Call for clarity from British government on tackling legacy issues

NI Minister urges action after prosecution of ex-British soldiers halted over Troubles killings

People confront British soldiers on Wlliam Street in Derry minutes before paratroopers opened fire, killing 14 civilians on what became known as Bloody Sunday. Photograph: Getty

People confront British soldiers on Wlliam Street in Derry minutes before paratroopers opened fire, killing 14 civilians on what became known as Bloody Sunday. Photograph: Getty

 

The North’s Minister for Justice has called for clarity from the British government over how it plans to address legacy issues following the decision on Friday to halt the prosecution of two former British soldiers for three Troubles-era killings.

Naomi Long, who is also the leader of the Alliance Party, was asked in an urgent oral question from Sinn Féin Assembly member Linda Dillon at Stormont on Monday for her assessment of the impact on public confidence in the administration of justice as a result of the decision.

On Friday the North’s Public Prosecution Service (PPS) told relatives of William McKinney and Jim Wray – who were among the 14 victims of Bloody Sunday in Derry in January 1972 and the family of Daniel Hegarty, a 15-year-old shot dead in the city during the British army’s Operation Motorman later that year – that it was to discontinue the prosecutions of Soldier F and Soldier B because of a legal technicality.

Protests against the decision were held in Derry, Belfast and Newry at the weekend. The North’s largest cross-community victims’ group, Wave Trauma Centre, wrote an open letter to British prime minister Boris Johnson saying a blanket ban on conflict-linked prosecutions would be “fundamentally wrong”.

Ms Long said she understood and empathised with the hurt and distress of the families and understood the wider impact such cases had on the community. But she said that as Minister for Justice she respected the decisions of independent organisations such as the PPS.

“I believe that public confidence is more likely to be affected by the change in approach to outstanding Troubles-related investigations announced by the NIO [Northern Ireland Office] last year and again this month.

“My concerns regarding the proposed movement of legacy from a justice resolution approach based on the Stormont House Agreement to a somewhat nebulous truth, recovery and reconciliation model are well known,” she said, adding that she continued to stress the “importance of sharing the detail of the [UK]government’s proposals” to the British authorities.

‘Rule of law’

Not to prosecute cases where the law appears to have been broken, she said “would be much more damaging to public confidence in the administration of justice and the rule of law”.

In 2020 the UK government announced it would take a new approach to legacy issues which contained “significant” changes to the deal agreed by the British and Irish governments and the five parties in the Northern Executive at Stormont House in 2014 and reaffirmed in the New Decade New Approach agreement which restored Stormont in January 2020.

This, the UK government said, would end “the cycle of reinvestigations into the Troubles in Northern Ireland that has failed victims and veterans alike”.

Newspaper reports earlier this year indicated these new proposals would include a statute of limitations to prevent Troubles-era prosecutions. Talks are due to take place shortly.

Ms Long said what was needed was “to have the engagement” with the UK government in order to ascertain what exactly the plan is now.

“We will of course engage with them in a constructive way . . . but any attempt to prevent people where there is admissible evidence, and where a court could reach a finding, from being able to seek justice in the courts would be wholly wrong and would undermine the modern-day justice system,” she said.

In regard to the potential implications of Friday’s decision by the PPS for other legacy cases, Ms Long said there was “not necessarily read across to all other cases” and there were other cases in the system which had been assessed by the PPS and were not affected by the ruling which was relevant in the cases of Soldiers B and F.