Northern Ireland news

Tories attacked over armed forces `amnesty' pledge

British prime minister Boris Johnson meets with military veterans at the Lych Gate Tavern in Wolverhampton. Picture by Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

TANISTE Simon Coveney has led objections to a Conservative Party pledge to change the law to protect British armed forces veterans from `vexatious' legal action.

The promised legislative change would shield soldiers who served in Northern Ireland from prosecution over deaths during the Troubles.

If they win a majority at the election, the party has pledged to amend the Human Rights Act so it does not apply to incidents which took place before the law came into force in 2000.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told BBC Radio 4's Today programme it "isn't an amnesty".

"If people haven't been investigated and they haven't had an inquest, then of course, they won't be able to avail themselves of that. This is about repeated and vexatious claims."

Mr Coveney immediately signalled that the Irish government is perturbed by the proposed move.

"This is very concerning. Governments (and) parties have agreed an approach on legacy and reconciliation in Northern Ireland," he wrote on Twitter within hours of the first reports in the media.

"There is no statute of limitations, no amnesty, for anyone who committed crimes in Northern Ireland. The law must apply to all, without exception, to achieve reconciliation."

Grainne Teggart of Amnesty International agreed "it is essential that no-one, including members of the armed forces, is above the law".

"In preventing former soldiers from being prosecuted over killings and other abuses that took place during the Northern Ireland conflict, that is exactly where this would place them."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood insisted it was "an effective amnesty for soldiers involved in heinous crimes in Northern Ireland" and "unacceptable affront to victims and survivors".

"It makes a mockery of the unreserved apology offered by David Cameron following the publication of the Saville Inquiry report," he said.

"That day, a Conservative prime minister admitted that the actions of soldiers were unjustified and unjustifiable. Now, a new Conservative prime minister is seeking to whitewash the record. We will not let him.

"Uniform should offer no shield to accountability before the law."

The DUP's Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said, while it supports "greater legal protection for our armed forces and for a legacy process that pursues justice for the innocent victims of the terrorists who were responsible for over 90 per cent of killings during the Troubles", the party "want to see more detail of the government's proposal".

"We will not support any legislative change which helps terrorists escape justice," he said.

The Public Prosecution Service has said that of 26 `Troubles legacy cases' it has taken decisions on since 2011, 13 related to republicans, eight to loyalists, and five are connected to the army.

UUP justice spokesman Doug Beattie described it as "a manifesto pledge in order to get votes", saying the government had "already failed to deliver on a pledge to introduce similar legislation in the Queen's Speech".

"If such legislation were to be used to prevent former soldiers from being prosecuted, it could lead to case law that would inevitably be seized upon by those who would seek to apply it equally to terrorist suspects, and thereby lead to a de facto amnesty for terrorists."

He also pointed out the pledge "makes no mention of the Royal Ulster Constabulary".

"The proposed charge of `non-criminal police misconduct' is clearly designed to target the RUC and PSNI with a vengeance, in a bid to re-write history," he said.

"It is clear... that yet again, the victims are the ones who will suffer in this process. They will receive neither truth nor justice or indeed any form of accountability from those who destroyed their lives."

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