Q&A: What are the new plans around prosecutions of British soldiers in North?

Reports suggesting UK government intends to ‘ban prosecutions’ condemned in Ireland

Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis with Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney at the Department of Foreign Affairs on Wednesday. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis with Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney at the Department of Foreign Affairs on Wednesday. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

Reports that the UK government plans to introduce a statute of limitations to prevent the prosecution of soldiers accused of committing crimes during the Troubles have been condemned by the Government and by politicians on both sides of the Border.

What are these new plans?

According to the Daily Telegraph and the Times, the UK government is to introduce a ban on prosecutions under new legislation, details of which are to be given in the queen’s speech setting out the government’s agenda on Tuesday. The newspapers say a forthcoming Bill on legacy issues is expected to introduce a statutory bar on prosecutions for alleged crimes pre-1998, which will apply to everyone accused of Troubles-relates crimes, including paramilitaries and soldiers. Cases involving war crimes, genocide and torture would be exempt.

What has been the reaction?

It has been strongly condemned on this side of the Irish Sea, with the Taoiseach warning that both governments had committed to the Stormont House Agreement ’s approach to legacy issues. He said any unilateral move would be a “breach of trust”.

There have been reports that the Irish authorities were taken aback by the leak and that it was not raised by Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis when he met Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney on Wednesday. The North’s Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill describing the move as “another slap in the face to victims” and “another cynical move that will put British forces beyond the law”.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said that, if true, it would be “the biggest betrayal of victims by the British government and will put a huge obstacle in the way of true reconciliation”.

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said: “This kind of briefing, before any meaningful engagement with victims’ families, typifies the contempt with which [the British] government are treating victims.”

Unionist politicians are also opposed to it because they reject its implication of equivalence between paramilitary groups such as the IRA and the British army.

Ulster Unionist Party MLA Doug Beattie said he did not want to see a situation “that gives equivalence between the forces of law and order and those self-appointed murderers who sought to bring mayhem and anarchy to this society” .

Most victims and survivors are opposed to the idea of any statute of limitations and back the Stormont House Agreement as the best way of attempting to deal with the legacy of the Troubles.

So what is the Stormont House Agreement?

The Stormont House Agreement was signed up to by the Irish and British governments and the North’s five main parties in 2014.

In it, they committed to a number of provisions for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles, including the creation of an independent historical investigations unit to take forward investigations into outstanding Troubles-related deaths, an Independent Commission for Information Retrieval and an oral history archive. To date, the agreement has not been implemented. Westminster recommitted to it in January 2020 as part of the New Decade, New Approach plan which restored the North’s Assembly, pledging to publish and introduce legislation to implement the agreement in the UK parliament “within 100 days”.

What happened instead?

In March of last year Lewis announced a new approach to dealing with legacy which he said included “significant changes”. Only cases where there is a “realistic prospect” of prosecution would be investigated, and all other cases would be closed permanently and end “the cycle of reinvestigations” into the Troubles.

As yet the UK government has not provided any detail, but two weeks ago signalled it would soon bring forward legislation to offer protection to soldiers who served during the Troubles.

So what happens next?

As yet, the reports of these new plans have not been confirmed, and there has been speculation that the leak was conveniently timed to coincide with election day in England, Scotland and Wales.

Further detail is expected to be announced on Tuesday, though how substantial this will be remains to be seen. In the meantime, the diplomatic row between London and Dublin and the anger in Belfast will linger, as will the question of how to deal with legacy in the North.

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