The Government has published plans to legislate for new mechanisms to deal with the legacy of the Troubles but warned they will not be activated until political resolution is found at Stormont.
The policy paper outlined by Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers sets out how the Government will establish investigative and truth recovery bodies agreed in last year’s landmark Stormont House Agreement.
The paper 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 Stormont House deal, in particular the impasse over the non-implementation of welfare reforms in the region.
Ms Villiers stressed the importance of reaching an agreement on the Stormont House accord.
“One of the reasons why we need to resolve the whole range of questions, to get the agreement sorted and the implementation process going again is because we don’t want to hold up these new institutions because it is important that we see real progress for victims and survivors,” she said.
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.
As agreed by the five Executive parties and the British and Irish governments last December, information provided to the ICIR cannot be used in a criminal prosecution.
However, contributors can still be prosecuted for historic crimes on the basis of other evidence.
Ms Villiers said any attempt to portray that 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.”
A political crisis over the stalled implementation of the Stormont House Agreement has intensified with a murder linked to the IRA.
Cross-party talks dealing with the fall-out from last month’s killing of ex-IRA man Kevin McGuigan and the outstanding Stormont House issues began in Belfast this week and are expected to continue for a number of weeks.
The HIU will take on the investigative role currently undertaken by the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s Legacy Investigations Branch and the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman. Legacy inquests will continue under the remit of the Coroner’s Service.
The ICIR will only focus on incidents at the request of victims’ loved ones. People involved in the crimes, or eyewitnesses, will be encouraged to come forward to give information, with the potential use of mediators. The identity of the contributors, or the names of those accused of involvement in killings, will not be made public.
“Contributors to the process of truth recovery through the new ICIR won’t be immune from any prosecution, if the evidential test is met they’ll be prosecuted like anyone else,” said Ms Villiers.
The commission, which will be set up on a cross-border basis in conjunction with the Irish Government, essentially replicates the model of the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains (ICLVR).
The ICLVR seeks details on the whereabouts of the “Disappeared” victims of the Troubles from the perpetrators, with the guarantee that the information cannot be used in criminal prosecutions.
Ms Villiers said: “We believe the Stormont House Agreement contains important new bodies to respond to the concerns of victims and survivors of the Troubles. There was a general recognition during the cross-party talks that the current mechanisms aren’t providing good enough outcomes for that group who are affected by the Troubles really more than any other group, so we think it is important to press ahead with them.
“At the heart of the paper being published today and the Bill, and indeed the Stormont House Agreement, is the absolute determination to ensure our mechanisms for addressing the past are balanced and fair and are not party to any kind of attempt to rewrite history.”