ireland Office Ben Wallace said that criminal investigations and prosecutions were a matter for the police and prosecuting authorities who are "independent and act independently of Government".
He said: "As part of the ongoing investigation by the Police Service of Northern Ireland into the events surrounding Bloody Sunday in Londonderry in 1972, a former soldier was arrested for questioning on the November 10. He was subsequently released on bail."
He added: "The Government cannot therefore comment on an individual case. This Government is committed to the rule of law, where there is evidence of wrongdoing it is right that it should be investigated."
Gerald said that 43 years after the events and three years after the PSNI first started their further investigations, a soldier, soldier J from the Parachute Regiment who was in his early 20s, but is now in his late 60s "is faced with possible prosecution for murder with a prospect of further arrests to follow".
He said: "For two reasons I submit that this is wrong. First, what national interest is served in bringing these cases to court. The Saville inquiry found there was no premeditation to murder in the minds of those young soldiers."
He added: "I submit that it is immoral for the state to seek nearly half a century after the event to put these men on trial whilst others who deployed their bombs and bullets in the shadows are now in Government or have received royal pardons, an act of Government not of the courts. I urge my honourable friend to exercise the royal prerogative of mercy with immediate effect."
Mr Wallace said: "Whether the current investigations will lead to criminal prosecution is a matter for the police and prosecuting authorities in Northern Ireland.
"But we shouldn't forget that the British Army is not above the law and nor should it be."
He went on: "I can't comment on these individual cases - these are obviously a matter for an ongoing police inquiry. It is a long way from following a line of inquiry to conviction, charging in a court."
The police, he added, must be allowed to do their job and uphold the rule of law.
Gerald said when the Prime Minister made his memorable statement in the Commons following the publication of the Saville report in 2010: "I and others had hoped that line would be drawn under this tragedy."
Servicemen, he said, "had to make snap decisions, the consequences of which have hung over them for the whole of their adult lives".
Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Vernon Coaker said: "Does the minister agree with me that it is always difficult to criticise our armed forces if they fall below these high standards, but we cannot and must not fail to do so if evidence of wrongdoing should exist."
Former defence secretary Liam Fox said he agreed with the need to uphold the law and recognised why the minister could not comment on the specific case.
"But without pre-judging in any way any particular case, do you understand that we also have a need to uphold justice and that it would be offending the natural sense of justice of many in this country that the behaviour of how the army behaves on a certain day 40 years ago is being reopened while so many on the IRA-side who killed have been granted amnesty," he said.
"Do you agree with me that if we are to draw a line under past events for the sake of peace it should be drawn on both sides?"
Mr Wallace said that paramilitaries and terrorists who have not been convicted and were not part of the Good Friday Agreement "have not been granted any blanket amnesty".
Meanwhile, Danny Kinahan, Ulster Unionist MP for South Antrim, told the House he believes there is an "inequality" in who is being pursued by police over the events of the past.
He said: "There is a real anger there amongst veterans and will you take steps to ensure that the current inequality that allows for those in the armed services to be pursued with greater vigour and effort than the terrorists themselves ends and that we move towards some level playing field in the future."
But Mr Wallace rejected the idea of there being any "inequality".
"I don't believe that the police and the chief constable are pursuing people with more verve than another group of people," he said.
"I think they will go where the evidence takes them."
Richard Drax, Tory MP for South Dorset, said the perception among many people is that "our British soldiers are hounded while those who murdered and killed become politicians".
Ian Paisley, Democratic Unionist MP for North Antrim, offered a similar sentiment.
"The double standards in this affair are palpable for all to see," he said.