Jim Shannon – 2016 Speech on the Iraq Inquiry Report

Below is the text of the speech made by Jim Shannon, the DUP MP for Strangford, in the House of Commons on 14 July 2016.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, and to follow the previous speakers, who have a great wealth and depth of information and knowledge to bring to it. If I wanted to sum up my comments I would say, “Mistakes made and lessons learned.”

British forces peaked at 46,000 during the invasion phase, but of course due to the way the tours system worked at the time, more actually served. I pay tribute to the 179 very brave and courageous servicemen and women who gave their lives during the campaign, and also to those gallant Members of this House and the other place who served.

The Chilcot inquiry and report have raised many questions, and the general public need answers. The lack of answers on key issues is the cause of much of the public’s rage. We followed the American lead without properly analysing intelligence. That is absolutely clear from the now public comment of Mr Blair to the then President of the United States:

“I will be with you, whatever”—

unconditional support.

We need to be much more discerning about the way we interrogate intelligence material and information. It is imperative to note that the plan for success was absent. In 2003, there was outrageous and unexpected success, for which we had no plan. No one was able to foresee Hussein capitulating so early, and thus Iraq fell apart with no one to deliver the stable, successful programmes that existed, such as the oil for aid programme. We did not have a plan, a vision or an understanding of what would happen if we were successful in battle at that time. The vacuum that plunged the entire region into instability is felt strongly to this day, not only in the region but across the world.

We also did not understand the complex society of Iraq. There was no understanding of cultural sensitivities or local divisions, sectarianism or politics, which meant that our presence was further resented as time went on and things did not get better. There was also the unprecedented Shi’a majority uprising in Basra, where the Iran-Iraq war was most pronounced. All these things were unforeseen.

We cannot keep sending forces to places that they are unprepared to go to, in terms of equipment and understanding the reason. Estimates of the length of time a mission may take need to be more conservative and honest in future, not only to prepare our armed forces fully, but to regain the much-damaged public trust. I was not a Member of this House at the time of the Iraq war, but constituents have come to me who were sending socks, boots, food, body-warmers and, on one occasion I am aware of, body armour, to their people in Iraq. There is something wrong when our people serve overseas and we, their families, have to send them stuff the Army should give them when they first go out. There needs to be an honest conversation about that.

A lot of the things that went wrong can be explained by a lack of resources. We simply have not got the capacity to fight on so many fronts anymore. It is now clear that we greatly underestimated the capability of the enemy. What worked against rocket-propelled grenades in Ulster was not fit to take on 250-lb improvised explosive devices in Iraq. That is another important learning point that must be taken forward.

I want to talk about veterans, and the family support package when the soldiers were away. At that time, just two soldiers were left at headquarters to look after family affairs, and given the number of deaths and injuries, the situation became almost overpowering for them. I know things have changed, and I welcome those changes, but we have to build on this and make sure that the veterans are not forgotten, as some in the past have been. We need foresight, and we need to build on lessons learned and to continue learning, so that we only move forward in how we treat our armed forces.

I want to talk about the pension of a gentleman who served in uniform. His story will be well known to those who read The Sunday Times. His name is Chris Braithwaite, 41, a former major in the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment who served in Afghanistan, the Balkans and Iraq. He said:

“When we were in Basra, we were subjected to rocket and mortar attacks daily for seven months. This was a great worry for my wife, Laura, but we believed that the financial support which is provided by the army in recognition of long service would reflect that family sacrifice—until the rug was pulled from under us.

On the same day that I received the Queen’s diamond jubilee medal in recognition of my service, I was given the news that I would be made redundant just 87 days short of the 16 years’ service I needed to receive an immediate pension.”

We are talking about people who fought for Queen and country. They did their bit, but when they needed support back home, it fell short with a vengeance. We must take care of our veterans. We must make sure that they receive absolutely first-class service from the state. It is vital that they are offered, and get, the best.

I have asked this question before and I ask it again today: will we see the statistic some day that more Iraq veterans have committed suicide than were killed in the conflict? We must confront the issue of how we treat our veterans. The Chilcot report gives us the opportunity to do just that, and it must be fully assessed. More British soldiers and veterans took their life in 2012 than died fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan over the same period. These are statistical facts. I do not like having to put them before the House, but we need to recognise them.

I want briefly to mention the reserves. This is another imperative issue, and there could be awful consequences if it is not addressed. We were using the highest number of reservists on record, and we have no method of tracking what happened to them when they came home, or of finding out whether they have fallen victim to any of the problems associated with veterans. Despite all this, the number of reservists was cut from 45,000 to 30,000 after the Iraq war. Clearly there needs to be a rethink.

Referring to the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, the Belfast-born commander Tim Collins, who led the Royal Irish Regiment into Iraq in March 2003, has said:

“It may well be he was actually drunk on his self-importance having had successes in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, and having brokered the Good Friday Agreement, he genuinely believed he could do no wrong”.
This is in keeping with the

“I will be with you, whatever”

memo that was sent to President Bush. It is increasingly clear that our soldiers were being sent to war by Tony Blair, no matter what. Tim Collins said at the time that people believed there had been a plan in place for the aftermath. Sadly, we all know now that this was not the case, and the results of the lack of planning were disastrous for too many. It is easy to point the finger at Tony Blair, but there were others involved. Alastair Campbell, Geoff Hoon and others in that circle of friends, or of decision makers, should take this on board as well.

Right hon. and hon. Members will be aware of the poem by Rudyard Kipling entitled “Tommy”, and I should like to read out two verses from it—the second and the fifth. Its theme is just as applicable today as it was in its time.

“I went into a theatre as sober as could be,

They gave a drunk civilian room, but ’adn’t none for me;

They sent me to the gallery or round the music-’alls,

But when it comes to fightin’, Lord! they’ll shove me in the stalls!

For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an ‘Tommy, wait outside’;

But it’s ‘Special train for Atkins’ when the trooper’s on the tide

The troopship’s on the tide, my boys, the troopship’s on the tide,

O it’s ‘Special train for Atkins’ when the trooper’s on the tide.”

And:

“You talk o’ better food for us, an’ schools, an’ fires, an’ all:

We’ll wait for extra rations if you treat us rational.

Don’t mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face

The Widow’s Uniform is not the soldier-man’s disgrace.

For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Chuck him out, the brute!’

But it’s ‘Saviour of ’is country’ when the guns begin to shoot;

An’ it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please;

An’ Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool—you bet that Tommy sees!”

We have a duty to look after our veterans, and to ensure that those who have served this country well are looked after.

The Iraqi vulnerable persons resettlement scheme was set up after the war, but it has not delivered the capacity that it should have. The current reflections on Iraq are important, but they will have no impact on the ongoing dire situation in that country. The right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) made the point yesterday—I shall make it again today—that many Yazidis, Shi’as, Syriac Catholics, Protestants, Sabean-Mandaeans and Sunnis, as well as many others, continue to be targeted by Daesh on the basis of their identity. Around 3.3 million have been displaced due to the instability in Iraq, and many minority groups are on the verge of disappearance.

In June, the United Nations independent international commission of inquiry on Syria determined that Daesh had committed genocide against the Yazidis. Around 90% of Yazidis are Iraqi. Despite this evidence, the Gateway, Children at Risk and Mandate resettlement schemes, which are not nationality-specific, have taken in only a very low number of Iraqis—up to 300 in 2015. While some Iraqis might fit all the criteria under the current Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, they are not eligible for asylum in the UK because they are not Syrian nationals.

I want to call for a modest expansion of the SVPRS and the Iraqi vulnerable persons resettlement scheme to permit Iraqis who fit the SVPRS vulnerability criteria to qualify for asylum in the UK. A modest expansion is particularly pertinent, because Iraqis have suffered as much as their Syrian counterparts at the hands of Daesh, and the death toll in Iraq continues to rise. The UK cannot absolve itself from assisting Iraqis, and making them eligible for resettlement in the UK, with the UNHCR’s recommendation, is the least we can do.

We have heard about the mistakes, and we can learn from them and move forward. We can make the world a better place for our soldiers to serve in, with the uniform and equipment that they should have and with the support for veterans and their families that they need when they come home. Let us learn from the Chilcot report, and from those mistakes, and move forward.