Politicians north and south condemn Troubles amnesty plan

  • Video report by Vicki Hawthorne

Victims and politicians on both sides of the Irish border have condemned a reported move to prevent future prosecutions over Troubles crimes.

Northern Ireland's two main parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, have both criticised the reported move by the UK Government to introduce a statute of limitations on prosecuting offences committed prior to the signing of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.

Victims of republican, loyalist and state violence have also expressed outrage at what would amount to blanket protection from prosecution for ex-security force members and former paramilitaries.

The UK Government is set to introduce a statute of limitations to stop people being charged over incidents that occurred before the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement, according to reports in the Times and Daily Telegraph.

Many victims of the Troubles are vehemently opposed to any statute of limitations, which they characterise as an amnesty that will thwart their chances of justice.

The bar on prosecutions would apply across the board, including former security force members and paramilitaries, but an exemption would still enable war crimes, such as torture, to be prosecuted, according to the papers.

The reported move, some detail of which could be announced in next week's Queen's Speech, would signal the scrapping of a key mechanism agreed by the UK and Irish Governments and main Northern Ireland parties in the 2014 Stormont House Agreement.

The Stormont House proposals included a new independent investigation unit to re-examine all unsolved killings.

Responding to the development, Northern Ireland deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill tweeted: "Reports that British government are to legislate for an amnesty for their state forces

Ireland's Foreign Affairs Minister, Simon Coveney, who met Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis in Dublin on Wednesday, also expressed concern.

It is understood that, while legacy was discussed at the meeting, the potential of a statute of limitations being introduced in the Queen's Speech was not raised.

Ministers in Dublin are said to be dismayed by the reports.

A spokesman for Mr Coveney said: "The Irish Government discussed with our UK colleagues the commitments of the Stormont House Agreement and strongly advised against any unilateral action on such sensitive issues.

"We reiterated that only through a collective approach can we deal with these issues comprehensively and fairly in a way that responds to the needs of victims, survivors and society as a whole. Victims and their families are the only priority."

Taoiseach Micheal Martin said any move by the British Government to ban Troubles-era prosecutions would be a "breach of trust".

Mr Martin told reporters: "The Irish Government is very clear. It has an agreement in place with the British Government and with the parties of Northern Ireland and with many victims' organisations. That is the Stormont House agreement of 2014."

Leo Varadkar told the Irish parliament that the Government would not support any such decision because victims and families have a right to justice.

Speaking in the Dail he said: "The Government and myself personally were deeply alarmed by reports that we read about the possibility that the British Government may consider providing an amnesty, or putting in place a statute of limitations, in relation to offences that occurred during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

"This would fly in the face of the Stormont House agreement, would fly in the face of the New Decade New Approach agreement, and anything like this would have to have the agreement of the parties in Northern Ireland.

"It is something that we will not support as a government because we stand with the victims and families who've been bereaved and damaged as a consequence of these actions.

"They have a right to know what happened, and they have a right to justice. Whether the murderers were British soldiers or republicans or loyalists, they should be brought to justice."

Sinn Fein and the DUP outlined differing reasons for their opposition to any form of amnesty.

The republican party portrayed the move as an attempt to protect British veterans from due process while the region's main unionist party is angered by the prospect of paramilitaries evading justice.

DUP MP Gavin Robinson said veterans should not be subjected to a "cycle of reinvestigations" in the absence of new evidence.

However, he insisted that access to justice was a vital principle in how Northern Ireland deals with its past.

"Anyone who committed a crime should be held accountable for that if evidence can be put before a court and a conviction secured," he said.

"There has been a deliberate attempt by some to conflate protections for armed forces veterans with some sort of blanket protection against any prosecution.

He added: "Anyone who suggests that our veterans should be treated in the same way as paramilitaries are wrong and that is why the suggestion of an amnesty is wrong.

"The Government should not seek to evade its responsibility to those who served in our armed forces through such an approach."

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said the reports had come as a "devastating blow" to victims. She urged the Irish Government to "stand up" for the Stormont House deal.

"Many of these families have spent decades trying to get the truth about the killings of their loved ones in the face of cover-up, wilful destruction of evidence, and failures to investigate crimes including murder," she said.

"What Boris Johnson and the British government is doing is an attempt to put British soldiers above the law and prevent investigations into murder, torture, shoot-to-kill and collusion involving British forces in Ireland.

Northern Ireland's police chief Simon Byrne said he has had no advance sight of what the Government is planning, other than that an announcement is anticipated in Tuesday's Queen's Speech.

Mr Byrne declined to be drawn on whether or not he would support the reported statute of limitations

However, he made clear that the PSNI had "consistently" voiced its support for the Stormont House Agreement mechanisms, which include a new investigative unit for Troubles crimes.

"I haven't had a conversation with the Secretary of State (Brandon Lewis) in relation to what would appear in the public domain today," he told a meeting of the NI Policing Board.

"We did have an indication from the NIO that something will be said on the 11th of May (Queen's Speech) but we were no (more) sighted in terms of the detail than what has been put out in the public domain today."

He added: "We've said on previous occasions that we support the Stormont House Agreement. We've said that consistently over a number of years.

"But I just don't want to get drawn at the moment until we've seen the specifics in the Queen's Speech, because we might end up upsetting a whole can of worms that we don't need to because we haven't got any further insight at the moment."

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SDLP leader Colum Eastwood tweeted: "If true, this will be the biggest betrayal of victims by the British government & will put a huge obstacle in the way of true reconciliation.

Alliance Party leader and Stormont Justice Minister Naomi Long tweeted: "This kind of briefing, before any meaningful engagement with victims' families, typifies the contempt with which Govt are treating victims.

"I believe that they deserve justice where that is possible: however, at the very least, they deserve not to learn of Govt plans on Twitter."

Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister expressed concern that an amnesty could be introduced.

"If the kite-flying in today's national press proves correct, then amnesty for terrorist murder is shamefully on its way," he said.

The Shadow Secretary of State Louise Haigh also criticised the move:

"I’ve met with families, and the many victims of the conflict as they shared heartbreaking stories of loss. Ministers gave them their word," she tweeted. "This major departure announced via late-night briefings, without a hint of consultation, demonstrates an inexcusable disregard for victims."

Last March, Mr Lewis announced an intention to unilaterally move away from the Stormont House deal.

He said only Troubles killings where compelling new evidence had emerged would receive a full police reinvestigation.

He added that most unsolved cases would be closed and a new law would prevent them being reopened.

On Tuesday, the trial of two former paratroopers accused of the murder of Official IRA commander Joe McCann in 1972 collapsed due to legal issues related to the admissibility of statements and interviews given by the ex-soldiers.

Responding to reports that a statute of limitations is to be introduced, a UK Government spokesman said: "The Government has clear objectives for addressing the legacy of the Troubles and delivering its manifesto commitments to veterans who served in Northern Ireland.

"We want to deal with the past in a way that helps society in Northern Ireland to look forward rather than back.

"It is clear to all that the current system for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles is not working for anyone, failing to bring satisfactory outcomes for families, placing a heavy burden on the criminal justice system, and leaving society in Northern Ireland hamstrung by its past."

  • Video report by Gareth Wilkinson: