North’s AG Troubles prosecutions proposal criticised
Victims’ families ‘disgusted’; Cameron, Kenny distance governments from comments
Northern Ireland attorney general John Larkin who said today he favoured ruling out further state investigations into crimes committed during the 30-year conflict. Photograph: PA
A file image of the aftermath of the Omagh bombing. Northern Ireland attorney general John Larkin said he favoured ruling out further state investigations into crimes committed during the 30-year conflict. Photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times
Eleven people were killed and 63 othersinjured , 19 of them seriously, when an explosion wrecked a building near the war memorial in Belmore Street, near Enniskillen town centre in November 1987. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh/The Irish Times
Northern Ireland’s attorney general has been left isolated after political leaders in London, Belfast and Dublin distanced themselves from his controversial proposal to end prosecutions in Troubles related murders.
Many relatives of those killed during the conflict by republican and loyalist paramilitaries and state forces have expressed outrage at the suggestion by John Larkin QC that those perpetrators yet to be caught should not face justice.
While a concerted demand for Mr Larkin’s resignation has not materialised, Stormont’s leaders are under increasing pressure not to reappoint the lawyer when his term of office ends next year.
As well as a halt on future prosecutions, the chief legal adviser to the power-sharing Executive also advocated ruling out further inquests and inquiries into the crimes committed during the 30-year conflict, insisting a line should be drawn on offences perpetrated before the signing of the 1998 Belfast agreement.
Reacting to the contentious proposals during Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons, David Cameron made clear the Government had no plans to legislate on any form of amnesty. “The words of the Northern Ireland attorney general are very much his own words,” he told MPs.
Mr Larkin has claimed his proposals do not amount to an amnesty, but has been challenged to explain his rationale, given that perpetrators would not be brought to book.
Troubles crimes are already treated somewhat differently in the eyes of the law in Northern Ireland. Anyone convicted in the present day of a conflict-related offence committed pre-1998 can only be sentenced to a maximum of two years in prison while effective amnesties have been offered to those engaged in decommissioning weapons or co-operating with the search for those “Disappeared” victims whose remains have never been found.
But a blanket block on future Troubles prosecutions, as envisaged by Mr Larkin, would be new territory entirely. Such a radical development could only happen with sufficient support within the Stormont Executive.
That looked like an impossibility after Mr Larkin’s stance was heavily criticised in Belfast by politicians on both sides of the traditional divide, with the Democratic Unionists, Ulster Unionists and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) all voicing objection.
Stormont justice minister and Alliance party leader David Ford said he did not agree with the attorney general. “Justice must be a crucial aspect of a victim-centred, comprehensive approach to the past,” he said. “We need a process that includes justice, truth and reconciliation — I don’t believe that we will get any one of these without the other.”
Sinn Féin, meanwhile, has not explicitly endorsed or condemned the attorney general’s stance.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny said it would be difficult for families to accept such a move, especially if incontrovertible DNA evidence linking an individual to a killing was to emerge. “Families want closure, but there’s always that yearning to find out what happened, who gave the instructions, why was this done?” he said.
Former US diplomat Dr Richard Haass is currently trying to achieve political consensus on a number of issues as yet unresolved during the peace process - one of which is how Northern Ireland addresses the legacy of its violent past and the seemingly endless unanswered questions over killings carried out by all sides.
Mr Larkin, who has outlined his proposals in a submission to Dr Haass, said he felt the time had come to halt prosecutions. “More than 15 years have passed since the Belfast Agreement, there have been very few prosecutions, and every competent criminal lawyer will tell you the prospects of conviction diminish, perhaps exponentially, with each passing year, so we are in a position now where I think we have to take stock,” he said. “It strikes me that the time has come to think about putting a line, set at Good Friday 1998, with respect to prosecutions, inquests and other inquiries.”