The Secretary of State confirmed plans yesterday to allow those guilty of Troubles-related murders to confess and walk free – without any of their disclosures being given to victims.
Theresa Villiers said that to encourage perpetrators come forward, new structures under the Stormont House Agreement (SHA) will not disclose confessions to victims, and that the information will be inadmissible in legal proceedings.
Also read victims’ reaction
However, she emphasised that confessors could still face prosecution if any evidence comes to light from other sources.
She said that the five Executive parties – DUP, UUP, Sinn Fein, SDLP and Alliance Party – and the British and Irish governments, all agreed the measures last December in the Stormont House Agreement (SHA).
Ms Villiers said any attempt to portray the plans as an amnesty was “misleading”.
“There is no amnesty in this paper,” she said.
“There won’t be an amnesty in the bill, an amnesty was rejected by the five Northern Ireland parties during the Stormont House talks – that is not the right way forward.”
There was widespread media speculation last week that murderers – terrorist or security force – would be able to confess their crimes and walk away under the new arrangements.
However, the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) hit back, describing the now apparently quite accurate claims as “grossly misleading and highly irresponsible reporting”. Some victims had suggested the reports had been a kite-flying exercise to test public reaction.
Yesterday some victims also suggested that the plans were deliberately released during news coverage of Jamie Bryson’s NAMA testimony so as to attract less publicity.
Ms Villiers warned that the plans will not be activated until political resolution is found at Stormont – in particular on welfare reform – which some victims yesterday saw as pressing Sinn Fein to cave in if it wants to see the UK Government in the dock over collusion allegations.
The policy paper outlined by Ms Villiers also contains proposed legislation required for an oral archive to document the history of the conflict.
However, the law will contain a commencement clause meaning the new structures will only come in to operation if the parties resolve their current disputes about other elements of the SHA, in particular welfare reforms.
The new Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) will take on the criminal justice element of investigating the past while the separate Independent Commission on Information Retrieval (ICIR) will endeavour to give bereaved relatives the chance to learn more about the circumstances of their loved ones’ deaths, she said.
But TUV leader Jim Allister responded: “An amnesty is an amnesty no matter what you call it or how you dress it up.” The ICIR will be separate to the criminal justice system and so will facilitate terrorists selling “self-serving” accounts of their crimes “which will permit a terrorist friendly re-writing of history”, he said.
Patrick Corrigan of Amnesty International said the plans “should not be held hostage” to welfare reform. He welcomed assurances that there will be no amnesty but slammed the proposed veto over disclosure of evidence by HIU on “national security” grounds, which he said was not contained in the original SHA.