The head of the armed forces has said he is “deeply uncomfortable” that military veterans could face investigations into actions which occurred during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach – who steps down as Chief of the Defence Staff next week – said it was a “political decision” whether there should be a statute of limitations on inquiries into past events.
But, speaking at the Policy Exchange think tank in London, he admitted he was personally concerned at the way such investigations could play out. His comments came after Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood broke ranks with the official Government position to back calls for a time-limit for investigations into historical events.
A current consultation document issued by Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley on dealing with the legacy of the Troubles does not include provision for a statute of limitations, much to the anger of many Conservative MPs.
Asked if he thought there should be a statute of limitations, Air Chief Marshal Peach said: “That question as posed is a political decision. My position as Chief of the Defence Staff is very clear. We in the Ministry of Defence will continue to support the veterans with legal and other support. That is an absolutely unequivocal clear position.
“If you ask me as Stuart Peach as I depart as Chief of the Defence Staff, I am deeply uncomfortable about some of this as to the way in which it could be interpreted.”
“I am uncomfortable with what is happening. It is for the Government to decide things like statute of limitations and how the law is understood and framed.
“As Chief of Defence Staff all I am allowed to do within my terms and conditions is to ensure – which I give you my word that we do ensure – that our veterans are properly supported if they are called forward for due process.”
“The way, through common law, this could play out makes me discomfited as well as uncomfortable about the plight veterans might find themselves in.”
Mark Francois, a Conservative member of Commons Defence Committee, said there was growing dismay at the prospect of veterans facing investigation over events which may have occurred almost half a century ago. He said:
“A number of us on the Defence Select Committee are extremely concerned about how this is playing out in practice – the idea that what a young man did in a ditch in Crossmaglen in 1971 is now going to be played over and crawled over nearly 50 years later, partly at the behest of Sinn Fein.”
On a different note, Air Chief Marshal Peach also said the forces would have to be more flexible in their approach to recruitment if they were to attract the skills they needed for the future – such as relaxing the medical requirements for cyber warfare specialists. He said:
“I am quite relaxed about having cyber warriors who don’t deploy overseas. Their work is here. I am quite relaxed about medical conditions being relaxed because they are not deploying overseas. We need to think about this in a different way.”