Following the Government statement on its plans for dealing with legacy issues and the investigation of veterans who served in Northern Ireland during the troubles, Sir Mike Penning rejects the Government position that there is a legal difference between soldiers serving on peacekeeping operations in Northern Ireland and soldiers serving in peacekeeping operations in foreign countries.
May I say to the Minister of State that I have every sympathy with his position at the Dispatch Box? I did exactly the same and had exactly the same advice, which was fundamentally wrong, when I was in the Northern Ireland Office as well as in the Ministry of Defence. Like many colleagues, I served in Northern Ireland. When I came back, I was given a general service medal. I was on operations. To us, peacekeeping there was no different to peacekeeping anywhere else in the world. That is what British Army soldiers do. To stand here and say that there is a legal difference between a soldier going on ops in Iraq, Cyprus or anywhere else in the world and a soldier going on ops in Northern Ireland is fundamentally wrong, and I challenged and challenged and challenged that advice. How on earth have we got into this position where we will not defend our own soldiers because of some technicality that we were not on ops? We were on ops and we were defending the public and our guys were killed. I will not have terrorists mentioned in the same breath as British soldiers.
I could not agree more. My right hon. Friend rightly points out that he has stood in my shoes on this issue. I am sure he is absolutely right that, to anybody serving in Her Majesty’s armed forces—whether they served in peacekeeping operations or not, and whether they served in Northern Ireland or in other parts of the world—the practical effect will feel the same.
I was given a medal for it.
As my right hon. Friend rightly points out, he was given a medal for it. The only point on which I would pull him up is that, although the practical effect may feel the same, the legal underpinnings—again, I appreciate that he contested this—are different. Although we may wish that were not so, it is so. Therefore, we have to come up with something that will withstand legal challenge. As my right hon. Friend for Rayleigh and Wickford rightly pointed out, there are people out there who will try to knock legal holes in any answer that we come up with unless it is legally robust. We have to acknowledge the legal difference and find an answer that works, even though we are trying to get to the same answer in each case. If we cannot do that, we may come up with something that sounds great when we announce it, but which will get legal holes knocked in it; and that would mean that we were not protecting our veterans in the way in which everybody here wants us to do.