‘A slap in the face’: Alarm in Ireland over plan to ban prosecutions of Troubles veterans

·3-min read
Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill, the deputy First Minister, hit out at the proposal - David Young/PA
Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill, the deputy First Minister, hit out at the proposal - David Young/PA

Ministers faced a backlash over the proposal to ban Troubles-era prosecutions on Thursday from Northern Irish parties, victims' groups and the Irish government.

The plan to block trials of British veterans or IRA terrorists and move instead to a "truth and reconciliation" model was revealed by The Telegraph this week.

The DUP and Sinn Fein, the two main parties in Northern Ireland, hit out at the prospect of a statute of limitations on prosecuting offences committed prior to the signing of the 1998 Good Friday agreement.

Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill, the deputy First Minister, called it a "slap in the face" for victims, while the DUP MP Gavin Robinson said that while veterans should not be subjected to a "cycle of reinvestigations" in the absence of new evidence, access to justice was vital.

The Irish government expressed fierce opposition, with Micheal Martin, the Taoiseach, claiming the proposal would represent a "breach of trust". Leo Varadkar, the deputy leader, said he was "deeply alarmed" and would not support any such move, arguing that victims and families have a right to justice.

Irish ministers were said to be furious that Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, did not mention the plan during engagements in Dublin on Wednesday.

Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, pictured during a visit to Dublin on Wednesday - Brian Lawless/ PA
Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, pictured during a visit to Dublin on Wednesday - Brian Lawless/ PA

Victims of republican, loyalist and state violence also expressed anger at what would amount to blanket protection from prosecution for ex-security force members and former paramilitaries.

Mark Kelly, who was a teenager when he saw his 12-year-old sister, Carol-Ann, die after being struck in the back of the head by a plastic bullet in Belfast in 1981, described it as "absolutely disgraceful" and said: "I think I am even more angry now than I was then."

Critics condemned the proposals as a form of amnesty, but government insiders argued that the plan would not involve a formal pardon. Former convictions would also still stand.

It is understood the Government is still finalising its blueprint and no definitive decisions have been made. The current thinking is that an exemption from the proposed prosecution ban would be made for war crimes such as torture.

The statute of limitations would dovetail with a new process focused on information retrieval and recovery, in an echo of the approach adopted in post-Apartheid South Africa. It would aim to offer some sense of closure to families and victims.

New legislation to deal with Northern Ireland legacy issues is set to be announced in the Queen's Speech next Tuesday, although only brief details may be disclosed at that stage.

Johnny Mercer, who was sacked as Veterans' Affairs minister last month before he could resign over Northern Ireland veterans being taken to court, said prosecutions must remain as an option, telling The Telegraph: "Where new and compelling evidence is actually discovered of egregious wrongdoing, pathways to justice for victims should remain open on all sides."

Adding that "engagement is key", he said: "I hope the Secretary of State [Mr Lewis] has done his homework. I don't know anybody who supports this."

Louise Haigh, Labour's shadow Northern Ireland secretary, said the proposals would amount to an "inexcusable" betrayal of victims and hit out at the lack of consultation by the Government.

A Government spokesman did not deny reports that a statute of limitations was planned, saying: "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."

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