A former police chief has condemned proposals to ban prosecutions for people involved in Troubles-related incidents as anger over the Government’s controversial plans continues to grow.
Jon Boutcher, the former chief constable of Bedfordshire who heads Operation Kenova, which is investigating a number of unsolved murders in Northern Ireland, said the proposals did not “sit comfortably” with him.
It comes as the SDLP is seeking to recall the Northern Ireland Assembly from its summer recess to challenge the Government over the row, and a Stormont minister said her party would have to consider if it could take up a ministerial portfolio in the future.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said on Wednesday that he intends to introduce 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 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 proposals have been widely criticised by all the political parties in Northern Ireland, victims’ groups, the Irish Government and church leaders.
Mr Boutcher said: “The rule of law has stood us incredibly well.
“To take away the hope, the prospect, the potential of justice for these families, and these are some of the most heinous crimes committed in the United Kingdom in modern history, certainly doesn’t sit with me comfortably.
“I read the paper last night as many families will have done and my phone rang off from families who were in tears.
“These families have been let down, given unfulfilled promises and endured countless setbacks, but always conduct themselves with the greatest of dignity and humility.”
SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon has tabled a motion to recall Stormont to debate the Government plans.
The motion needs 30 signatures for the Assembly to be recalled.
She said: “To shut down justice and close off avenues for truth and reconciliation by providing an amnesty to state agents and paramilitaries involved in the most serious Troubles-related crimes, including murder, is absolutely abhorrent.
“These proposals are hostile to the interests of victims and survivors, they are opposed by all Executive parties and the British Government must withdraw them now.
“The SDLP has tabled a motion to recall the Assembly from its summer recess to address this matter and send a clear message to the British Government that we will not consent to this course of action.”
Alliance Party leader and Justice Minister Naomi Long said she expected the Government plans to be challenged in the courts.
She also said her party may not take the Justice portfolio in the future if the proposals were adopted.
She told the BBC: “We would have to reflect very carefully, if the system is to become so corrupted that people are to be denied justice, as to whether that’s a system over which any member of our party would wish to preside in future.”
Northern Ireland’s political party leaders will meet Mr Lewis on Friday to set out their opposition to the UK Government’s plans.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said a process had to be agreed which would allow victims to pursue justice.
He told the BBC’s Nolan Show: “We have made our position clear to the Government, we want to agree a process that enables those victims and families that want to pursue justice to be able to do so, and I think it is wrong to deny them the opportunity of pursuing justice.
“We are, all the party leaders, meeting with the Secretary of State on Friday, so that will be an opportunity to make our views known.
“We cannot continue to fail victims, we cannot corrupt the rule of law.
“When you proceed on the basis that victims no longer have the opportunity to pursue justice, that is how they will regard this.”
Church leaders have also condemned the Government plans, with the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland saying they will be seen by many victims as a “betrayal of trust”.
Archbishop Eamon Martin said: “It is disturbing that victims and survivors, those have paid the highest price for the fragile peace we all enjoy today, once more feel marginalised and neglected.
“I was particularly disappointed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s naive comments in the House of Commons suggesting that his legacy proposals would allow Northern Ireland to ‘draw a line under the Troubles’.
“Dealing with the legacy of our shared past is not an easy task.
“It is a complex undertaking which belongs to all of us.
“It has no quick fix.
“No line can be drawn to relieve the deep hurt still carried in the aftermath of years of violence, death and life-changing injury.”
The Church of Ireland Primate of All Ireland Rev John McDowell added: “The announcement yesterday will have created further heartbreak, frustration and anger for victims of the Troubles.
“The degree of suffering endured by victims over the years is not something that can be moved on from.
“It needs to be acknowledged in the full variety of its expression, and dealt with over the long term.
“Regardless of the name it goes under, a general amnesty is what the Government of the United Kingdom is now planning to put in place.”