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The UK's Minister of State for Veterans’ Affairs Johnny Mercer speaking at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester this morning. Sky News
legacy act

Tory conference hears British soldiers were 'dragged back to Belfast' and 'hounded to death'

Johnny Mercer praised the controversial Legacy Act, which includes a form of immunity from prosecution for Troubles-related offences.

UK VETERANS MINISTER Johnny Mercer has praised the controversial legislation which includes an end to historical prosecutions for people accused of crimes during the Troubles.

The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act is almost universally opposed by victims’ groups, political parties and the Irish government.

Aspects of the laws include a limited form of immunity from prosecution for Troubles-related offences to those who cooperate with a new truth recovery body, the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery. It will also halt future civil cases and inquests.

The families of victims of the Belturbet bombing have threatened legal action against the British government over the Legacy Act, while Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said the government is also prepared to take legal action against the UK over the Act. 

Speaking at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester this morning, Mercer said the “totemic scourge on the lives of our extraordinary people who served in Northern Ireland” has been removed. 

“The hounding of these special people who stood against terror and violence in Northern Ireland on our behalf was appalling. A stain on our nation. Not just on the veterans community, but the nation as a whole,” he said.

“The sight of these men being arrested in their 80s, dragged back to Belfast, hounded literally to death. It was a totemic symptom of a nation’s moral ambivalence to those who served.”

Mercer said the introduction of the Legacy Act showed “who we are as a party, who the Prime Minister is as a man. His character. What he believes”.

He paid tribute to Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris and praised veterans for “unstinting bravery, patriotism and courage” and for their “sacrifices for the peace that we have today in the United Kingdom”. 

It comes after Labour’s Hilary Benn held talks about the Troubles Legacy Act during an official visit to Northern Ireland yesterday.

Benn, who is the shadow secretary of state, and shadow Northern Ireland minister Fleur Anderson met with victims and survivors at the Wave Trauma Centre, as well as a separate meeting with Declan Morgan and Peter Sheridan of the commission set up by the Act.

Legacy Act ‘must have a replacement’

Speaking to media at Stormont, Benn said he made a commitment on his second day in the job that Labour would repeal the Act, but said there has to be something to replace it.

“From the conversations that we have had yesterday, people object to the immunity provisions, they’re concerned about the disappearance of the civil route to try and seek remedy and the disappearance of inquests,” he said.

He said once the commission gets up and running, its credibility “will depend upon how they go about their task”.

“The issue that I’ve been discussing with the people I have met over the last couple of days is, if you were to deal with the most egregious parts, the most objectionable parts of the Legacy Act, would that help? And then people decide whether they wish to approach the commission under the legislation and say: ‘This is the case I am concerned about, will you investigate?’” he said.

“We will have to determine that, but I’m very conscious that it’s not just a question of saying that we will scrap the Act – we have to put something in its place, and it has to be something that is going to work.

“For the families and people we met yesterday morning and to listen to their stories and what happened to their loved ones, the thing they said most forcefully to us is: ‘We feel with the Legacy Act, that the death of our loved one somehow doesn’t count.’

“We cannot be in a situation where people in Northern Ireland feel that, because coming to terms with what had happened is really important.

“It’s very difficult, and different families want different outcomes. Some continue to seek justice, some want to find out exactly what happened to their loved one, and for them that will be enough.

“Each family deal with it in their own way, but we have to have a mechanism, a means to enable people to find what they are looking for, so that society can progress, overcoming what has been a terrible collective trauma.”

Additional reporting from the Press Association

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