‘We’ve got guys too scared to open fire’ – North Herts veteran speaks ahead of Justice for Northern Ireland Veterans’ Good Friday march

A soldier from the Welsh Guards' 1st Battalion, based at Patrol Base Argyll, Nad e Ali, pictured on

A soldier from the Welsh Guards' 1st Battalion, based at Patrol Base Argyll, Nad e Ali, pictured on returning from a patrol around the village of Zarghun Kalay, Afghanistan, in May 2009. Photo: Cpl Rupert Frere/Crown Copyright - Credit: Crown Copyright

When British soldiers contact the enemy in a war zone, should the prospect of legal prosecution play on their minds?

A republican Petrol Bomber mural in Bogside, Londonderry. Photo: Hajotthu at the German language Wik

A republican Petrol Bomber mural in Bogside, Londonderry. Photo: Hajotthu at the German language Wikipedia - Credit: Archant

Amid historical investigations into the actions of some who served their country in Northern Ireland, Afghanistan and Iraq, thousands of veterans and their supporters are to demonstrate on Good Friday against what they see as malicious prosecutions of British troops.

Good Friday marks the anniversary of the agreement formally ending The Troubles in 1998 – and the Justice for Northern Ireland Veterans campaign says it is a profound injustice that British veterans face government-funded investigations while the agreement gave IRA members amnesty, with pardons granted to terrorists involved in murders.

The campaign’s first rally, in January, was attended by about 1,000 people – and saw them march to 10 Downing Street and deliver a letter of protest to the Prime Minister Theresa May.

The organisers hope to have 5,000 turn out in London, Glasgow and Belfast for the planned Good Friday demonstrations.

Those marching in London will include one North Herts veteran of the Royal Anglian Regiment’s 1st Battalion – who served in Northern Ireland during the 1980s and early ‘90s, and spoke to the Comet under condition of anonymity.

Sandy Row loyalist mural in Belfast. Photo: Keith Ruffles

Sandy Row loyalist mural in Belfast. Photo: Keith Ruffles - Credit: Archant

He said: “This means a hell of a lot to me. We served out there and we’re being persecuted by our own government.

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“I was out there during some of the worst times in The Troubles. The toughest part was going out each day and knowing it could be your last.

“That’s why I’m so strong with it. People have come home, done their time – two or three tours, six months each – and some are now getting letters from Northern Ireland, asking anyone who knows information about certain incidents to contact them.

“There’s already two veterans who were at Bloody Sunday in 1972 who are just being made into scapegoats.

“And this isn’t just Northern Ireland – this has happened to soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan as well.”

The late Martin McGuinness, right, went from IRA commander to deputy First Minister as part of power

The late Martin McGuinness, right, went from IRA commander to deputy First Minister as part of power-sharing in Northern Ireland, and is pictured here in 2010 with Hillary Clinton and Northern Ireland's then-First Minister Peter Robinson. Photo: US State Department photo/public domain - Credit: Archant

The veteran said that he did not personally know anyone implicated in these historical allegations, but had encountered such people through the campaign’s online community.

He feels a profound sense of betrayal that some British soldiers who served in Northern Ireland are being targeted, while Irish republican leaders and even murderers have received amnesty.

“There’s IRA commanders out there who know full well they’ve killed innocent people,” he said.

“Martin McGuinness, for one, was an out-and-out killer. I personally stood in front of the guy. I was 19 years old and he told me and another guy to go home or you’ll end up in a box.

“They’re walking around scot free with blood on their hands, while our boys are getting investigated.

A paratrooper from 3 Para returns fire on the enemy from an opening in a compound during Operation O

A paratrooper from 3 Para returns fire on the enemy from an opening in a compound during Operation Oqab Tsuka in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in August 2008. Photo: Sgt Anthony Boocock, RLC/Crown Copyright - Credit: Crown Copyright

“Our soldiers have rules of engagement. They don’t run around without any rules. Some people get the wrong end of the stick about that.

“But now we have guys going out to war saying they’re worried about opening fire because they might face prosecution when they get home.”

Asked if he would go through it all again in light of these historical investigations, the ex-soldier said: “The forces are having trouble recruiting now, and I think this is a major reason for that.

“I’d do it all again, though. That’s me – the army and my regiment in particular was my life, my everything.

“The regiment, still, is my family.”

Patrolling soldiers from 2nd Battaltion, The Rifles, come to a halt after a suspected Improvised Exp

Patrolling soldiers from 2nd Battaltion, The Rifles, come to a halt after a suspected Improvised Explosive Device (IED) is found up ahead near Sangin, Afghanistan, in July 2009. Photo: Cpl Russ Nolan RLC/Crown Copyright - Credit: Crown Copyright

Similar sentiments came from Anji Kerr, of Stevenage, whose son served with the Royal Anglian Regiment’s 1st Battalion in Afghanistan and Iraq.

She said: “My grandparents, maternal and paternal, all served. It was when my son joined 1 Royal Anglian, the Vikings, that I began to learn the horrors of war.

“I developed immense pride in my family’s service to our country and what they endured, having grown up with a peace I took for granted.

“When peace broke out, I was just happy that the bombings had ended. I didn’t question it.

“But I was incensed to learn that while an amnesty was granted to those who murdered and bombed, our brave boys faced a prosecution witch-hunt for doing their job.

Stevenage soldier's mum Anji Kerr, who is supporting the Justice for Northern Ireland Veterans campa

Stevenage soldier's mum Anji Kerr, who is supporting the Justice for Northern Ireland Veterans campaign. Photo: Courtesy of Anji Kerr - Credit: Archant

“I still have newspaper cuttings of a bombing in London that killed and maimed horses as well as bystanders.

“I want justice for my friends. I will be at the march on Good Friday.”

The campaign is led by former SAS sniper Robin Horsfall, who among other things served in the Falklands and helped end the siege at London’s Iranian Embassy in 1980.

He told the Comet that they welcomed the High Court decision to downgrade the conviction of Sgt Alexander Blackman, Marine A, from murder to manslaughter – but stressed the difference between that case and theirs.

He said: “Blackman’s conduct was legally wrong but understandable in a war.

Former SAS sniper Robin Horsfall, leader of the Justice for Northern Ireland Veterans campaign. Phot

Former SAS sniper Robin Horsfall, leader of the Justice for Northern Ireland Veterans campaign. Photo: Courtesy of Robin Horsfall - Credit: Archant

“Our issue is different. People sometimes accuse us of thinking we’re above the law, but that’s not the case at all.

“All British troops in Northern Ireland who opened fire were thoroughly investigated by the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Special Investigation Branch. Where no court case took place, it’s because no legal action was deemed necessary.

“The government-funded historial investigations are supposed to investigate people who weren’t looked into at the time – but what’s happened is it’s being redirected back at soldiers who’ve already been investigated.

“These cases should not now be used as a weapon to forward the agenda of Irish republicans.”

He added: “When MPs quote statistics like ‘90 per cent of killings were carried out by terrorists’, it implies that the other 10 per cent have a similar moral equivalence.

A soldier with 1 Mechanized Brigade is silhouetted against the setting Afghan sun in May 2013. Photo

A soldier with 1 Mechanized Brigade is silhouetted against the setting Afghan sun in May 2013. Photo: Cpl Si Longworth RLC/Crown Copyright - Credit: Crown Copyright

“Our soldiers opened fire in self-defence or to defend the public. Terrorists opened fire and laid bombs to commit murder.

“We have one mission and one mission alone. We want the funding for historical investigations into veterans halted, and we want the government to institute a process to stop these malicious, politically-motivated prosecutions.”

Historical investigations were previously undertaken by the now-defunct Historical Enquiries Team, but are now handled by the Legacy Investigation Branch, part of the Police Service of Northern Ireland – which strongly denies any disproportionate focus on British police officers or soldiers.

And replying by letter to members of the Justice for Northern Ireland Veterans campaign last month, the Prime Minister stressed that these investigations come under the Northern Ireland executive rather than the UK government.

Mrs May started by thanking veterans for their service, writing that hundreds had ‘paid with their lives to make sure that democracy would defeat terrorism in Northern Ireland’.

She expressed concern that the whole system of addressing the past in Northern Ireland was ‘unbalanced’ and ‘not working well in anyone’s interests’, and said that this was why the UK government and political parties in Northern Ireland had agreed in 2014 to establish new institutions to investigate ‘in a way that is fair and proportionate’.

She added: “The overwhelming majority of deaths caused by soldiers and police officers will have been lawful and it is essential that investigations into the past do not unfairly treat soldiers and police officers.

“Establishing these new institutions will ensure that the focus of investigations will be much more on the hundreds of unsolved murders committed by terrorists, including many unsolved murders of soldiers and police officers.”

In Londonderry on Monday, a coroner held that Pte William Glasgow – who died in 2001 – had broken the rules of engagement in 1972 when he shot 15-year-old Manus Deery in the head from an army observation post.

It was also held that the investigation at the time was flawed and inadequate.

To find out more about the Justice for Northern Ireland Veterans campaign, look on Facebook for ‘Justice for N. Ireland Vets’.

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