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13 July 2021

Colum Eastwood’s naming of Soldier F is the beginning of a fraught debate over legacy issues

The SDLP has controversially used parliamentary privilege to name the soldier involved in one of the most emotive cases of the Northern Irish Troubles.

By Ailbhe Rea

Colum Eastwood, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and the MP for Foyle, has used parliamentary privilege to name Soldier F, a former British soldier facing murder charges for his actions on Bloody Sunday during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. 

[Hear more on the New Statesman podcast]

This is one of the most emotive cases in the fraught question of how justice can be secured for the victims and families of those wounded and killed during the conflict in Northern Ireland, and what should happen to members of the British army, members of the IRA and members of other paramilitary groups alleged to have committed those crimes: a question commonly known as “legacy issues” in Northern Ireland.

Bloody Sunday was one of the most violent days of the Troubles. British soldiers shot 26 civilians at a protest against internment without trial, in the Bogside area of Derry. Thirteen of those civil rights protesters were killed, the highest number of people to have died in a single shooting incident during the conflict. 

Soldier F is facing two murder charges over the killings of William McKinney and James Wray, and five attempted murder charges in relation to that day. His case has been prominent in the news after it was announced that there will be a judicial review into whether the Public Prosecutions Service was right to drop charges against him. That case will be heard in September.

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Eastwood’s intervention is hugely controversial because Soldier F was granted anonymity after a judge concluded “a real risk does exist” to his life. Eastwood is the MP for the area where the atrocities of Bloody Sunday took place, and SDLP activists will point to his actions as an example of the value of having a nationalist politician who takes his seat in Westminster, unlike Sinn Féin, his nearest rivals in the seat.

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The SDLP leader’s high-profile comments come ahead of a British government announcement on 14 July about its plans for legacy issues.

The British government is under pressure from the backbencher Johnny Mercer and newspapers such as the Sun to protect British veterans from legal proceedings in relation to crimes allegedly committed during the Troubles, while Labour and most Northern Irish parties, including unionist parties, object to what they see as an amnesty for those crimes (while DUP politicians support the idea of protecting British veterans from criminal proceedings, they object strongly to such an exemption for IRA members, and therefore object to a blanket amnesty).  

“For 50 years he has been granted anonymity and now the government want to grant him an amnesty,” Eastwood said. “No one involved in murder during the Troubles should be granted an amnesty.” 

The MP for Foyle has already faced criticism from Mercer over the intervention. This is only the beginning of a fraught debate about a highly sensitive issue in the days ahead.