Sir Mike Penning takes the opportunity of a Northern Ireland Budget debate to call on Parliament to stand up for veterans who served in the Province and condemns expenditure by the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland on prosecutions against current and former members of the armed forces for certain alleged offences committed during military operations 30 or 40 years ago.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon) said, his amendments are not perfect, and there will be concerns, but when is the right time for us to defend our veterans? When is the right time for those in this House to speak out and say, “Enough is enough”?
I have to declare an interest. It was not 30 or 40 years ago that I got on the troop ship from Liverpool across to Belfast docks. It was 42 years ago that I and the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards went across to Northern Ireland. I was petrified, like most young people were when they went into the armed forces and into combat. I was not going abroad—we were not going to Afghanistan, Iraq, Aden, Borneo or Malaya. I was going to another part of the United Kingdom to protect a community from terrorism. It was a policing role. I have never quite understood why we issued the general service medal for those who went to Northern Ireland, because it was part of the United Kingdom. It was not an operation, as we have heard. We were not on ops; we were assisting the RUC to protect the community. Sometimes that community turned on us, and we lost a lot of good friends and soldiers. Some we have never found. I have spoken in the House before about my captain, Captain Robert Nairac, whose bravery everybody should understand.
We are not here this evening to just accept what the Secretary of State has said and give it carte blanche. The Secretary of State has no idea what I am going to say, and other colleagues are waiting to argue for these amendments as well, but the Secretary of State and the Opposition Front Benchers have already made their mind up, before hearing from gallant colleagues who have served and colleagues who have never served but have constituents who are under threat day in, day out of a knock at the door or a letter. Perhaps that letter will come to me; perhaps I am one of those people. I am probably one of the older ones who served back then. I went in 1976, and the forces that were out there—some were volunteers for the Ulster Defence Regiment, which my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) was serving in—were doing a fantastic job. The RUC was doing a fantastic job. At one stage, we had 10,000 soldiers putting their lives on the line in the Province to keep people safe.
I, like my right hon. Friend, served out there, in ’75, and I recall serving in the Bogside when we used to have to accompany the RUC there; they would not go were the military not with them at the time, patrolling in the same area. We were dealing with circumstances that are very difficult for modern generations to understand. We had to do so under a very different set of rules, and my concern is exactly his: that we are now judging on the basis of a wholly different set of criteria.
My right hon. and gallant Friend understands this so well. It was not so much that the RUC could not cope, but the threat to them was so great that we had to patrol with them. I did not serve in Londonderry or Belfast, even though I have been accused of doing naughty things in Belfast by the IRA and Sinn Féin. I served in Monaghan, Keady and Middletown, where we were in the RUC post, sometimes with the RUC and sometimes on our own.
It was a very difficult time, but we were not conscripts. We were young people who volunteered to serve in our armed forces. When I joined up, I knew that I was going to Northern Ireland. Basically, every 18 months you would go to Northern Ireland if you were from an infantry regiment. We knew we were going to go, and we knew how difficult it was going to be, but—this is the big but—I expected those who sent us to look after us. I honestly feel at the moment that veterans, and not just those from my day, do not feel that this House did the right thing for us, and they passionately feel that we are letting them down.
If this evening’s debate is not the answer and these amendments are not the right ones, I say to colleagues around the Chamber—I am so disappointed that some of my Labour friends who served in the armed forces are not here for something so damn important—that the people who did the right thing for us and for Northern Ireland are flagrantly being let down, day in and day out. They are told there is another consultation, that we cannot do it—that there is technicality here, and the judges will not do it—or that Sinn Féin will use this against us. I don’t give a monkey’s. The Commons should stand up for our veterans, and if we do not vote for that this evening, there is something seriously wrong.