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Politicians condemn plan to prevent prosecution of NI veterans

Reports suggest the UK government is set to introduce a statute of limitations on prosecutions for conflict crimes that occurred pre-1998.

Image: Shutterstock/Zolnierek

Updated May 6th 2021, 1:30 PM

POLITICIANS ON BOTH sides of the border have condemned a reported move to prevent future prosecutions over Troubles crimes.

The UK government is set to introduce a statute of limitations to stop people being charged over incidents that occurred before the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement, according to reports in the Times and Daily Telegraph.

Many victims of the Troubles are vehemently opposed to any statute of limitations, which they characterise as an amnesty that will thwart their chances of justice.

The bar on prosecutions would apply across the board, including former security force members and paramilitaries, but an exemption would still enable war crimes, such as torture, to be prosecuted, according to the papers.

The reported move, some detail of which could be announced in next week’s Queen’s Speech, would signal the scrapping of a key mechanism agreed by the UK and Irish Governments and main Northern Ireland parties in the 2014 Stormont House Agreement.

The Stormont House proposals included a new independent investigation unit to re-examine all unsolved killings.

Responding to the development, Northern Ireland deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill tweeted: “Reports that British government are to legislate for an amnesty for their state forces is another slap in the face to victims.

Another cynical move that will put British forces beyond the law. This is legal protection for those involved in state murder. This is not acceptable.

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney, who met Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis in Dublin yesterday, also expressed concern.

It is understood that, while legacy was discussed at the meeting, the potential of a statute of limitations being introduced in the Queen’s Speech was not raised.

Ministers in Dublin are said to be dismayed by the reports.

A spokesman for Coveney said: “The Irish Government discussed with our UK colleagues the commitments of the Stormont House Agreement and strongly advised against any unilateral action on such sensitive issues.

“We reiterated that only through a collective approach can we deal with these issues comprehensively and fairly in a way that responds to the needs of victims, survivors and society as a whole. Victims and their families are the only priority.”

The minister added on Twitter that he has “met many victims of the Troubles & their families” and witnessed the “ongoing heartbreak & pain whenever legacy is in news”. 

Speaking in the Dáil this afternoon, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the government was “deeply alarmed” by today’s reports. 

Varadkar said the Government would not support any such decision because victims and families have a right to justice.

He said: “The Government and myself personally were deeply alarmed by reports that we read about the possibility that the British Government may consider providing an amnesty, or putting in place a statute of limitations, in relation to offences that occurred during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

“This would fly in the face of the Stormont House agreement, would fly in the face of the New Decade New Approach agreement, and anything like this would have to have the agreement of the parties in Northern Ireland.

“It is something that we will not support as a government because we stand with the victims and families who’ve been bereaved and damaged as a consequence of these actions.

“They have a right to know what happened, and they have a right to justice. Whether the murderers were British soldiers or republicans or loyalists, they should be brought to justice.”

‘Totally unacceptable’

Sinn Féín’s Justice spokesperson Martin Kenny TD, meanwhile, said any unilateral action of legacy cases in Northern Ireland would be “totally unacceptable”. 

“This is another cynical move by the British government, which has proven once again that it has scant regard for international agreements.

“Our colleagues in the European Union have seen similar behaviour over Brexit. The British Government sign up to an agreement and then when they find it does not suit them, they feel they can renege on it,” said Kenny. 

“The peace process is just that, a process. It is not over and progressive forces North and South have a responsibility to stand up to defend it and see it develop.

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“Unless we can deal with our past, we cannot look to full reconciliation in the future and this is something that we all want.”

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood tweeted: “If true, this will be the biggest betrayal of victims by the British government & will put a huge obstacle in the way of true reconciliation. This is the most unprincipled & cynical British government in many years and that’s saying something. An absolute disgrace. Shame on them.”

Alliance Party leader and Stormont Justice Minister Naomi Long tweeted: “This kind of briefing, before any meaningful engagement with victims’ families, typifies the contempt with which Govt are treating victims.

“I believe that they deserve justice where that is possible: however, at the very least, they deserve not to learn of Govt plans on Twitter.”

Last March, Lewis announced an intention to unilaterally move away from the Stormont House deal.

He said only Troubles killings where compelling new evidence had emerged would receive a full police reinvestigation.

He added that most unsolved cases would be closed and a new law would prevent them being reopened.

On Tuesday, two former paratroopers accused of the murder of an Official IRA leader were formally acquitted after prosecutors offered no further evidence at their trial.

The veterans’ trial at Belfast Crown Court collapsed after the Public Prosecution Service confirmed it would not appeal against a decision by Mr Justice O’Hara to exclude statements given by the ex-soldiers about the shooting of Joe McCann in 1972.

It was the first trial in several years that involved charges against former military personnel who served during the Troubles. 

Prosecutors are to examine the evidence in seven other cases involving veterans in Northern Ireland following the collapse of this trial.

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