Gavin Williamson’s apparent suggestion that IRA terrorists be given an amnesty has sparked opposition from unionists in Northern Ireland.
The Defence Secretary reportedly wrote to Theresa May, urging her to create a “statute of limitations” for offences during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, in the wake of new plans to examine criminal cases.
The suggestion would also provide the same protection to British soldiers.
He told the Prime Minister that British soldiers who served in the region from the 1970s to the 1990s should have the “protection they deserve”, adding: “If this means a wider amnesty, so be it.”
However, a Downing Street spokeswoman on Friday said: “We cannot countenance a proposal where amnesties would be provided to terrorists.”
A former Military Cross winner said a statute of limitations is not the way to proceed.
Doug Beattie, who is now an Ulster Unionist MLA, said such a policy would deny potential justice to victims of terrorism.
“I can fully understand why there are those at Westminster – and elsewhere – who wish to protect the veterans who served here,” he said.
“As a veteran of 36 years’ service and counting, let me assure you that nobody is more determined than I am to ensure that fair play is the order of the day.
“It is precisely because of that very motivation, that the Ulster Unionist Party has consistently warned that a Statute of Limitations is not the way to proceed.
“The effects of this would be to prevent victims receiving justice including many thousands who were victims of terrorism; all the while civil actions against the security forces would continue regardless.”
Kenny Donaldson of Innocent Victims United, which advocates for victims of terrorism in Northern Ireland, accused Mr Williamson of “gross naivety”.
“There must never be an equation drawn between the actions of terrorists who went out with premeditated intent to steal life and the deaths attributable to security forces which were in the main as a consequence of public disorder situations where operational decisions required taking in the defence of life and property,” he said.
“Innocent victims and survivors of terrorism instead want the Defence Minister and his Cabinet colleagues to stand up for the rule of law and take what steps are necessary to redress the subversion of the criminal justice system which has meant former terrorists feeling confident that they are effectively in the clear for their heinous crimes.”
In May, Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley sparked a political row by unveiling a consultation on the toxic legacy of the Troubles which did not include an amnesty for members of the security forces.
She insisted there was “no support” in the region for a “Northern Ireland-only statute of limitations”, as she launched a public consultation on other proposals to address unresolved issues from the past.
In the letter reported by the Sun, Mr Williamson argued that such a statute was exactly what was needed.
“If this means a wider amnesty, so be it: in the public mind, the effect of the Good Friday Agreement sentencing reforms, the ‘On the Run’ letters which inadvertently led to the failure of the prosecution of John Downey for the 1982 Hyde Park bombings, and the apparent disproportionate focus of the current investigation on security forces amount to a de facto amnesty for terrorists already.
“It is time to give our veterans the protection they deserve.”
Mr Williamson reacted to the letter on Friday, tweeting: “Bit amazed to see the way this is described.
“The reality is that I’m prepared to go to any lengths to stop this ridiculous vendetta against former service personnel.
“Hopefully that is exactly what other colleagues are also pushing for.”