Controversial legislation to deal with the legacy of the Northern Ireland Troubles will end the current “merry-go-round” of court cases, the Defence Secretary has said.
Ben Wallace said the current system is “not serving the peace process well”.
However Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly criticised Mr Wallace’s comments as “insulting and disrespectful to victims of the conflict who have waited decades for truth and justice’ about the killings of their loved ones”.
The Government’s draft Legacy Bill would provide immunity for people accused of Troubles offences as long as they co-operate with a new truth recovery body, and would also halt future civil cases and inquests linked to killings during the conflict.
The proposed law changes are opposed by all Stormont’s main parties and the Irish government, as well as victims’ groups in the region, which have denounced it as an “amnesty” for killers.
This week, the Government moved to change proposals for the truth recovery body to be able to conduct criminal investigations “where it judges that to be appropriate”.
Mr Wallace also urged Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who pledged to ditch the Bill if he becomes Prime Minister, to be “very cautious before making these type of commitments”.
Speaking in Belfast on Wednesday, Mr Wallace insisted the legislation was the fairest way to deal with the past.
Mr Wallace, who previously served in Northern Ireland as a soldier in 1991, said he understands the depth of feeling around the past.
“I understand the sense of loss many victims have held,” he said.
“But it is also important that we stop what has become a merry-go-round of legacy inquests, and constant reopenings and retrials that don’t actually seem to serve the peace process well.
“It doesn’t help either the victims that I have seen or indeed many of the people accused, I think it’s really important we do our best to draw a line under it.
“The Good Friday Agreement was as much about forgiveness and coming together as anything else, and this legacy legislation is about saying, we want to move out of the constant reopening of inquests through the same processes – when I was a junior minister here, I think they thought it would take 30 years to get through that weight of inquests – and to put it into better system where people can come forward and if they engage with this legacy programme then of course they will achieve a level of immunity.
“That’s quite important, if they choose to engage, if they don’t choose to co operate, then of course they are open to be prosecuted. That’s a very important part of the process of healing and coming together.”
It was put to the Defence Secretary that the legislation will cut off the chance of justice for many victims.
He responded: “There hasn’t been justice for the thousands of victims of terrorists – who by the way committed most of the murders, the deaths and the bombings in the Troubles.
“It was the vast majority of people that suffered at the hands of terrorists, both loyalists and republicans, and there hasn’t been justice.
“What there has been is a significant re-running of numerous inquests. When I was junior minister here, the number of inquests that were redone, re-investigated, without any outcome.
“When I meet victims, one of the things they want more than anything is answers: what happened to my loved one, why did it happen, and who was involved in that?
“We hope that this new proposal will bring forward that environment that will allow people to come forward … I haven’t seen many terrorists come forward and be open about the crimes they committed.
“In exchange for coming forward there will be that level of protection from prosecution, or immunity, and if that’s what we have to do to move on from the Troubles, to draw a line in the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, which was about forgiveness and moving on.
“I remember struggling as a veteran here to come to terms with the fact that many of the IRA prisoners were being let out, the decommissioning, many people in these communities here, whether republican or unionist, saw bad people being effectively let out of prison. That felt very uncomfortable.”
Mr Wallace urged those against the Bill to “give it a try” and see if it works.
Responding Mr Kelly called on the UK government to halt the legacy bill.
“Comments by the British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace that the British government’s flawed legacy bill will end a ‘merry go round of legacy inquests’ are insulting and disrespectful to the families of victims of the conflict who have waited decades for truth and justice,” he said.
“His comments are arrogant, callous and completely unacceptable.
“Access to the courts and to due process is a human right.”
Mr Kelly said this week’s amendments to the bill “do not deal with the substantive issue of victims being entitled to access to due process”.
“It has been roundly rejected by victims and families, human rights experts, churches, the UN, and senior officials in the EU and US administration and all the political parties on this island,” he said.
“The legacy bill is in breach of human rights standards and International law and should be scrapped now.”
The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill, scheduled to proceed in the House of Lords next week.