Operation Controversy: Overseas Operations Bill comes under fire

May 8, 2021

2 min read

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What's going on here?

Defence Minister Johnny Mercer MP has resigned from his post over the treatment of veterans who served during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. 

What does this mean?

Part of the Overseas Operations Bill proposes a statutory presumption against the prosecution of soldiers and veterans for alleged offences committed more than five years ago overseas. The Bill also proposes to introduce time limits on bringing civil claims in connection with overseas operations, as well as placing a duty on the government to consider derogation from the European Convention on Human Rights in significant operations carried out overseas. However, the Bill has become surrounded by controversy after it was announced by the government that this five-year limit of criminal prosecutions will exclude veterans who served during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The exclusion of these veterans from the Bill means that they will be left without protection from the risk of being criminally prosecuted for crimes, some of which were committed almost 50 years ago. Currently, there is a trial of two veterans from the Troubles, soldiers A and C, accused of murdering an IRA member in Belfast back in 1972. None other than Mercer MP was present at the hearing to show his support for the two men, who are now both in their early 70s. 

What's the big picture effect?

The Overseas Operations Bill has been surrounded by controversy. Many contend that the ability to derogate from human rights laws and protections is a slippery slope that could lead to victims being denied justice with offenders escaping the law. However, there are others at the opposite end of the spectrum arguing that the Bill does not do enough to protect veterans, particularly those veterans who served in Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which has been hailed to have secured peace in Northern Ireland, permits legacy prosecutions, such as the current trial of soldiers A and C, in relation to events that occurred in the Troubles. Thus, in order to uphold this agreement, there needs to be a balance struck between supporting veterans but also giving victims of the Troubles opportunities to seek justice. Tensions are already rising in Northern Ireland with rioting occurring after the decision that the Public Prosecution Service would not prosecute those who broke COVID-19 rules to attend the funeral of a senior Republican figure. These riots were also the result of strong objections to the NI Protocol with loyalists in Northern Ireland feeling their position in the union is under threat. The exclusion of these veterans from the Overseas Operations Bill, whilst many paramilitary members are off the hook for their role in the Troubles, may further exacerbate this concern among loyalists that they are losing their British identity which could lead to some more turbulent times ahead for Northern Ireland. 

Report written by Imogen Wilson

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