The Irish Times view on historical crimes in Northern Ireland: a distressing and irresponsible move

The British government did not consult the victims before floating its latest plan as it sought instead to appease a rising chorus of Conservative backbench demands to halt the prosecution of veterans for historic offences

The legacy of Northern Ireland's violent past remains part of the unfinished business of the Belfast Agreement despite two agreements between the British and Irish governments and the North's main political parties on how to examine killings during the Troubles. The British government suggested this week that it is preparing to unilaterally tear up both of these agreements and to introduce an effective amnesty for almost all alleged crimes committed as part of the Troubles.

The 2014 Stormont House Agreement envisaged a historical investigations unit to investigate Troubles killings; an independent commission on information retrieval where perpetrators could tell the truth about their involvement without fear of prosecution; and an oral history archive where victims and others could tell their stories of the conflict.

In a December 2019 deal that set out conditions for the restoration of the Assembly and the Executive, the British government committed to introducing legislation at Westminster to implement the Stormont House Agreement within 100 days. Instead, Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis outlined a new proposal in March 2020 that would have shifted the focus onto information recovery and reconciliation and blocked prosecutions of all but the most serious crimes.

His latest proposal, briefed anonymously late at night on the eve of Thursday’s British elections, goes even further, ruling out prosecution or imprisonment for any alleged Troubles offences committed before 1998 apart from war crimes, genocide and torture. The British government’s priority is to protect its military veterans from prosecution but the bar on prosecutions would apply to republican and loyalist paramilitaries too. The proposal has united the North’s parties in outrage, along with the Government, who complain that they were not properly briefed in advance.

Lewis’s proposal and the casual way it was briefed out has caused distress and offence to the victims of violence during the Troubles, whether at the hands of paramilitaries or the security forces. The interests of the victims, many of whom have waited for decades to learn the truth about how their loved ones died, should be at the centre of any plan to deal with the legacy of the past.

The British government did not consult the victims before floating its latest plan as it sought instead to appease a rising chorus of Conservative backbench demands to halt the prosecution of veterans for historic offences. Lewis’s failure to consult the Government and the Northern parties is irresponsible and any unilateral approach to such a delicate issue would be reckless. The British have given themselves some wriggle room by suggesting that any proposal included in next week’s queen’s speech may be lacking in detail. They should use that latitude to think again.