Irish Times view on proposed Troubles amnesty

Government must impress on its British counterpart the cruelty and folly of its plan

People confront British soldiers on Wlliam Street in Derry minutes before paratroopers opened fire, killing 14 civilians on what became known as Bloody Sunday. File photograph: Getty

People confront British soldiers on Wlliam Street in Derry minutes before paratroopers opened fire, killing 14 civilians on what became known as Bloody Sunday. File photograph: Getty

 

The British government’s proposal to grant an effective amnesty for all Troubles-related offences has united the Irish Government, the five main parties in Northern Ireland, victims’ groups and human rights organisations in opposition to it. The plan would create a statute of limitations to apply equally to offences committed by security forces and paramilitaries by introducing a statutory bar on the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and Police Ombudsman Northern Ireland (PONI) from investigating troubles-related incidents.

It would also end judicial activity in relation to troubles-related conduct “across the spectrum of criminal cases, and current and future civil cases and inquests”. This would halt more than 1,000 troubles-related civil claims for damages against the British government and coroners’ inquests as well as criminal prosecutions, closing off every judicial route for victims and their families.

Boris Johnson told the House of Commons on Wednesday that the proposal would allow Northern Ireland “to draw a line under the Troubles” and move forward. But the politics behind the move suggest the prime minister is less interested in drawing a line under crimes committed by former soldiers than in drawing a veil over them.

The Tory Party made a manifesto commitment to end the “vexatious” prosecution of former service personnel for alleged crimes committed while on active service. But the principle of equality under the law meant that any statute of limitations would have to apply to paramilitaries too.

The latest proposal overturns an essential element of the 2014 Stormont House Agreement, which was agreed by the British and Irish governments and endorsed by the DUP, Sinn Féin, the SDLP and Alliance. It envisaged an independent Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) to take forward investigations into outstanding Troubles-related deaths, leaving the decision to prosecute with the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis argues that the passage of time has made prosecutions all but impossible and that measures introduced after the Belfast Agreement mean that even convicted murderers would be unlikely to serve much, if any, time in prison. He wants the focus to move instead onto information retrieval and oral history, proposing two new bodies to facilitate them. The problem is that perpetrators have little incentive to tell the truth about their actions if the threat of prosecution has been lifted.

Lewis agreed last month to engage with the Irish Government before he brings forward legislation, which is not expected until towards the end of this year. The Government should use this time to impress on him the cruelty and the folly of his proposal and to urge his government to return to the commitment it made in the Stormont House Agreement, which it reaffirmed last year.

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