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Can amnesty for Troubles killings survive Stormont opposition?

Victim’s families say proposal for statute of limitations is ‘slap in the face’

Northern Ireland’s political parties have united to oppose a Downing Street plan to block all future criminal prosecutions and civil actions relating to the Troubles.

The proposals were announced yesterday by Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis, who told the Commons that the “painful” truth was that criminal investigations were unlikely to produce successful outcomes. Communities in Northern Ireland would remain divided unless “bold and different” action was taken, said Lewis, who unveiled plans to establish an independent body comparable to South African’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee

But the amnesty has been rejected by all five political parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly and by the government of the Irish Republic, while relatives’ of victims of the violence have described the plans as a “disgrace”.

‘Line to be drawn’

Boris Johnson has long pledged to end prosecutions against former members of the British Army for alleged wrongdoing during the three-decade conflict in Northern Ireland. Responding yesterday to Labour criticisms of the amnesty plan, the Tory leader told Prime Minister’s Questions that the changes would allow the province to “draw a line under the Troubles”.

More than 3,500 people died during the conflict, which raged from the 1970s until the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

The planned “statute of limitations” would stop prosecutions relating to incidents that occurred before the signing of the agreement, and “will apply to British veterans, former members of the security services and Royal Ulster Constabulary, as well as the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries”, The Telegraph reports.

A string of senior Tories yesterday endorsed the proposal, “arguing it was the only viable solution to ending the prosecution of elderly veterans”, the paper says.

Downing Street has also outlined plans to establish an Information Recovery Body that would have “full access” to information held by state agencies and could also take statements from individuals.

The independent body is “intended to help families find the truth about what happened to their loved ones”, says The Guardian. But the amnesty would “bring the shutters down on current and future inquests and civil actions, many of which relate to killings involving the army and police”, the paper notes.

Amid the widespread opposition to the proposals, Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney told state broadcaster RTE that despite Johnson’s confident tone, the plans were not a “very much not a done deal”.

Pointing out that the changes would break the 2014 Stormont House Agreement on victims’ rights to truth and justice, Coveney said: “The British government is outlining a unilateral position which nobody else has signed up to.”

And without the support of Belfast and Dublin, there will be a “real problem here”, he added.

Taoiseach Micheal Martin has also spoken out against the proposals, which he described as “wrong for many, many reasons”. Addressing the Irish parliament yesterday, Martin said: “I don’t believe in a general amnesty for those who committed murder, whether there were state actors, or whether they're involved in terrorist or illegal organisations.”

Meanwhile, families of Troubles victims voiced horror over the plan to end criminal investigations. Access to due legal process was part of “an acknowledgement process”, said Damien McNally, who was four months old when his father was fatally injured in an attack by two gunmen in June 1976.

“It’s so important people have that rather than what’s being proposed today,” he told The Belfast Telegraph, adding: “These expectations that information is going to be made available either by paramilitaries or by the state, people have serious reservations over that.

“These proposals are a disgrace.”

That verdict was echoed by Louie Johnston, whose Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officer father was killed by the IRA in 1997. The plans are a “slap in the face”, Johnston told the paper, and “it feels like victims have run out of another cheek to turn”. 

Julie Hambleton - whose sister Maxine was among 21 people killed in the IRA pub bomb attacks on Birmingham in 1974 - told The Telegraph that she was considering legal action to try to block the amnesty.

“We will go to court over this if we can,” she said. “I cannot believe the government is willing to give amnesties to IRA terrorists who killed our loved ones. This is absolutely beyond the pale. Only those in Westminster could come up with this.

“They have no moral or ethical compass. They don’t know what it’s like to suffer the consequences of a terrorist attack.”

‘Perpetrator-focused’

The main criticism of the UK government’s plans is that they are focused mainly on avoiding “a ‘witch-hunt’ against ageing service personnel”, says The Guardian.  

Democratic Unionist Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson told the Commons yesterday that “victims will see these proposals as perpetrator-focused rather than victim-focused and an insult to both the memory of those innocent victims who lost their lives during our Troubles and their families”.

Critics of the legislation have suggested that a statute of limitations that “effectively ends the investigation of serious human rights violations could breach the UK’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights”, The Telegraph reports.

Government sources told the paper that the Northern Ireland secretary “has received legal advice warning that acting unilaterally could heighten the risk of a challenge being successfully brought at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg”.

“The Northern Ireland Office insists it is confident the plans are ECHR compliant and will press ahead,” says Politico London Playbook’s Alex Wickham. But “question marks remain if it will survive in its current form if Dublin and the main political parties in Northern Ireland oppose it”, he continues.

So once UK politicians return to Parliament after their summer break, “this could be heading for a major showdown”.

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