Prime Minister David Cameron has distanced himself from a proposal by Northern Ireland’s attorney general to end prosecutions in Troubles-related murders.
The unexpected suggestion by John Larkin QC has whipped up a storm of controversy, with relatives of those killed in the conflict expressing anger and outrage.
The chief legal adviser to the Stormont Executive has said he also favoured ruling out further inquests and other state investigations into the crimes committed during the 30-year conflict, insisting a line should be drawn on offences perpetrated before the signing of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.
Mr Cameron insisted the Government had no plans to legislate on any form of amnesty.
“The words of the Northern Ireland attorney general are very much his own words,” he told MPs during Prime Minister’s Question Time at Westminster.
Mr Larkin has claimed his proposals do not amount to an amnesty, but has been challenged to explain his rationale, given that perpetrators would not face justice.
Stephen Gault, whose father Samuel was killed in the 1987 IRA Poppy Day bombing in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh - an atrocity for which no-one has ever been convicted - said he was disgusted by the attorney general’s statement.
“How dare he airbrush the innocent people who were murdered at the hands of terrorists to move things forward. I just think it’s totally disgusting,” he said.
Former US diplomat Dr Richard Haass is currently trying to achieve political consensus on a number of issues as yet unresolved during the peace process - one of which is how Northern Ireland addresses the legacy of its violent past and the seemingly endless unanswered questions over killings carried out by all sides.
Mr Larkin has outlined his proposals in a submission to Dr Haass.
Mr Cameron told the House of Commons it would be “rather dangerous” to block possible future prosecutions.
“I do think it’s important to allow Richard Haass to do his work about parades, about flags, and about dealing with the past,” he said.
“Clearly the dealing with the past part is the most difficult of the three and the most difficult to unlock.
“The second point I would make is that we are all democrats who believe in the rule of law, who believe in the independence of the police and prosecuting authorities, and they should if they are able to, be able to bring cases.
“I think it’s rather dangerous to think that you can put some sort of block on that.
“But of course we are all interested in ways in which people can reconcile and come to terms with the bloody past, so that they can build a viable future and a shared future for Northern Ireland.”
Kate Nash, whose brother William was killed by British soldiers on Bloody Sunday in Londonderry in 1972, today challenged Dr Haass to reject any suggestion of an amnesty.
In the unscheduled encounter in the foyer of the City Hotel in Derry, Ms Nash made clear to the former diplomat her family’s opposition to the proposal.
Afterwards she explained her anger. “What are they trying to do, draw a line under victims, draw a line under my brother? We are not going to let that happen,” she said.
Mr Larkin he said he felt the time had come to halt prosecutions.
“More than 15 years have passed since the Belfast Agreement, there have been very few prosecutions, and every competent criminal lawyer will tell you the prospects of conviction diminish, perhaps exponentially, with each passing year, so we are in a position now where I think we have to take stock,” he said.
“It strikes me that the time has come to think about putting a line, set at Good Friday 1998, with respect to prosecutions, inquests and other inquiries.”
He told the BBC: “Sometimes the fact of an amnesty can be that that which was a crime ceases to be a crime. That wouldn’t be the position here, it would simply be that no criminal proceedings would be possible with respect to those offences.”
Mr Larkin’s remarks have been criticised by politicians on both sides of the traditional divide, with the Democratic Unionists, Ulster Unionists and the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) all voicing concern.
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams did not explicitly endorse or condemn the attorney general’s stance but claimed there already was a de facto amnesty for state forces who carried out killings.
Mr Adams, who insisted a wider debate on the past was needed, said that, whatever approach was taken to the legacy of the conflict, the views of victims had to be central.
“Their voices must be heard and respected and all victims must be treated on the basis of equality,” he said.
Labour former Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain said he did not back an amnesty but added: “Pursuing crimes committed three or four decades ago at enormous expense, with enormous effort, where the evidence is very difficult if not impossible to achieve... it’s better in my view, having dealt with these issues myself, to support the victims in their plea for justice in other ways.”
He told BBC Radio 4’s World at One: “If you keep going down the legal route there’s actually no prospect in the bulk of the cases that you are going to succeed and you just reopen the whole past instead of moving forward and instead of really addressing the victims’ and the widows’ grievances.”