British government backtracks on amnesty for Troubles crimes

Queen’s speech outlining legislative programme signals change of approach

The British government has signalled a retreat from plans to block the prosecution and imprisonment of former soldiers for alleged crimes committed during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

The queen's speech on Tuesday outlining a new legislative programme promised a new process to deal with the legacy of the Troubles that would focus on information recovery rather than prosecutions. But it promised to work with the Irish Government as well as parties in the North and victims' groups before filling in more details about the proposed legislation in the coming weeks.

“It is clear that the current system for dealing with the legacy of the past is not working well for anybody, with criminal investigations increasingly unlikely to deliver successful criminal justice outcomes, and failing to obtain answers for a majority of victims and families,” the queen’s speech said.

“This package will deliver on the commitments to Northern Ireland veterans, giving them the protections they deserve as part of a wider package to address legacy issues in Northern Ireland. Dealing with the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland must address the needs of victims and veterans together. The government will work with all relevant stakeholders, including the parties in Northern Ireland and Westminster, the Irish Government and civil society, including victims’ groups, as part of this process.”


‘Deeply unfair’

Conservative MP Johnny Mercer, who was sacked as veterans affairs minister last month, said he was thinking about voting against the queen’s speech in protest against the government’s apparent retreat.

“Pretty much exactly the same wording has been used in the last two queen’s speeches and legislation has not been coming forward. The reality is that people are going through these trials at the moment ... It is deeply unfair for our veterans, and it is time we looked after them properly,” he told Sky News.

Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP’s leader at Westminster, said it would be wrong to deny people the opportunity of pursuing justice.

“We will oppose any measure that seeks to introduce an amnesty in Northern Ireland for crimes like murder,” he said. “Where there is evidence that someone has committed murder or potentially committed murder, we are very clear that nobody is above the law.”

Mr Donaldson said the government must stop vexatious prosecutions of military veterans but, following an intervention from SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, he acknowledged that very few former soldiers had been prosecuted for their actions during the Troubles.

‘Breach of trust’

Taoiseach Micheál Martin warned last week that any unilateral move away from the Stormont House Agreement, which deals with legacy issues of the Troubles, would be a "breach of trust". This followed unattributed briefings to two British newspapers that new legislation would block prosecutions for all Troubles crimes, apart from war crimes, torture and genocide.

The effective amnesty would apply to loyalist and republican paramilitaries as well as British soldiers.

The new legislative programme announced on Tuesday also includes measures to implement reforms of the Stormont institutions agreed in the New Decade, New Approach deal that restored the Executive last year.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times