The DUP’s MPs are continuing to support a de facto amnesty for security force members involved in the Troubles, despite concerns – including from their leader, Arlene Foster – that such a move could lead to a general amnesty which extends to terrorists.
Three months ago Mrs Foster appeared to undermine the proposals for a statute of limitations, an idea which stems from a concern among many unionists and military figures that there is now an imbalance in how prosecuting authorities are investigating former military personnel for Troubles deaths.
However, there are unionists and former service personnel who oppose such a move either because they believe that it would inevitably lead to a general amnesty or, in the case of some veterans, because they believe that it sullies their service to imply that they need an amnesty.
Picking up on those fears, in November Mrs Foster told the BBC that she had “concerns” that the proposal could unintentionally lead to a general amnesty.
The DUP leader also claimed that “we certainly haven’t been pushing for a statute of limitation” – the legal term for the mechanism which would prevent soldiers being prosecuted over Troubles incidents – despite the fact that just weeks earlier two of her MPs tabled such a bill.
She went on to say: “I actually have some concerns around it because it will be difficult to have a limited statute of limitations, and I would be concerned that we would be taking away the hope of justice for people who had suffered at the hands of terrorists. I certainly will not be a party to anything that does that.”
However, just over a week ago DUP MPs made clear their support for the proposal. Speaking in a Westminster Hall debate on the issue, East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson spoke at length about his support for the proposal, saying: “It is wrong to say that a statute of limitations would have to be extended to both state and non-state actors.
“We propose a statute of limitations on the basis that the state has discharged its duty.
“This is not immunity. This is not state immunity.
“This is not protection for a class of people. This is the state saying, ‘Where there has been an investigation and nothing came of it, we will move on after a defined period of time’.”
In the same debate, South Belfast MP Emma Little Pengelly said: “We should be protecting them, as opposed to a terrorist on the loyalist side, a terrorist on the republican side, or somebody in the armed forces who went out with the intention to murder. That is not what this is about. It is about protecting those who are honourable and who went out to serve and protect.”
And Strangford MP Jim Shannon endorsed the proposal but stressed that “if soldiers stepped beyond their role and knowingly and willingly committed offences, then that is very different from what is happening here. I ask everyone to please see the difference”.
Tory MP Julian Lewis, chair of the defence select committee – which is proposing the measure – made clear in the debate that their legal advice was clear that under international law a statute of limitations could not be restricted to soldiers and would have to apply to all those involved in the Troubles, a point on which Mr Robinson dissented.
UUP MLA Doug Beattie, who won the Military Cross for his bravery in Afghanistan as a captain in the Royal Irish Regiment, opposes the proposal because he believes that it will inevitably lead to a de facto general amnesty. He claimed that recent events showed that Mrs Foster “does not have control over her party”.
The DUP insisted that there was no conflict between the two positions but did not explicitly answer the question of whether the party policy is to support the statute of limitations.
In a statement, Westminster chief whip Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said: “We have made it abundantly clear on every occasion that we do not and will not support an amnesty or anything which would preclude access to justice ... those comments echo the concerns highlighted by our party leader Arlene Foster and they are the basis on which we take this issue forward. We make no apology, however, for wishing to end the unfair persecution of security force personnel who, having been investigated and cleared, can find themselves hauled before the courts years or even decades later.”
Sir Jeffrey added: “The DUP does not and will not support an amnesty but we will support moves to end the persecution of security force personnel. Whilst we have concerns about how statute of limitations could be misused, we are open to a consultation on the matter where everyone can have their views heard.”