Statute of limitation for Troubles crimes must be stopped – human rights lawyer

Niall Murphy says UK government proposals would be an abuse of the peace process

Any plans by the UK government to introduce a statute of limitations for Troubles crimes must be stopped, a Northern Irish human rights lawyer has said.

Niall Murphy, of Belfast-based firm KRW Law, said any such proposals would be "unlawful" and "anti-law" and an "abuse" of the peace process.

“When those who enforce the law, create new law to protect themselves from their own law, there is no law,” he said.

Mr Murphy said any such plans would render British soldiers vulnerable to prosecution at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which would be the "only avenue left" to bereaved families and victims of the Troubles.

He was responding to reports in UK newspapers on Thursday stating that Westminster intends to introduce a statute of limitations that would bar prosecutions for alleged crimes which happened before the 1998 Belfast Agreement.

It is understood that legally this would have to apply across the board, meaning it would be applicable to former paramilitaries and ex-soldiers. Cases involving war crimes, genocide and torture would be exempt. More detail of the proposal is expected to be announced in next week’s Queen’s Speech, which formally opens a session of parliament.

Such an approach would contravene the Stormont House Agreement on legacy, which was agreed by the Irish and British governments and the North's five main political parties in 2014 but has not yet been implemented. It included provision for an independent historical investigations unit to take forward investigations into outstanding Troubles-related deaths.

However, Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis in March of last year announced that the UK government would follow a new approach to dealing with legacy issues. Only cases where there was a "realistic prospect" of prosecution would be investigated, with all others closed permanently.

‘Clear objectives’

The UK government did not deny the accuracy of the reports on Thursday, instead issuing a short statement in which it said it had “clear objectives for addressing the legacy of the Troubles and delivering its manifesto commitments to veterans who served in Northern Ireland”.

"We want to deal with the past in a way that helps society in Northern Ireland to look forward rather than back."

Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) chief constable Simon Byrne said he had no advance sight of what the government was planning, other than that an announcement was anticipated in Tuesday's Queen's Speech.

Mr Byrne declined to be drawn on whether or not he would support the reported statute of limitations. However, he made clear that the PSNI had “consistently” voiced its support for the Stormont House Agreement mechanisms.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said that, if the reports were 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”.

Unionist parties also voiced opposition to the plans, with DUP MP Gavin Robinson saying that “if someone has committed murder, they should be prosecuted for that crime regardless of who they are”.

He added that “anyone who suggests that our veterans should be treated in the same way as paramilitaries is wrong”.

The Wave Trauma Centre, which represents victims of the Troubles, described the proposals as “cynical, shameful, foolish and dangerous”.

The Pat Finucane Centre said if the reports were true, they would "display utter contempt for all victims and survivors, the Irish Government and, by extension, the Irish people".

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times