SAS heroes now victims of legal witch hunt – 40 years after serving in Northern Ireland

Johnny Mercer discusses help for veterans on BBC Breakfast

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About 10 special forces veterans face investigation and possible trial over the Troubles. Members of the Who Dares Wins unit undertook high-risk undercover missions to fight terrorists in the region. MP Johnny Mercer, who was fired as Veterans Minister after criticising the Government for not protecting soldiers, said: “We are ruining people’s lives.” 

While one SAS veteran of the conflict said: “My colleagues and I risked our lives on a daily basis. Forty-odd years later as a ‘thank you’, the state is hounding us for doing our duty and helping protect the innocent.”

Boris Johnson has often pledged to stop “vexatious” prosecutions of ex-soldiers. But laws safeguarding troops on foreign operations do not cover those on Operation Banner, the deployment in Northern Ireland from 1969 to 2007.

Legislation to address the issue has been delayed and there are claims that the Government fears provoking Republican Sinn Fein.

A senior source said yesterday: “Decisions about charging veterans are being made at the moment. There are a number of cases involving individuals from a number of different units, one of which is the SAS.

“If the Government fails to honour its promise to protect these veterans, you will see a slow trickle of these men going to trial.”

Rusty Firmin, who served with the SAS in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s, said: “I know personally some of the SAS and [special forces] lads that are being and have been pursued.

“I don’t know what charges if any they may face but in my opinion there shouldn’t be any at all.My colleagues and I risked our lives on a daily basis in Northern Ireland tracking and fighting terrorists for the state.

“Forty-odd years later as a thank you the same state is hounding us for doing our duty and helping protect the innocent.”

Author Mr Firmin, who helped break a terrorist siege of London’s Iranian Embassy in 1980, added: “Boris Johnson should be brought to task. Why has he said time and time again he would stop the prosecution of veterans? All the PM and Michael Gove are doing is following Tony Blair’s lead in this – the ex-Labour PM who was responsible in the first place for this mess.”

Under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement promoted by Mr Blair, 500 terrorists including IRA men were freed from jail early and 300 suspects were given guarantees they would not face prosecution.

Republican paramilitaries including the IRA caused about 60 per cent of the 3,500 deaths in the Troubles; security forces were responsible for around 10 per cent.

Ex-Army officer Mr Mercer said of the spectre of trials: “This situation will only get worse and worse until the Government fulfils its promise to Northern Ireland veterans. We are ruining people’s lives.

“I am seeing veterans every day now. They are being decimated.”

Robin Horsfall, who served with the SAS during the Troubles, has warned any soldier involved in a shooting might be quizzed.

He said previously: “These prosecutions have always been political and were designed to put pressure on the British Government on behalf of Sinn Fein and the IRA.

“Just one guilty verdict will see them turn around and say that every soldier in Northern Ireland committed atrocities.”

Four soldiers already face trial for shootings in the Troubles, three of them cases from the early 1970s.

In the first legacy trial of veterans, elderly Paras “A” and “C” were cleared this month of murdering Official IRA gunman Joe McCann as he resisted arrest in 1972, after 48-year-old evidence was ruled inadmissible.

McCann, 24, had killed 15 soldiers, the Official IRA said.

The Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland hinted the failure of the case might affect the trials of other veterans. Former Army head, General The Lord Dannatt, who won the Military Cross in Northern Ireland, said: “It is no longer appropriate to try and prosecute anybody over the Troubles as a means of trying to uncover the truth about incidents in the past.” He backs a Statute of Limitations which would block prosecutions over incidents before the 1998 deal.

Lawyers for one soldier due to go on trial, Dennis Hutchings, say veterans are up to 54 times more likely than Republican paramilitaries to face charges.

Mr Hutchings, 80, said: “It is absolutely crazy.” 

“Special Forces are specifically trained to take out the enemy. They work covertly and put their own lives at serious risk.

“In Northern Ireland they talk about legacy issues. Tony Blair stopped all legacy issues with the Good Friday Agreement – with the exception of service personnel.”

The Ministry of Defence said: “Legal and welfare support is provided for all those involved in this process. We do not comment on past or present activities of the Special Forces.”

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis hopes to bring in laws on legacy issues shortly. The Government has hinted it is considering a South Africa-style truth and reconciliation process.

Relatives of people killed would learn what had happened without those involved incriminating themselves.

A Whitehall source said: “We are looking for a decisive move away from prosecutions to information recovery for truth and reconciliation for victims.”

The witch hunt has extended to other conflicts: troops who served in Iraq faced more than 3,300 allegations – most levelled by now-disgraced solicitor Phil Shiner’s Public Interest Lawyers. Investigations which cost the taxpayer £57million ended without a single prosecution but were said to have ruined the of lives of innocent soldiers.

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