Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis’s plans to introduce what has been characterised as a “de facto amnesty” for those involved in Troubles-related killings has prompted widespread criticism from politicians and victims’ groups.
Mr Lewis told the House of Commons on Wednesday that in the autumn he proposed to bring in a statute of limitations banning all prosecutions of Troubles-related killings and other crimes.
This would mean that there would be no future prosecutions of republican and loyalist paramilitaries or of former British soldiers and police officers, most likely up to 1998.
He also proposed an end to all legacy inquests and civil cases relating to the Troubles.
Mr Lewis said the proposals were a “painful recognition of the reality of where we are” in terms of trying to deal with the past.
The Northern Secretary also proposed the creation of a new independent body that would focus on truth recovery over Troubles killings and other actions, as well as a “major oral history initiative”.
In the House of Commons British prime minister Boris Johnson implicitly acknowledged that the proposals were in part motivated by British public and political opposition to any prosecution of former British soldiers over Troubles killings.
“The sad fact remains that there are many members of the armed services who continue to face the threat of vexatious prosecutions well into their 70s and 80s,” he told MPs.
While some Tory MPs welcomed the proposals because it would save ex-British soldiers from possible prosecution, the Irish Government, the five main parties in Northern Ireland and victims' groups condemned the plans, with several portraying them as a "de facto amnesty for killers".
Taoiseach Micheál Martin told the Dáil, “it’s not the right way to go. It’s wrong.”
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said he did not accept that the British government's plan was "a fait accompli".
Senior Irish Government sources were highly critical of the British move, which they believe is a response to domestic political pressure in Westminster over army veterans rather than a constructive move for the North.
It is understood that Dublin will lay out its opposition to the move at a meeting scheduled for this Friday between the Irish and British governments and the leaders of the five parties in the North.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said that all Northern party leaders should use the meeting to demonstrate their collective opposition to the proposals.
However, a number of such meetings have previously been cancelled, and sources in Dublin said it will be a test of the British government’s willingness to engage if the meeting goes ahead.
Sandra Peake, head of the Wave Trauma Centre, the largest cross-community victims and survivors support group in Northern Ireland, said the British government was “telling those who carried out the most horrendous crimes that what they did no longer matters”.