Stormont Assembly members broke from their summer recess on Tuesday to express their united opposition to British government proposals to ban all prosecutions for Troubles killings and other crimes.
SDLP minister for infrastructure Nichola Mallon told the Assembly the plan was “disgusting”, adding that “it would not be acceptable in any other modern democracy in the world – and it cannot, must not, be deemed acceptable here”.
The Assembly was recalled to debate an SDLP motion rejecting northern secretary Brandon Lewis’s plan to introduce legislation that would end the possibility of future prosecutions of republican and loyalist paramilitaries or of former British soldiers and police officers up to 1998.
He also plans an end to all legacy inquests and civil cases relating to the Troubles. He further proposed the creation of a new independent body that would focus on truth recovery as well as a “major oral history initiative”.
UK prime minister Boris Johnson said the proposals would "draw a line under the Troubles" while also acknowledging they were partly prompted by British political and public opposition to the prosecution of former British soldiers for Troubles crimes.
Ms Mallon said that every day victims lived with the “horrific pain” of the past. “Yet this British government, in doing this, is telling families that their loved one’s life didn’t matter, that their lives, their family’s loss isn’t worthy enough to be properly investigated in a process with integrity.”
She said the proposals were a “unilateral move by this British government to deliver a Tory party answer to a problem created by that same party and its backbench MPs – backbenchers who have created a bogus myth that an endless parade of veterans are being dragged through the courts here to answer for their past”.
DUP MLA for North Antrim Mervyn Storey said everyone needed to be mindful of "the many thousands of people that feel betrayed and let down" by the UK government's proposals.
Mr Storey said the government was acting in a “morally reprehensible” way in drawing equivalence between paramilitaries and former British soldier and police officers.
“Nobody denies that the passage of time presents prosecutorial difficulties but the answer is not to arbitrarily close down legal routes for innocent victims,” he said.
Mr Storey suggested the uncovering of DNA evidence that could assist in the investigation of the IRA murder of Co Louth farmer Tom Oliver in 1991 indicated that prosecutions for Troubles killings were still possible.
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, of Sinn Féin, said the debate presented an opportunity “to send a very clear message to the British government that there can be no amnesty for state forces, and also that we reject the proposed interference in the legal process”.
She said the attempts by the “British government to present these proposals as an attempt to promote reconciliation is disingenuous – it’s misleading and, quite frankly, it’s a lie”.
Ms O’Neill said the UK government was “now poised to wreak havoc on the legal system here, rather than face up to the consequences of their dirty war”.
Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie also condemned the proposals and was critical of the Irish Government, which he accused of doing nothing to assist those victims who were killed or injured in attacks launched from the Republic.
“Thousands of attacks emanated from Ireland across the Border to maim and kill our citizens and they retreated back across the Border, and they are not investigated,” he said.
“Where is their HIU [Historical Investigations Unit]? Where is their legacy investigations branch? What are they doing? The answer is nothing.”
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said it was "both desperately sad and utterly shameful that we have had to gather here today to denounce the proposals by the UK government".
She predicted that the impact of the plan would be to embolden the perpetrators “to speak freely of what they did and continue to build the mythology that surrounds so much of the brutality and cruelty of our past safe in the knowledge that they will never be held accountable in this life”.
Clare Bailey of the Green Party said she wanted to deliver a message to UK prime minister Boris Johnson, “There can be no peace, there can be reconciliation, without truth and without justice.”
Gerry Carroll of People Before Profit said the proposals were a "retrospective licence to kill from a government that does not care one iota for victims here".
Independent unionist MLA Claire Sugden, whose father served in the British army in Northern Ireland, said the proposals were "shameful" and a disservice to her father in that they suggested that "criminal behaviour is acceptable in the armed forces".