A leading Tory who recently headed up Westminster’s defence committee has been accused of “gross naivety” for strongly backing an end to all Troubles prosecutions in favour of a “truth recovery” process.
Dr Julian Lewis called upon families of paramilitary victims to be “big-hearted” and accept that sacrificing the chance of seeing their loved ones’ killers convicted is the price they must pay to protect ex-military men from prosecution.
In an interview with the News Letter, the erstwhile committee chairman said in place of prosecutions he would like to see South African-style tribunals set up, at which ex-paramilitaries could describe what they did without fear of prosecution.
Kenny Donaldson of Innocent Victims United (IVU), reiterated that his organisation is “firmly” opposed to any amnesty, and Dr Lewis’ proposals were essentially “Sinn Fein/PIRA policy”.
He added that South Africa’s own experiences with truth and reconciliation for apartheid-era crimes were no “raging success”.
Dr Lewis was speaking to the News Letter just weeks after overseeing a major report by his committee.
It had recommended a “statute of limitations” for alleged crimes committed by military personnel in Northern Ireland, essentially barring prosecution of them for pre-1998 crimes. The report suggested also extending this to the RUC.
Whilst it stopped short of calling for any other groups to be included, some observers feared the report pointed to the future possibility of a general amnesty.
Now Dr Lewis has explained in detail that his own personal views are for exactly that – although he doesn’t use the word ‘amnesty’, because “it’s a very emotive word”.
Any chance of true justice disappeared in 1998 anyway, he said, with the agreement that paramilitaries would only serve “pathetically short” sentences if convicted.
He said: “The whole justice system was completely skewed by the sentencing legislation that was passed, which basically says no matter how many people were killed by terrorists or paramilitaries of any sort, they won’t serve more than two years in jail.
“In the course of our inquiry, it became clear that it hasn’t been established whether that limitation applies to soldiers or not.
“But if it doesn’t apply to soldiers, then it’s obviously massively unjust that even if they did commit an offence that they should serve perhaps a life sentence, whereas multiple murdering terrorists would serve only two years.”
The idea of a “comprehensive statute of limitations” covering the whole Troubles is now “blindingly obvious” – and must be “coupled with a truth recovery mechanism”.
“That’d be a far better way of enabling bereaved families to find out what had really happened once people knew that they weren’t at risk of prosecution,” he said.
“We should take a leaf out of the South Africans’ book where they simply said the only way to deal with these terrible things that happened over a very long period is to draw a line under it for everybody.
“That I believe is something we could and should do ... because, as I say, when you’ve reduced it to the point that people convicted of the most heinous offences are going to serve at most a derisory two-year sentence, nobody is going to feel the punishment has met the crime, even if those people are pursued.”
He said “if the price of protecting our soldiers who are all that stood between Northern Ireland and complete bloody chaos” is that paramilitaries go unprosecuted, “my personal view is we owe it to our soldiers to pay that price”.
He added: “I’d hope families would be big-hearted enough to accept that this is something they could agree to.”
Asked if this is a majority view in the Tory party, he said: “The answer is I just don’t know. I haven’t asked them...
“Let me put it this way. I didn’t think it was a significant prospect that this argument might win the day, I wouldn’t be spending all this time personally promoting it.”
Kenny Donaldson of victims’ body IVU said: “Mr Lewis has in many ways done a service in saying what he has said, because the covert language in the [defence committee’s] report has now become the overt spoken language.
“We raised strong concerns in the aftermath of the report’s publication believing it paved the way to amnesty.
“The old adage can be adapted – if it looks like a blanket amnesty, if it smells like a blanket amnesty, if it is rooted in the language of constructive ambiguity then it’s most probably a blanket amnesty.
“We stand firmly against any overt amnesty being pursued just as we have consistently spoken out against the covert tactics by previous UK government administrations designed to placate terrorism and its’ proponents through the subversion of the natural criminal justice system.”
When it comes to the prospect of a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission being enacted in Northern Ireland, Mr Donaldson added: “Mr Lewis has demonstrated gross naivety in proposing what is a Sinn Fein/PIRA policy.
“There will not ever be reconciliation of our past (victims’ and survivors’ present and future) until all those who actively contributed to the brokenness account for their actions, recognising those actions were wrong, unjustified and wholly futile.
“Remorse, repentance and restitution are precursors for reconciliation to be possible.
“Contrary to the jaundiced view of many, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa was not the raging success suggested by Mr Lewis and others.
“Talk to the victims of the terror and violence in South Africa, they are the constituency that matter – not governments or the perpetrators.”