Onus on Northern Ireland parties to draw up alternative legacy plan, Jeffrey Donaldson says
Northern Ireland parties must agree alternative proposals to replace the government’s controversial plan to end Troubles prosecutions, the DUP leader has said.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson accused the government of ignoring the opposition voiced by victims and all the main Stormont parties to the statute of limitations proposal.
He said while the local parties were set to vote against the plans at Westminster there was also an onus on them to draw up alternate measures that would gain the support of bereaved families.
In July, the government published a command paper outlining its intention to prohibit future prosecutions of military veterans and ex-paramilitaries for Troubles incidents predating April 1998.
Contending the criminal justice route was not delivering for victims, the command paper said a move to a new truth recovery model would help bereaved families gain information about the deaths of their loved ones.
The government has not yet published draft legislation that would give effect to the plan but Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis has signalled that a Bill will be tabled in Parliament this autumn.
Sir Jeffrey was attending an event in Co Tyrone today for families of Ulster Defence Regiment soldiers killed during the conflict.
He said it was a “matter of concern” that the government appeared intent on pushing ahead with measures many victims have branded an amnesty for killers.
“The meeting today I think will again reflect the deep concerns of many of the victims and their families about these proposals,” said Sir Jeffrey.
“Our view is very clear – that it is wrong to remove the prospect of access to justice, that justice is an important part of our process of dealing with the past as we look to how we can move to the future.
“I don’t believe that the path to healing and reconciliation in Northern Ireland is made easier when you dispense with access to justice.”
He added: “We will oppose those plans in Parliament as I know will other political parties from Northern Ireland, but I think here there’s a challenge too for all of us – that we need to bring forward proposals that offer the prospect of victims and their families having access to justice.
“I think it is incumbent upon us as political parties to put forward proposals that reflect the needs of victims across Northern Ireland.
“I think what we need to say to the Government is that if we’re serious about building a consensus on how we deal with the past, then the way to do it is not to ignore the victims and not to ignore the political parties who speak on behalf of innocent victims.”
Jennifer Jordan, whose father, a former UDR member Clifford Lundy, is among six members of her family who were killed by terrorists, urged the Government to “get a backbone”.
She thanked Sir Jeffrey, as well as Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie and TUV leader Jim Allister for attending the event, but urged they do more, get together and put pressure on Government.
Mr Beattie described soldiers as having adhered to the law, while terrorists “adhered to nothing”.
He added: “Every time they went out the door their rationale was to murder men, women and children.
“Members of the UDR proudly stood up between the terrorised and the terrorist and they stopped it and people are trying to vilify you and your loved ones in doing so and we simply cannot allow that to happen.
“We have been let down time and time again, and we’re about to be let down again. This amnesty, statute of limitations. We cannot and will not be supporting that in any shape or form.
“You must stand up, you fought your fight but you must fight again.”
Mr Allister described the UDR as “being vilified”, adding “that being so vilified is testament to its success”.
He slammed the “pernicious” peace process in Northern Ireland which included the release of terrorist prisoners in 1998, as well as comfort letters for on-the-run terrorists, and described the current legacy proposals as part of the “same appeasement process”.
Sir Jeffrey also voiced concern about recent high-profile prosecutions of veterans in Northern Ireland.
He was asked whether he was prepared to accept the prospect of further veteran prosecutions as part of any alternative plan to maintain access to justice.
The DUP leader insisted “no one is above the law”, however he said there had recently been a disproportionate focus on pursing cases involving State actors and not paramilitaries.
Boris Johnson has claimed the Government plan will allow Northern Ireland to “draw a line under the Troubles”.
The proposals also envisage an end to all legacy inquests and civil actions related to the conflict.
In 2014, the UK and Irish governments and a majority of Stormont parties agreed to a range of proposals to deal with legacy issues, including a new independent investigations unit to probe unsolved killings.
Those Stormont House Agreement measures have never materialised amid years of political wrangling over the thorny issue of the Troubles.
The government’s plan represents a significant unilateral step away from the Stormont House structures.