A leading terrorist victims group has blasted would-be Prime Minister Jeremy Hunt after he said veterans who served in NI should be treated “in the same way”
The Tory MP made the remarks in a digital hustings where he took question from party members and the public.
The issue of prosecutions of former soldiers is a hot topic with many MPs unhappy about plans in Northern Ireland to push ahead with a new team to re-examine the conduct of troops during the Troubles.
Speaking online Mr Hunt said: “The main thing and I want to be honest about this, you know, the peace in Northern Ireland was hard won and under the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, there is a need to treat both sides in the same way, however angry we may have felt about what happened.”
However after an angry backlash from MPs and victims groups, a spokesman for Mr Hunt issued a statement backtracking on his comments.
“Jeremy again set out his strong desire to resolve the injustice of historic prosecutions faced by our brave veterans,” they said.
“He has always been totally clear there is no moral equivalence between the actions of terrorists who seek to kill and maim, and soldiers who acted to promote peace and protect the public.”
However his comments have caused anger in NI, where some terror victims have expressed concern that government proposals to deal with the past could favour terrorists.
Kenny Donaldson, spokesman for victims umbrella group, Innocent Victims United, said Mr Hunt had “miscalculated the impact the remarks he made would have” within the veterans community, victims sector and the past and present “anti-violence” population of Northern Ireland.
“He clearly believes that in making these remarks that he will ingratiate himself with middle England and Tory rank and file members concerned by what they consider to be the unfair treatment of military veterans vs the placating and appeasement of Terrorism” Mr Donaldson said.
“Let’s be clear; because the Government has manipulated the criminal justice system for over two decades so as to pander to terrorism does not mean that this should be extended to security force veterans”.
“The overwhelming majority of the ex-security force constituency carried out their role with honour and integrity and must never be placed in the same breath as terrorists”.
He added that there must be “a reconfiguration of the justice scales so that what limited justice remains is accessible on an equal basis to all innocents wronged over the years of the terrorist campaign.”
DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson also criticised Mr Hunt.
“I think he needs a little more information about what exactly happened as a result of the agreement,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.
“The reality is the IRA terrorists were given letters to enable them to return home from being on the run and evading justice.
“All of the terrorist organisations benefited from the early release of prisoners and there have been many other concessions made to terrorists.
“None of that has been sought nor replicated for members of the armed forces. Nor would we want them to be.’
James Heappey, the Wells MP and a former British Army officer who served in Northern Ireland, said the comments were “unforgivable”.
“There is no equivalence between IRA terrorists and members of our armed forces,” he said.
“This line has held the Government back on this important issue. The next prime minister must see this differently and get it sorted.”