The PSNI and Northern Ireland’s police ombudsman would be barred by law from investigating Troubles-related incidents under a British government proposal announced on Wednesday that would create an effective amnesty for security forces and paramilitaries.
The plan would end all judicial activity relating to the Troubles, including inquests and civil actions as well as criminal cases.
Taoiseach Micheal Martin described the move as “wrong for many reasons”.
He said he had repeatedly stated “I don’t believe in a general amnesty for those who committed murder, whether they were state actors or involved in terrorist or illegal organisations. I just don’t believe in that.”
Mr Martin said “the British Government may be setting out its position but our position as an Irish Government, shared with all of the political parties in the North and all of the victims’ groups, remains consistent with that of the Stormont House Agreement”.
Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis had earlier told MPs that the government acknowledged that creating a statute of limitations would be “extremely difficult” for some victims’ families to accept.
“However, it is increasingly clear to us that the ongoing retributive criminal justice processes are - far from helping - impeding the successful delivery of information recovery, mediation and reconciliation that could provide a sense of restorative justice for many more families than is currently the case,” he said.
“This government is committed to doing all in its power to ensure that families from across the United Kingdom do not continue to be let down by a process which leads only to pain, suffering and disappointment for the vast majority.”
Mr Lewis agreed last month at a meeting of the British Irish Intergovernmental Council to engage with parties in Northern Ireland, victims’ families and the Irish Government before bringing forward legislation on dealing with the legacy of the Troubles. He told the House of Commons that he would introduce legislation later this year.
Labour’s shadow Northern Ireland secretary Louise Haigh accused Mr Lewis, who is under pressure from Conservative backbenchers to end the prosecution of former British soldiers who served in the North, of putting the interests of his party before those of the country.
‘Rule of law no longer applies’
“Ministers today appear to have concluded that the rule of law no longer applies. An amnesty for the republican and loyalist terrorists who tortured, maimed, disappeared and murdered men, women, and children. Addressing the toxic legacy of the past in this way, through unilateral imposition from Westminster, without the support of any political party in Northern Ireland, is foolish and unsustainable,” she said.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said the British government’s proposals would be rejected by everyone in Northern Ireland who stands for justice and the rule of law.
“The past is complex and we have always believed that any process to deal with the legacy of our troubled past should be victim-centred. 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,” he said.
Apart from the amnesty for Troubles-related offences, the government’s proposal would set up a new independent body to focus of the recovery of information about deaths and serious injuries and an oral history initiative. Opposition politicians said it was unlikely that perpetrators would cooperate with these new bodies and during prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, Labour leader Keir Starmer accused the government of ignoring the victims.
“If things are to move forward in Northern Ireland, any discussion has to start with the victims. Politicians in London cannot simply draw a line under terrorism and other crimes and then force it on those most affected,” he said.
Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney said he believed the proposed amnesty was “not a done deal”. It was effectively the British government’s contribution to a process which it signed up to in 2014 committing to deal with issues of the past, Mr Coveney said.
He said he would “approach these discussions and negotiations with an open mind and I hope we will be able to work with the British government who I hope will also have an open mind on how we come to a consensus, a way forward with victims and people of Northern Ireland as the centre and priority of what we’re trying to do.
“This cannot be driven by a political commitment to veterans or anything else for that matter,” Mr Coveney told RTÉ Radio’s News at One.
John Teggart, spokesman for the families of 10 people killed in Ballymurphy in west Belfast in 1971 said “once again legacy families are being traumatised”, adding: “We see this as the British Government’s cynical attempt to bring in an amnesty and a plan to bury its war crimes.”
Referring to the recent Ballymurphy inquest decision Mr Teggart said, “The Ballymurphy Massacre inquest findings in May this year is the perfect example of why there should not be a statue of limitations.
“Justice Keegan confirmed what the Ballymurphy Massacre families always stated that all those who lost their lives in the Ballymurphy Massacre were ‘entirely innocent of any wrongdoing’ and ‘posed no threat’.
“This is a war crime and those responsible must be held to account.”
Relatives of the 1974 IRA Birmingham pub bombings in which 21 people were killed described the plan to end all prosecutions as “obscene”.
Julie Hambleton, whose sister Maxine was killed in one of the bombings, has written to the British prime minister Boris Johnson deploring the British government’s plan.
She said: “Tell me prime minister, if one of your loved ones was blown up beyond recognition, where you were only able to identify your son or daughter by their fingernails because their face had been burned so severely from the blast and little of their remains were left intact, would you be so quick to agree to such obscene legislation being implemented?”
This announcement has been flagged by the British government for more than a year. In March last year Northern Secretary Mr Lewis said he wanted to end “the cycle of reinvestigations into the Troubles in Northern Ireland that has failed victims and [British Army] veterans alike”.
“While there must always be a route to justice, experience suggests that the likelihood of justice in most cases may now be small, and continues to decrease as time passes,” he said.