No veteran wants to be associated with war crimes - Patrick Mercer

As if she hasn’t got enough trouble, Theresa May has just infuriated military veterans as well.

In Northern Ireland during the 1970s, British troops faced a complex and dangerous security operation on British soil against a backdrop of centuries of hate. (Photo by Getty Images)

In response to the new Defence Secretary’s proposals that investigations into alleged battlefield crimes should have a line drawn under them if they happened more than 10 years ago, the outgoing Prime Minister has said this must not include cases in Northern Ireland.

You’ve probably seen the outrage. Now, veterans are usually a blunt and vocal lot. They tend to be rough, confident, decisive and often outspoken to the point of rudeness – symptoms of the hard trade that has forged them.

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Also, standing up to authority (especially ‘‘civvies’’ in authority) is a useful measure of guts in a section of society where courage is highly prized. I should know as I’m one of them.

But this can create a myopia where loyalty to the uniform clouds reason.

And that’s why the appointment of Penny Mordaunt as Defence Secretary is one of the few things that Mrs May has got right.

A modest, grounded, naval reservist who’s a soldier’s daughter, Mordaunt has got more empathy for this appointment in her little finger than her weasly, ambitious predecessor had in the whole of his body.

Within days of taking up her post, we saw her hammer at the Chancellor for more money and now she’s grasped a grenade with the pin pulled out.

Mordaunt tried to dump a sandbag on that bomb when she said: “It is high time that we change the system and provide the right legal protections to make sure the decisions our service personnel take on the battlefield will not lead to repeated or unfair investigations,”

That sums the whole thing up, for no veteran wants to be associated with war crimes nor have a cloud hanging over them.

For example, the continuing case of Baha Mousa (an Iraqi hotel worker who was kicked and bludgeoned to death whilst being questioned in 2003) was an abomination and stain on the Army’s reputation and even the most blindly loyal of soldiers can’t tolerate that.

But neither should they have to tolerate the excesses of twisted lawyers who try to earn a fast buck by embroidering bogus compensation claims from ‘‘victims’’ of Army brutality.

Nor should they have to put up with a hand-wringing, self-loathing MoD which seems to relish the prosecution of its own servants.

If that same ministry sends its warriors to do grim and bloody work, it must reward them with total loyalty.

So, the 10-year rule is a compromise but a move in the right direction, I believe.

A good case can be made for a shorter limit, for war, as Clausewitz said, is the province of confusion and facts often take time to surface whilst, simultaneously, memories blur.

Can anyone really remember events of more than a decade ago with sufficient clarity to convict someone?

Now, into this bear pit has stepped the benighted Theresa May giving tacit approval to Penny Mordaunt’s proposals – except for historic cases in Ulster.

But why, why has she provoked a howling mass of bemedalled vets when she needs all the friends she can get?

Veterans are, quite rightly, highly regarded in this country and their voices command respect and that’s why MPs who have worn uniforms never let the public forget it. So why bait them?

Well, as the Backstop shows, nothing to do with Ulster is simple.

The conflict there was not a war, it was an action in support of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, a security operation on British soil against a backdrop of centuries of hate.

And evil memories linger on – the fracturing of the Union and the dark legacies of internment and the Black and Tans.

Yet there was never an existential threat or a hot war and troops were used to do a job to which they were ill suited – and some terrible mistakes were made.

Worse still, official enquiries into atrocities like the August 1971 Ballymurphy shootings and Bloody Sunday were seen as Establishment cover-ups.

Now, of course, our feeble government is running scared of Irish Republicanism (again) and the balance of the Good Friday Agreement.

The murder of Lyra McKee caused a corporate nervous breakdown in Westminster and that’s why Mrs May trembled at the idea of a 10-year limit for Ulster investigations, claiming that ‘‘international laws’’ would dictate that terrorist investigations must be limited to a decade as well.

What rot. Why should we suddenly have to be even-handed while former soldiers see convicted PIRA thugs walking free as their elderly comrades are being prosecuted?

That might appease the Shinners, but can’t Downing Street understand the fury that an old soldier’s conviction will unleash?

I understand that Mrs May has to tickle the Taoiseach and his Europals, but that cannot be done at the expense of men and women who have fought for their country.

Whoever follows in Theresa’s footsteps they must learn from Penny Mordaunt and stand by their colours.

Patrick Mercer is a former soldier. He was Conservative MP for Newark from 2001 to 2014.