Veterans Commissioner Danny Kinahan has claimed that retired soldiers have “begrudgingly” accepted legislation that will see immunity from prosecution for Troubles-era crimes.
Mr Kinahan told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that there is a “huge discomfort” among veterans about the legislation, but that they see it as a chance to help families and “close it all down”.
The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill will see immunity from prosecution for Troubles-era crimes be offered to those who are deemed to have co-operated with an information retrieval body.
It will also close down future inquests and investigations, with a new Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR) put in place.
It has been widely condemned by political parties in Northern Ireland, as well as victims’ campaigners, the Irish Government and Amnesty International.
Mr Kinahan claimed the Bill will provide for a “fairer and more balanced, level playing field”.
Asked on the views of veterans who served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, he said: “They begrudgingly accept all of this because they see it as a better chance to help families, to close it all down and yet they don’t want amnesties, and they certainly want no moral equivalence.
“They said if this is the best we can get to get a better system that concludes it all, not just for them but for the families and society.
“There’s a huge discomfort there.”
Asked if he had any “squeamishness” of the word amnesty, Mr Kinahan said “yes, plenty”.
“Veterans do not want an amnesty. I think it is slightly misplayed as a term. And as I don’t think the Bill is technically an amnesty, we’re all innocent until proven guilty,” he added.
“They want to go to court to show they did nothing wrong. They don’t want to go to court because the process of going through it is quite terrifying and the trauma that comes with it – an awful lot of veterans I speak to have had awful things happen to them.
“They went out to defend society, not not to kill. They have put it all behind them. They want their story told, but they don’t actually want to tell it because it opens up in many cases really appalling events that happened in the past.
“It’s not to avoid being taken to court for doing something wrong.”
Chris Albiston, from the Northern Ireland Retired Police Officers Association, claimed the criminal justice system is “increasingly less able” to deal with legacy issues.
However, he was challenged by the chair of the committee Simon Hoare over his reference to the age of retired police officers, their vulnerabilities, and anxieties in giving evidence during a trial.
He said: “If the test of giving evidence in a prosecution or any form of inquiry is that you are young, comfortable and experienced, can I just put it to you very gently that on that premise, the criminal justice system would have ground to a halt quite a long time ago?
“Either your Association is happy for where there is evidence with no caveats with regards to age, vulnerability or experience, that person appearing before the relevant body to answer questions about it potentially facing criminal charges and the like could be in court. Or you’re not.
“But you can’t have the penny and the bun on this.”
Mr Albiston replied: “What I’m saying is that there have been, over the last 20 years, numerous and totally unwarranted investigations amounting to harassment of retired police officers, which is totally unacceptable.
“There are officers that I know personally who are mentally and physically unwell as a result of having been under investigation and renewed investigation for up to 20 years.
“We are not saying that officers who have committed offences should not be investigated. We had never ever asked for amnesty.
“We have always said if you have evidence, bring it to us, send it to the Director of Public Prosecutions, but none of this nonsense whereby people can dream up imaginary problems with police behaviour or police investigations long in the past.
“This generates and is encouraged to generate ridiculous and harmful investigations which leads nowhere.”