Row over amnesty for soldiers putting off Troubles' victims, warns commissioner
A ROW over a mooted amnesty for Troubles soldiers is discouraging victims from having their say on new mechanisms for dealing with the conflict's legacy, their official advocate has warned.
Victims Commissioner Judith Thompson said the political wrangle over a potential statute of limitations for security force members was proving a distraction from a public consultation on other proposals designed to help the injured and bereaved.
Accusing the region's politicians of near silence on the consultation, Ms Thompson also claimed a lack of a high-profile awareness campaign meant thousands of victims were potentially unaware it was happening.
The government angered some of its backbenchers when it did not include an amnesty among the proposals it put out for the four-month consultation in May.
Explaining the decision, Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley said such a measure would be unacceptable, because it would also have to cover terror suspects accused of historic crimes.
Ms Thompson suggested the controversy was having a negative effect on the number of victims coming forward to have their say.
"To date the public debate has centred around an issue that is not in the proposed legislation," she said.
"A statute of limitations or an amnesty for security services cannot be delivered in isolation from others who have caused harm.
"This is a distraction that is in danger of generating a disproportionate response to the consultation from Great Britain and will effectively turn off potential respondents in Northern Ireland."
The consultation is canvassing 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 UK and Irish governments in the 2014 Stormont House Agreement.
The implementation of the agreed mechanisms, which include a new independent investigation unit and a truth recovery body, 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 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.
The prospect of such a move was met by a wave of opposition in Northern Ireland.
Both Sinn Féin and the DUP voiced concern, as did the Dublin government and representatives of the victims sector.
The DUP and some military veterans in Northern Ireland 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.
While the decision to remove the contentious proposal from the consultation was therefore widely expected in Northern Ireland when it was launched in May, it nonetheless generated opposition both within the cabinet and on the Conservative backbenches.
Defence secretary Gavin Williamson was among ministers unhappy at the prospect of veteran servicemen being prosecuted.
Urging a major publicity drive over the last six weeks of the consultation, Ms Thompson called on the government, local politicians, councils and civic groups to help.
"This is probably the most important public consultation process since the Good Friday Agreement referendum," she said.
"Yet the lack of a high-profile public information campaign could result in thousands of victims and survivors in Northern Ireland missing out on the opportunity to have a say on the institutions designed to give them access to justice, information and services.
"The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency conducted a population survey for the commission earlier this year and 26 per cent of respondents said they were affected by the conflict in Northern Ireland. That is one in four of our total population.
"Fifty-eight per cent thought it was important or very important to deal with the legacy of the past and 73 per cent supported the provision of a pension for the severely injured.
"These statistics tell us that the legacy of the conflict is an issue for all of us and we all benefit if effective mechanisms are delivered to address these issues. This is our best opportunity to have a meaningful say in the design and delivery of the proposed institutions.
"While this is Westminster legislation, our locally elected representatives have been virtually silent on the need for individual victims and survivors who are not involved in groups to be given the information and encouragement to have a say in how an Historical Investigations Unit, an Independent Commission for Information Retrieval, an Implementation and Reconciliation Group, and an Oral History Archive could be developed to benefit those who have suffered the most."
The commissioner is launching a series of public and private events across Northern Ireland to provide information about the consultation.