Northern Ireland news

MLAs unite to vote against Troubles legacy plans

Handout photo issued by Sinn Fein of protesters from Time for Truth campaign group stage a demonstration against Secretary of State Brandon Lewis legacy proposals outside Stormont in Belfast, ahead of the Assembly being recalled to debate the proposals which include a statute of limitation on Troubles prosecutions. Picture by Sinn Fein/PA Wire 
David Young, Jonathan McCambridge and Rebecca Black, PA

A proposed ban on Troubles prosecutions has been unanimously rejected in an assembly vote this afternoon.

The SDLP motion rejecting the British Government's statute of limitations proposals passed by way of an oral vote without any dissenting voices in the chamber.

MLAs returned from summer recess today for an emergency sitting to debate the controversial plan to introduce a statute of limitations on crimes committed during the Troubles.

SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon tabled the motion calling on all Stormont parties to unite in opposition to the proposals outlined by Secretary of State Brandon Lewis last week.

Opening the debate, Ms Mallon accused the government of attempting to sweep victims’ pain under the carpet.

She said the proposals would let “perpetrators – state and paramilitary – walk free and instead condemn the victims and their families to a lifetime of pain and suffering through the denial of hope, truth and justice”.

Ms Mallon branded the proposals a “unilateral move” by the UK Government to deliver a “Tory party answer to a problem created by that same party and its backbench MPs”.

“Backbenchers who have created a bogus myth that an endless parade of veterans are being dragged through the courts here to answer for their past. When the fact is that is not true,” she said.

“Rather than debunk the myth and deal in facts, Boris Johnson and Brandon Lewis have decided to cruelly abandon victims and survivors as they play to the gallery.”

As the debate took place in Belfast, some victims of terrorism gathered in London with a plan to travel to Downing Street to hand over a letter indicating their opposition to what has been described as a de facto amnesty.

Mr Lewis announced last week that he intends to introduce legislation to create a proposed statute of limitations which would end all prosecutions for incidents up to April 1998 and would apply to military veterans as well as ex-paramilitaries.

The proposals, which British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said would allow Northern Ireland to “draw a line under the Troubles”, would also end all legacy inquests and civil actions related to the conflict.

But the plan has been heavily criticised by all the main political parties in Northern Ireland as well as the Irish Government, and a range of victims’ and survivors’ groups.

Ms Mallon said the amnesty proposal had devastated and retraumatised survivors and bereaved families.

“It hasn’t drawn a line. It has made the situation worse,” she said.

The Stormont minister added: “No one here wants to return to the past. Certainly no one wants to relive the destruction of those dark days. But for the victims and survivors of the Troubles, that is not a choice they have. Every day, they live with the horrific pain of the past.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood and shadow Northern Ireland secretary Louise Haigh (third left) with a delegation of families bereaved during the Northern Ireland Troubles (left to right) Julie Hambleton, Joe Campbell Jnr, Raymond McCord and Billy McManus, including in the Birmingham pub bombs, as they attempt unsuccesfully to hand in a letter to No 10 Downing Street, London, expressing disgust at the statute of limitations proposal.
Picture date: Tuesday July 20, 2021. Picture by Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire 

“Yet this British Government, in doing this, is telling families that their loved one’s life didn’t matter, that their lives, their families’ loss isn’t worthy enough to be properly investigated in a process with integrity.

“It is disgusting and, Mr Speaker, it would not be acceptable in any other modern democracy in the world – and it cannot, and must not, be deemed acceptable here.”

Ms Mallon said victims were “realistic” about the chances of successful prosecutions over decades-old crimes.

“They know no-one can honestly promise justice to them,” she told MLAs.

“But no-one morally can or should be allowed to deny them justice; to extinguish the hope they are entitled to have.”

Ms Mallon urged all Stormont parties to unite in their opposition to the amnesty and work together to develop an agreed way forward on dealing with the past.

She said a failure to do so in recent years had created the opportunity for the UK Government to step in and propose the statute of limitations.

Ms Mallon urged parties to recommit to the stalled 2014 Stormont House Agreement proposals, which included an independent investigations unit.

“This move by the British Government has to be a wake-up call, we should never have needed this wake-up call, but we now need to act before it is too late,” she said.

Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill said the legacy proposals "deny all families their rights".

"All the families are not buying what they've heard and neither is Sinn Féin," she said.

"The British State have nowhere else to turn and rather than face up to their human rights obligations to victims, they are now poised to wreck havoc on the legal system here rather than face up to the consequences of their dirty war.

"The legacy proposals to deny families any legal redress to justice is a statement of moral bankruptcy.

"The British Government approach is cynical because they're seeking to insulate their forces from legal challenges by shutting down the established legal options that are open to families.

"Today we must send a very clear message that any political attempts to interfere in live and pending legal proceedings will be resisted by everyone across this House."

Ms O'Neill added that Brandon Lewis's legacy proposals go "way beyond an amnesty for British soldiers into political interference with due legal process in respect to the halting of legacy inquests, judicial reviews, civil cases or prosecution cases involving British soldiers already before the courts, it actually places the British Government to the right of Pinochet's military dictatorship in Chile".

She claimed the proposals protected those in uniform as well as those in suits.

"They are about protecting those in the upper echelons of the British political, military and intelligence world who designed, who facilitated and who covered up the policy and practise of British state terrorism involving state killings, torture practises in the interrogation centres, and also who presided over weapons importation and the administrative practises of collusion," she said.

Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie voiced opposition to any move toward an amnesty.

"We have been quite clear that the soldier, the policeman, a terrorist, a member of the public or a politician - if you break the law, then you should face the law," he said.

"And everybody deserves the opportunity to get justice. It doesn't mean they always will, but we cannot take away that hope."

However, Mr Beattie also criticised the 2014 Stormont House legacy proposals, highlighting that they did not envisage a reinvestigation of crimes, other than murders.

He said people guilty of crimes such as attempted murder and kidnap would "get away scot-free" under the Stormont House Agreement.

Mr Beattie also accused the Irish Government of inaction in reinvestigating Troubles crimes committed in its jurisdiction.

He branded some politicians in the chamber as hypocrites who "excuse, condone, promote and eulogise the murder of our citizens and the maiming of our citizens".

"So let's be honest, let's widen the lens, we need to look at this and we need to look at this properly," he said.

"What we have now is not workable, neither is the Stormont House Agreement."

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said the reason for the Assembly recall is "sad" and "shameful", to "denounce the proposals by the UK Government to introduce what they've termed a statute of limitations but what is in effect a full amnesty for all those who committed murders and atrocities during the Troubles, whether in uniform or in terrorist organisations".

Ms Long said Brandon Lewis' legacy proposals are "neither victim-centred or victim-focused"

"To the contrary, both the proposals and how they have spun out in the media before any victims groups were even aware they were coming have retraumatised many families, compounded the hurt and sense of abandonment which they feel and has sought to rob them of any remaining hope they had that they might ever see justice for their loved ones," she said.

Ms Long also called for the government to be transparent about talks at Lambeth Palace involving senior republicans and loyalists, and what role they had in the formulation of the legacy proposals.

"The UK Government has trailed an idealised destination but offered no detail as to how it proposes to get there, sadly this lack of realism is undermining public confidence in the law rather than strengthening it," she said.

She said the idea that, free of the risk of prosecution, perpetrators would have a "sudden change of heart and come forward to share what they did, show contrition or to apologise to the bereaved is quite frankly for the birds".

Ms Long also queried "what kind of message" the legacy proposals send to those still engaged in terrorism and to their victims.

"The Secretary of State's proposals are profoundly flawed and not grounded on the needs of victims' families for truth and justice," she said.

"In their current form they are incapable of delivering closure and reconciliation. Instead they risk undermining the rule of law and are a recipe for decades in the courts focusing on challenging and unacceptable interference in due legal process and practise rather than truth recovery and justice.

"We would be much better engaged in fine-tuning those proposals (Stormont House Agreement) rather than casting it adrift and clambering on an uncertain liferaft of unilateral Government proposals, an uncertain proposal more attune to the demands of a narrow Tory veterans lobby than the wider interests of victims, veterans and their families."

 

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