UK ‘changing position’ on North prosecution amnesty, ex-officer says

Government engaging in ‘more meaningful way’, says former Operation Kenova chief

A senior former police officer investigating legacy killings during the Northern Ireland Troubles has said he believes there is a "changing position" by the UK government regarding its controversial plans to introduce an amnesty on prosecutions.

Jon Boutcher, a retired chief constable in charge of Operation Kenova, the body conducting a series of independent historical investigations, noted that while the command paper outlining the move was issued last summer draft legislation has not materialised on three separate occasions.

“I am a realist but I am also an optimist. I do genuinely believe that there is a changing position of the government, I certainly hope there is,” he said.

“And I do think that recently they have been engaging in a more meaningful way with stakeholders; particularly, in my view, they need to do so with victims’ groups.”

Mr Boutcher was addressing a session of the US House of Representatives' Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission which is drafting a resolution that would seek to put pressure on the UK government to reverse its course.

Mr Boutcher encouraged the commission to keep lobbying the UK government at what is a crucial juncture.

“I do think we are at a tipping point where we might see some shift in strategic approach but any additional weight behind the door I think would be gratefully received.”

The proposed amnesty would block all investigations, prosecutions and other legal or civil actions over Troubles-related crimes alleged to have been committed either by British security forces or paramilitary groups.


Last month the British government denied reports it had postponed legislation until after the Northern Ireland Assembly elections in May.

On Tuesday, the US commission's co-chair, representative James McGovern, said the proposed amnesty was "far more sweeping" than that enacted by the late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1978. His colleague and co-chair, representative Christopher Smith, said: "There is no peace when there is no investigation and absolutely no closure."

Commenting more generally on his investigative work to date, Mr Boutcher said many families, including those of members of the security forces, feel the authorities had failed them.

“Bereaved families often have little or no contact with the police, scant information about any investigation that was conducted and were not even informed of inquests,” he said.

However, he did speak of increasing access by his team to previously unavailable material, notably from MI5, the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the UK ministry of defence.

“The key requirement for a comprehensive investigation is access to all of those sensitive records,” he said.

While investigations and prosecutions remain possible, Mr Boutcher said there was a need for caution in some cases.

The “criminal justice process might well bring unwanted and harmful consequences. Families have suffered enough.”

Elaborating on that point, he said while he was “extremely nervous” about stepping away from the criminal justice process, for some families a prosecution could prove detrimental because of the circumstances of their loved-one’s death and where in the community they live.

“There needs to be a way to appreciate those issues for those families so that we don’t immediately go to prosecutions.”

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times