Protection from legal action may ‘lead to more Troubles deaths information’

File photo dated 11/03/15 of a search for the 'Disappeared'
File photo dated 11/03/15 of a search for the 'Disappeared'

Robust protection from prosecution is needed to encourage people to give information about Troubles deaths in Northern Ireland, an expert has said.

Professor Kieran McEvoy said any testimony needed to be “airtight” from legal action for it to be worthwhile. Some victims have said there should never be impunity from justice under any circumstances.

The Northern Ireland Office is due to publish draft legislation on dealing with the impact of thousands of Troubles killings next month and the Irish Government is likely to act before Christmas.

The successful recovery of 12 bodies of the Disappeared - people abducted, murdered and secretly buried by the IRA or republican splinter groups - was helped by a system of limited immunity from legal proceedings in exchange for details about where the victims were buried, Professor McEvoy added.

He said: “That mechanism has worked, the reason that that mechanism has worked is because of the robustness of the guarantees of non-prosecution that are contained in that, relating to the information that is given.

“So if information comes from another source, of course people can be prosecuted and one would expect the Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) to go down that route, but if these things are to be workable the robustness of those guarantees for state or non-state actors who are providing information to come forward to families have to be airtight, otherwise it is not workable.”

Mr McEvoy envisaged that when the reinvestigation by independent detectives, the HIU, was complete, families could voluntarily seek further answers via an Independent Commission on Information Retrieval.

The proposals follow the Stormont House Agreement almost a year ago between Northern Ireland’s five main parties and the governments.

Mr McEvoy added: “That was clearly the compromise that the politicians involved in the negotiations accepted themselves, it has to be workable otherwise we are building pie in the sky and people will not come forward if they think that they are likely to be prosecuted for information that they give.

“The Disappeared Commission demonstrated that this can be done but the robustness of those need to be airtight.”

The hunt for the Disappeared has been overseen by an independent body set up in 1999 after the Good Friday peace agreement to liaise with former republican paramilitaries to find 16 victims clandestinely buried during the conflict. Four have yet to be found.

Michael Gallagher, whose son Aidan was one of 29 killed in the Real IRA Omagh bomb in 1998, said where evidence existed the police needed to pursue it and there should be no impunity.

“For me this is going to send a message to the dissident republicans that you can do whatever you want and at the end of the process the government will give in.”