NI Attorney General courts controversy with proposal to end Troubles-era prosecutions

Northern Ireland's attorney general John Larkin who says it is time to stop trying to prosecute those who killed Photo: PA Wire

Northern Ireland's Attorney General John Larkin has sparked controversy by suggesting there should be an end to looking into crimes related to the Troubles before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Prime Minister David Cameron said such a move would be "rather dangerous" and none of the main political parties have supported the idea.

Martin Geissler reports from Belfast on a day of high emotion for the victims.

Mr Larkin said his proposal was not a formal amnesty but the logical consequences of the Good Friday Agreement, voted for and painstakingly agreed in a bid to end the 30 year conflict that claimed the lives of around 3,500 people, the majority of whom were civilians living in the province.

Mr Larkin also said that access to state records should be increased, and implied that in the absence of legal proceedings many families would be able to find out what happened to their loved ones, in the understanding that those responsible would not be prosecuted.

Read: Larkin insists crimes will still be crimes under proposals

The proposal would cover all deaths by paramilitaries, the police or the Army.

Victims on both sides of the conflict expressed their dismay at the calls, saying the Attorney General was trying to "airbrush" those murdered out of history. Stephen Gault, whose father was killed in the Enniskillen bomb, said:

How dare he airbrush the innocent people who were murdered at the hands of terrorists to move things forward.

Read: Enniskillen survivor finds proposal 'totally disgusting'

His thoughts were echoed by the Democratic Unionist Party, (DUP) who said they had not been consulted on the proposal. Party leader Jeffery Donaldson said:

There is no nation in the free world today where murder is not a crime, you cannot say that murder is not a crime - it is.

There are 3,000 unsolved murders in Northern Ireland and those families are entitled to the right to pursue justice.

A number of victims groups have voiced their concerns - saying they would could not simply "draw a line" under the death of their loved ones. Kate Nash, whose brother was killed by British soldiers on Bloody Sunday said:

What are they trying to do, draw a line under victims, draw a line under my brother? We are not going to let that happen.

However the Attorney General pointed to the fact that prosecutions and convictions for murders from the Troubles-era have been few and far between, despite the names of those responsible for the crimes often being widely known within communities. He told the BBC:

More than 15 years have passed since the Belfast Agreement, there have been very few prosecutions, and every competent criminal lawyer will tell you the prospects of conviction diminish, perhaps exponentially, with each passing year, so we are in a position now where I think we have to take stock.

It strikes me that the time has come to think about putting a line, set at Good Friday 1998, with respect to prosecutions, inquests and other inquiries.

Read: Attorney General says prospects of a conviction now low

Former Police Ombudsman Dame Nuala O'Loan condemned the Attorney General's comments, in a joint statement with barrister Richard Harvey who was involved in the Bloody Sunday Inquiry. She said:

To abandon prosecutions, inquests or inquiries into killings that took place before the Good Friday Agreement would constitute a wholesale violation of the UK's legal obligations under domestic and international law.

However there has been some moderate support - from the Police Federation, who said the proposal is "worthy of consideration", from former NI Secretary Peter Hain who admitted it was "difficult, if not impossible" to bring those guilty of murder to justice, as well as from some of the victims. Mr Hain said:

I think the attorney general said what needed to be said. He was right to put his head above the parapet, because this issue is not going to go away.

Read: Former NI Sec: "Better to support victims in other ways"

Jude Whyte from the Victims and Survivors' Forum said:

I think he has made a very brave comment. He is expressing exactly what the parliamentary establishment and many victims' groups are saying.

I don't feel any prosecutions will bring closure - the truth will.

What is the logic for holding on to try and get a prosecution that is unlikely to happen. When do you make it stop?

Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams said there was already a de facto amnesty for members of the security forces, as none have been prosecuted for murdering civilians, and stressed the need for a wider debate on the issue, taking into consideration the views of all victims. He said:

Their voices must be heard and respected and all victims must be treated on the basis of equality.