The Democratic Unionists would reluctantly support granting limited immunity to perpetrators of Troubles killings in exchange for information about the crimes if it was urged by victims, a senior party member has said.
East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson indicated his party’s stance on the contentious issue as political talks aimed at trying to find ways of dealing with the legacy of the 30-year conflict continued in Belfast.
Talks chairman and former US diplomat Dr Richard Haass is attempting to secure an agreed format for addressing unresolved issues relating to the past. The one-time White House envoy is also hoping to find a way to end controversies over flags and parades in Northern Ireland.
But the issues of immunity and amnesty have dominated public debate on the Haass process as it has entered its final phase of negotiations ahead of its Christmas deadline.
A proposal last month from Northern Ireland’s Attorney General John Larkin QC to end all Troubles-related prosecutions, inquiries and inquests was angrily rejected by many victims, while the administrations in Belfast, London and Dublin all distanced themselves from the comments.
But a number of the parties taking part in the Haass talks have signalled a willingness to consider the potential of offering a more limited form of immunity as part of a truth recovery process.
It could possibly see perpetrators provide information, with a guarantee the revelations could not be used to prosecute them. Potentially the individual could still be prosecuted in the future, but only on the basis of other evidence.
Mr Wilson, whose party is against a blanket amnesty, said the DUP would back limited immunity in certain instances, but only if the victims involved supported the move.
He said he would not recommend the policy to victims but said if they insisted they were prepared to accept the consequences in exchange for more information about their loved one’s death, then he would support them.
Mr Wilson said: “If there are some victims who say ‘there is not enough evidence to bring forward a prosecution, but we do want to find out what happened, and why it happened and even who did it’ and if one way we can find it out is by those people volunteering to come forward with information, but only if they got some form of immunity, then that is something we would be prepared to accept.”
The former Stormont finance minister said the wider implications of such a course of action would need to be fully considered before it was implemented.
But he added: “It is not something we would recommend or steer people towards.”
Troubles crimes are already treated somewhat differently in the eyes of the law in Northern Ireland.
Anyone convicted in the present day of a conflict-related offence committed before the signing of the Good Friday peace agreement in 1998 can only be sentenced to a maximum of two years in prison.
The granting of limited immunity would not be breaking new ground - such protection from prosecutions has already been offered to those engaged in decommissioning weapons or co-operating with the search for those “Disappeared” victims whose remains have never been found.
While Dr Haass has said “incentives and mechanisms” to finding the truth will be on the table at the talks, a member of the DUP’s negotiating team, MP Jeffrey Donaldson, today insisted the issue of limited immunity in relation to truth recovery has yet to be put to him.
“No proposals have been put to us about limited immunity or anything like that at this stage,” he said.
Earlier this week Stormont First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson said he was not averse to considering proposals offering immunity from prosecution in return for information on Troubles murders.
Alex Attwood, negotiator for the Social and Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), said any model of providing limited immunity could not become a “free for all’. He insisted the immunity would not necessary rule out future prosecutions.
“The opportunity to deal comprehensively with our terrible past is growing,” said the West Belfast MLA.
“We now have the best opportunity in 15 years to provide victims and survivors with all the options they seek to address their pain and the legacy of conflict.
“No party and no government should stand in the way of that opportunity, a very special one in the interests of national reconciliation.
“With renewed public comment around the issue of limited immunity, it is important that it is clearly understood.
“The SDLP believes that existing justice mechanisms - criminal investigations, inquests and inquiries - cannot be compromised. These mechanisms must be exhausted and they must prevail.
“However, there may be times and places where, not least given the limits of our justice mechanisms, victims and survivors will seek more information about past events. In these circumstances it may be possible to have a model of limited immunity.
“Any such model would be in respect of information provided, and only in respect of that information. Limited immunity would be attached to the information and not to the individual providing it. The consequence of this approach is that there is no amnesty and if other evidence was to emerge, the individual concerned could be prosecuted.
“It is important that in considering the suggestion of limited immunity, people understand how limited the model would be. It would not be a free for all and cannot become a free for all.
“Any model must acknowledge the concerns and anxieties of victims and survivors. Nothing else would serve the interests of dealing with the past in a comprehensive way.”