Northern Ireland news

Fury over British government's Troubles ‘amnesty' plan

Supporters of two former paratroopers accused of the murder of an Official IRA leader before the men were formally acquitted after prosecutors offered no further evidence at their trial
David Young, PA

Politicians on both sides of the border have condemned a reported move to prevent future prosecutions over Troubles crimes.

The British government is set to introduce a statute of limitations to stop people being charged over incidents that occurred before the 1998 Good Friday 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 British and Dublin 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 this morning's reports, a spokesman for the British government 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."

Simon Byrne said he has had no advanced sight of what the British government is planning in relation to legacy cases.

Mr Byrne declined to be drawn on whether or not he would support the reported statute of limitations, insisting it was appropriate to wait to comment until the details were officially announced.

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 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."

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill tweeted: “Reports that British government are to legislate for an amnesty for their state forces is another slap in the face to victims.

“Another cynical move that will put British forces beyond the law. This is legal protection for those involved in state murder. This is not acceptable.”

Dublin's Foreign Affairs Minister, Simon Coveney, who met Secretary of State Brandon Lewis in Dublin yesterday, 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.”

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. This is the most unprincipled & cynical British government in many years and that’s saying something. An absolute disgrace. Shame on them.”

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.”

TUV 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.

"Amnesty for terrorists in the tailwind of action to protect veterans is not acceptable, either by reason of the equivalence it embraces or the disproportionate advantage to terrorists."

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.

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