No support for statute of limitations over Troubles, says secretary of state
People's desire not to draw a line in the sand on Troubles investigations informed a decision to exclude a prosecution amnesty from plans to address the legacy of the conflict, the secretary of state has said.
Karen Bradley insisted there was "no support" for a "Northern Ireland only statute of limitations" as she launched a public consultation on other proposals to address unresolved issues from the past, including a new independent investigations unit and a truth recovery body.
"The people have been very clear to me in Northern Ireland - the way to address the legacy of the past, the way to address the legacy of the Troubles is for people to go through this process of understanding what happened, for victims to find out the truth and to see justice being done," she told the Press Association.
"That is what people have been clear they want, they don't want to draw a line in the sand and pretend it never happened - they want to deal with it this way and that's what I support."
Mrs Bradley also defended the British prime minister's controversial claim earlier this week that only ex-security force members are currently being investigated over Troubles killings, insisting it was not an attempt to interfere with the north's justice system.
The secretary of state formally unveiled the long-delayed consultation on proposals to deal with the toxic legacy of the Troubles amid a political row over the exclusion of an amnesty for security force members.
The four-month public consultation will seek to canvass views on a series of new mechanisms to investigate, document and uncover the truth around killings during the 30-year conflict.
It is based on a blueprint agreed by the Stormont parties and British and Dublin governments in the 2014 Stormont House Agreement.
The implementation of the agreed mechanisms has been delayed amid ongoing political discord in Northern Ireland.
The consultation is a bid to inject some momentum into efforts to making those new bodies a reality, but it has become embroiled in controversy over what is not included in the document, rather than what is.
Late last year, the British government, which is to spend £150 million setting up the new institutions, indicated that a statute of limitations protecting security force members from historic prosecutions may be added to the consultation.
While the decision to remove the contentious proposal from the consultation was therefore widely expected, it has nonetheless generated opposition both within the British Cabinet and on the Conservative backbenches.
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson is understood to be among ministers unhappy at the prospect of veteran servicemen being prosecuted.
Mrs Bradley said the consultation, which she insisted had the backing of Cabinet, was only focusing on what had been agreed at Stormont House in 2014.
"At Stormont House, there wasn't a situation where a statute of limitations was agreed because my experience from talking to all the parties is there is no support for a Northern Ireland-only statute of limitations which would apply across all offences and that is something that people don't want to see," she said.
"So we are consulting on how to set up the (Stormont House) institutions. Clearly people are able to respond to that consultation with what they think they want to see and we welcome all views, but we are consulting on how to set up the institutions that were agreed, we are not consulting on other issues."
Both Sinn Féin and the DUP have voiced concern about a statute of limitations, as has the Dublin government and representatives of the victims sector.
The DUP and some military veterans made the point that any such statute would, by law, have to be extended to also cover former paramilitaries - something they branded unacceptable.
Senior DUP figures favour protections for ex-service personnel as part of wider legislation that focuses on all conflicts, including Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mrs Bradley's reference to opposition to a "Northern Ireland-only" statute suggests a broader statute of limitations for service personnel might yet materialise from elsewhere in government.
While not publicly backing calls for an amnesty, British prime minister Theresa May sparked controversy on Wednesday when she claimed that, as things stand in Northern Ireland, the only people currently being investigated over Troubles incidents were former security force members.
That assertion appeared to run contrary to figures published by the police and prosecutors in Northern Ireland last year.
PSNI statistics indicate more of its legacy resources are deployed investigating paramilitaries, while a breakdown of cases taken by the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) in recent years shows more have been pursued against republican and loyalists than security force personnel.
Mrs May told the Commons that the current system in Northern Ireland was "patently unfair".
Defending her remarks, Mrs Bradley explained that she was answering a "specific" question.
The question she was asked was from Conservative MP Dr Julian Lewis on whether a statute of limitations, couple with a truth recovery process, would be included in the legacy consultation.
Today, Mrs Bradley told PA the Theresa May was not questioning the approach of prosecutors of police.
"She was answering a specific question and I think it if you look at the question you will understand the answer," she said.
"The judiciary is independent of parliament quite rightly, there is no political interference in the judiciary at all, but she was answering a specific question about a specific issue."
Asked if she accepted that individuals other than former security force members were currently being investigating in respect of Troubles incidents, Mrs Bradley replied: "Of course".
Theoretically, the new legacy mechanisms would require legislative consent of the Stormont Assembly once any legislation passes through Westminster.
Mr Bradley said her priority was restoring powersharing in Northern Ireland, but she indicated that the mechanisms could still be established in the absence of a devolved government.
"When things need legislative consent and we are not able to get legislative consent because there is no legislature to give that consent, we deal with it and we have found practical ways to do that and that is going on day in and day out, even today," she said.