Statute of limitations on prosecutions for Northern Ireland Troubles 'by end of autumn'

50 years after these families lost their loved ones in the Troubles, they still want justice, ITV News Correspondent Juliet Bremner reports

A statute of limitations to end all prosecutions related to the Troubles in Northern Ireland before 1998 will be introduced by "the end of the autumn", the government has confirmed.

Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis told MPs the statute would "apply equally to all Troubles-related incidents”.

He told the Commons: “We know that the prospect of the end of criminal prosecutions will be difficult for some to accept and this is not a position we take lightly.

“But we’ve come to the view that this is the best and only way to facilitate an effective information retrieval and provision process, and the best way to help Northern Ireland move further along the road to reconciliation.

“It is in reality a painful recognition of the very reality of where we are.”

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The other two proposals include a new independent body to focus on the recovery and provision of information about Troubles-related deaths and most serious injuries.“For those families that want to get answers, the body will have the full powers to seek access to information and find out what happened,” said Mr Lewis.

Mr Lewis said another proposal included a “major oral history initiative”, adding: “It’d create opportunities for people from all backgrounds to share their experiences and perspectives related to the Troubles and, crucially, to learn about those of others.”

He told MPs the current system for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles is not working.“The Police Service of Northern Ireland is currently considering almost 1,200 cases – which represents just a fraction of the 3,500 deaths and wider cases.

“These would take over 20 years to investigate. More than two-thirds of Troubles-related deaths occurred over 40 years ago and it is increasingly difficult for the courts to provide the families with the answers they are seeking."

Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis said he 'totally understands' why people feel let down

Asked if he understood that a lot of people are feeling let down, Mr Lewis said: "Totally understand.

"As I said on the floor of the House (of Commons) today, this is a really difficult situation. It's a painful reality.

"I'm being just straight with people and honest with people about the reality of where we are in a criminal justice sense.

"And actually asking the question: Is criminal justice getting in the way of us facilitating people getting to the truth and getting reconciliation for the people of the society of Northern Ireland?"

He also said: "There's some families who do not want to go back and we need to respect their views as well.

"That's why we want to have something that is victim-focused, that means that the victim's voice is very clear in this. We want to be engaging with them over the weeks ahead, as we have done over the last 12 and 18 months as well."

Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis has confirmed plans for the statute of limitations. Credit: PA

However, DUP Leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP said the statute of limitations would be “rejected by everyone in Northern Ireland who stands for justice and the rule of law”.

Sir Jeffrey said: “The past is complex and we have always believed that any process to deal with the legacy of our troubled past should be victim-centred. Victims will see these proposals as perpetrator-focused rather than victim-focused and an insult to both the memory of those innocent victims who lost their lives during our Troubles and their families."

Shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland Louise Haigh, replied to Mr Lewis that: “Addressing the toxic legacy of the past in this way, through unilateral imposition from Westminster, without the support of any political party in Northern Ireland, is foolish and unsustainable.”

James Wray and William McKinney who died on Bloody Sunday Credit: left

Former Veterans' Minister Johnny Mercer earlier said: "A statute of limitations without qualification is an amnesty - something I have always opposed.

"We should not - in all conscience cut off pathways to justice where evidence exists, simply because of time passed - it would be wrong to do so, and Veterans who fought to keep the peace within the strict constraints of the law in Northern Ireland have never advocated this path."More than 3,500 people died during the conflict, which stretched from the early 1970s to the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement in 1998, while tens of thousands more were left injured.

Earlier this month, Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service (PPS) announced their intention to withdraw proceedings against two former soldiers – Soldier F for the murder of two men during Bloody Sunday in 1972 and Soldier B for the murder of 15-year-old Daniel Hegarty six months later.

It followed a review of the cases by the PPS in light of a recent court ruling that caused the collapse of another Troubles murder trial involving two military veterans.

The Crown cases against Soldier F and Soldier B hinged on evidence of a similar nature to that ruled inadmissible in April’s trial of Soldier A and Soldier C for the 1972 murder of Official IRA leader Joe McCann in Belfast.

A legal challenge to the decision to withdraw proceedings against Soldier F is ongoing.

Families of the 10 killed by soldiers in the Ballymurphy area of west Belfast in 1971 came together to watch Mr Lewis’ statement to the House of Commons on Wednesday.

A fresh inquest into the deaths of the woman and nine men earlier this year found they were “entirely innocent”.

Eileen McKeown, daughter of one victim, Joseph Corr, said they see the proposed statute of limitations on Troubles prosecutions as the British Government’s “cynical attempt to bring an amnesty and a plan to bury its war crimes”.

She said the proposals “will not be tolerated and will be legally challenged”.

The 11 victims of the Ballymurphy Massacre. Credit: PA

“The Ballymurphy Massacre inquest findings show how the law should work independently,” she said.

“All victims need to know the truth, they need to know what happened to their loved ones.

“We all bleed the same blood so everybody needs truth and justice and then maybe they can start living their lives.

“We spent 50 years trying to prove that our loved ones were innocent, there are loads of families out there like us and they all need to know the same thing.”

John Teggart's father Daniel Teggart was among those killed in the series of shootings between August 9-11, 1971. Credit: Liam McBurney/PA

Last month, Mr Lewis and Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney announced a new process by the two governments on legacy.

Families of victims, political parties and other stakeholders are to be involved.

Mr Lewis then said the process will “build on and develop on the principle of the Stormont House Agreement”.

In 2014, the Stormont House Agreement proposed a Historical Investigations Unit to examine unsolved murders during the Troubles and an Independent Commission on Information Retrieval for families to learn more about the fate of their loved ones.

Michael O’Hare, whose 12-year-old sister Majella was shot by a soldier in 1976, said the legacy proposals set out by Brandon Lewis were an “utter and unacceptable betrayal”.

Mr O’Hare, supported by Amnesty, is calling for an independent investigation into the killing.

He said: “The UK Government is inflicting great pain on my family and other victims denied justice.

“Our Majella had her life cruelly robbed, at the tender age of 12, by bullets from a soldier’s machine gun.

“She was an innocent child with her whole life ahead of her.

“The Ministry of Defence apologised to my family, but a proper investigation has never happened.

“The UK Government is now trying to deny us meaningful truth and justice forever."