Keir Starmer has said a Labour government in the UK would repeal planned laws offering immunity from prosecution for Troubles crimes in Northern Ireland.
The draft legislation would provide immunity for people accused of Troubles offences as long as they co-operate with a new truth recovery body, and would also halt future civil cases and inquests linked to killings during the conflict.
The proposed law changes are opposed by all Stormont’s main parties and the Irish Government, as well as victims’ groups in the North, which have denounced it as an “amnesty” for killers.
The legislation was tabled amid calls from backbench Conservative MPs for an end to fresh prosecutions of military veterans who served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.
The British government has defended the move, saying it will deliver better outcomes for victims seeking answers about how their loved ones died.
It says a “perfect solution” to legacy issues is not attainable and it is working towards the “best practical solution”.
Some amendments have been made to the draft legislation during its parliamentary stages but the core elements remain in place.
Mr Starmer, who previously worked in Belfast with police oversight body the Northern Ireland Policing Board, criticised the Bill on a visit to the city on Friday.
During a question-and-answer session at Queen’s University, he was asked whether he would repeal the legislation if he became prime minister.
“Yes,” he replied, to applause from the audience.
“Let me just elaborate a little because obviously, having had the privilege of working here for five years with the policing board and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, I know first-hand and having spoken to many, many victims and victims’ representatives, I know just how deep this goes for very obvious reasons.
“I think the legislation is wrong in principle.
“But, worse than that, or alongside that, no government in Westminster, in my view, should ever introduce legislation which has no support from any of the political parties in Northern Ireland, and no support from the victims who are at the heart of this.
“I think that previous governments – Labour and Conservative – would have understood that, and it shows you how far this Conservative Government in recent years has moved from a genuine understanding of the principles and values of the Good Friday Agreement, that they would even countenance introducing legislation with zero political support here and zero support from the victims.
“We wouldn’t do it and we’d repeal it if it’s on the statute when we come into power.”
Grainne Teggart, deputy director for Northern Ireland at Amnesty International UK, said: “This is a welcome and significant statement and commitment.
“Amnesty International, victims, Northern Ireland political parties, the Irish government and others have been unequivocal in objection to the Bill. It has no support.
“It is not too late for the government to scrap it and commit to an agreed way forward.
“The Troubles Bill makes a mockery of the rule of law and denies victims justice while shielding perpetrators of murder, torture and other serious crimes.
“It is time the government drops the pantomime of claiming tweaks can fix something so unjust and abandon it altogether.”
Responding to the Labour leader, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said: “Keir Starmer’s call to repeal the Legacy Bill is a retrograde step that would prolong the wait for answers and accountability that many families have been after for decades.
“We have announced a number of proposed changes which seek to address key concerns that have been raised by many stakeholders, including victims and survivors.
“This Bill will remain challenging for many, but the complex issue of legacy must be tackled in Northern Ireland.
“I would encourage the Opposition to work with us, so together we can help Northern Ireland move forward.” – PA