TORY leadership hopeful Jeremy Hunt has been condemned by MPs from his own party after saying British Army veterans who served in Northern Ireland should be treated "the same" as the IRA.
The UK Foreign Secretary, who is competing with Boris Johnson to be the next Prime Minister, made the comments during a digital hustings hosted on the Conservative Party's social media channels last night.
Mr Hunt said: "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."
Tory MP James Heappey – himself a former British Army officer – accused Mr Hunt of "creating an equivalence" between ex-servicemen and terrorists.
He told the Daily Telegraph: "On the eve of Armed Forces Day, it's unfortunate that someone who wants to be our next PM should say that our soldiers must be treated the same as IRA murderers.
"Nobody has ever claimed that British soldiers are above the law, but to say that we must treat both sides the same is to create an equivalence between terrorists and those who serve in Her Majesty's Armed Forces."
It comes after departing PM Theresa May was accused of "betraying" Troubles veterans by blocking a law that would have protected them from historic prosecutions.
Mrs May ordered lawmakers not to include references to "amnesties" or a "statute of limitations" in new legislation aimed at dealing with Troubles legacy cases, saying veterans should be offered "equal, rather than preferential, treatment" to former paramilitaries.
Mr Heappey, who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, added that Mr Hunt's remarks took "the same line taken by the current administration, and it's meant we've made no progress at all in protecting Northern Ireland veterans from these politically-motivated investigations."
Fellow Tory MP Mark Francois, deputy chair of the pro-Brexit European Research Group (ERG), demanded an apology from Mr Hunt over his remarks.
Mr Francois told talkRADIO that the comments left him "hopping mad", adding: "In other words, [Hunt] is suggesting that we put British Army veterans who helped win the peace in Northern Ireland – without whom there never would have been a Good Friday Agreement – on a par with alleged IRA terrorists.
"I think that is ridiculous and I hope this guy is going to withdraw that sometime within the next 24 hours.
"I can tell you a number of Tory MPs have gone up the wall about this."
DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson called on Mr Hunt to clarify his comments, telling the Belfast Telegraph: "The people of Northern Ireland have had to put up with watching terrorists – who were responsible for so much murder and mayhem – being given an easy ride and few of them being brought before the courts.
"Whereas the focus of much of the legacy work has been on the army and the police. That isn't equal and that is the problem with the current system.
"The sooner Jeremy Hunt acquaints himself with that reality, perhaps the sooner he will revise his position."
Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie, who is also a former soldier, said there was "no equivalence" between ex-servicemen and "the terrorists they were trying to thwart... any more than there is equivalence between a police force and the muggers, burglars and rapists they are trying to catch".
He added: "The problem we currently face is that terrorists have been given letters of comfort and Royal Pardons, whilst retired service personnel are being brought in front of the courts.
"The law must be applied equally and fairly and that has patently not been the case."