Ex-UK army chief calls Northern Ireland investigations 'unfair' as 50 year commemoration gets under way

Saturday 17th August 2019 14:45 BST

It comes after a former British solider and a former IRA prisoner united to warn there cannot be a one-sided prosecutions amnesty in Northern Ireland.

Operation Banner, which ran from 1969 until 2007, saw 300,000 soldiers sent on to the streets of Northern Ireland. More than 1,400 of them died during the Troubles.

Sir Robert Pascoe led the operation from 1985 to 1988.

Addressing a ceremony attended by scores of veterans, he said: "We all know that the current process is unfair and we look to our politicians to sort it out without delay.

"Many people have forgotten that troops were first deployed to protect members of the Catholic community in Londonderry, where intercommunal violence in the Bogside could not be contained by the overstretched Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC).

"But the honeymoon period did not last long and we were soon engaged in a seemingly endless and bitter struggle against the IRA and their supporters."

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has supported calls for a statute of limitations to prevent the prosecution of soldiers charged with historical offences in Northern Ireland.

But under international law, any amnesty for veterans is likely to apply to former members of the paramilitary groups too.

Veterans from around the UK attended a service near Belfast, close to the Army's Lisburn headquarters, remembering the British armed forces who died between 1969 and 2007.

Hundreds of ex-servicemen attended, including those from the Royal Engineers and the Parachute Regiment, along with DUP leader Arlene Foster, DUP chief whip Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, actor Charlie Lawson and bereaved widows.

A group of ex-service men on motorbikes, calling themselves the Legion Riders, wore leather outfits decorated with scenes from the battles of Britain and the Somme.

Earlier, ex-soldier Lee Lavis and ex-IRA prisoner Michael Culbert spoke to Sky News ahead of the event.

Mr Lavis, a former member of the Staffordshire Regiment, said politicians calling for an amnesty need to "be honest" about what that really means.

"They know that by calling for an amnesty for British soldiers, it becomes a de facto amnesty for all," he added.

Mr Culbert, who served 16 years of a life sentence for the murder of a police officer, dismisses claims of a witch-hunt against former British soldiers.

"Twenty-five thousand of us have been through the prisons, sentenced through the courts, for actions against the British state during the conflict," he explains.

Some believe all parties should be immune from prosecution. Others argue that victims and their relatives must retain the right to pursue justice.

Both men agree that there are other options on the table for addressing legacy issues, already agreed by Northern Ireland's politicians but never implemented.

Mr Culbert said: "I would rather have an information retrieval process, where families can find out information which they are seeking.

"You hear that what most families are wanting to know is the why and maybe some circumstances," he added.

Earlier this year, a former member of the Parachute Regiment became the sixth veteran to learn he would be charged with historical offences in Northern Ireland.

Identified only as 'Soldier F', he faces two murder charges in relation to the events of Bloody Sunday in Londonderry, also known as Derry, in 1972.

To date, the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland has made decisions on 27 historical cases - 13 Republican, eight Loyalist and six British Army.

United in a shared quest for truth

One is a former British soldier, the other a former IRA prisoner, sworn enemies during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

But their shared quest for truth had brought them together, on a street off Falls Road in west Belfast.

"Here we go again," whispered Michael Culbert, and with that, he reached out his hand. "How are you doing Lee?"

Together, they talked about past, beside the crumbling facade of an old British barracks in this Republican heartland.

Lee Lavis explained: "So this would have been the responsibility of a company from a two-year battalion."

"There you are," replied Michael, "I'm learning every day."

Mr Lavis did two tours of duty with the Staffordshire Regiment - one in County Fermanagh, the other split between County Down and South Armagh.

Mr Culbert's family were burned out of their terraced home in Belfast's Bombay Street during rioting in 1969.

He was later convicted of the IRA murder of a police officer and served 16 years of a life sentence in the high security Maze Prison.

But the two men agree that there cannot be a one-sided prosecutions amnesty for soldiers accused of historical offences in Northern Ireland.

Mr Lavis says politicians calling for veterans to be granted immunity are "speaking out of both sides of their mouth" and creating tension.

Reflecting on the 50th anniversary of Operation Banner, the deployment of British troops to Northern Ireland, Mr Culbert says: "We don't know these people as human beings. We only knew them as uniforms.

"But you have got to reconcile, come to terms with the past and be building whatever you can, at our low level, for the future," he adds.

Mr Lavis ended up homeless after his discharge from the army but eventually won a place at university and it fuelled his search for answers.

He said: "As I moved further away from the events, I was able to look at them from a more detached viewpoint.

"I suddenly realised that the black and white picture I'd been given, I need to find the nuance and I had this urge to understand," he added.

Mr Lavis is a member of Veterans for Peace, a voluntary and politically independent organisation for those who have served in conflict at home and abroad.

Mr Culbert is the co-ordinator of Coiste, an association for 25,000 former IRA prisoners.

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