Victims and NI parties unite to oppose government plan to give all Troubles killers an amnesty

The government has confirmed that it wants to bring a sweeping end to all prosecutions for crimes committed during the Troubles in what amounts to a de facto amnesty.

Thursday, 15th July 2021, 9:51 am
NI Secretary Brandon Lewis  announces the government’s proposal in the House of Commons yesterday
NI Secretary Brandon Lewis announces the government’s proposal in the House of Commons yesterday

The radical change, which will require legislation unlikely to be on the statute book until next year, means that it is no longer the government’s policy to prosecute terrorists responsible for some of the worst atrocities of the last century.

However, the government trumpeted the fact that the amnesty would mean former soldiers now facing charges for alleged Troubles crimes would no longer be prosecuted – something influential Tory backbenchers and veterans’ groups have been campaigning to see.

Based on briefings before yesterday’s announcement, the pro-Tory Daily Mail proclaimed in its front page headline: “At last, justice for our troops”, while in smaller type accepting that “there’s a price: IRA terrorists are off the hook”.

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The proposals, described by Prime Minister Boris Johnson as allowing Northern Ireland to “draw a line under the Troubles”, would also end all legacy inquests and civil actions related to the 30 years of violence.

They also include a new truth recovery body and an oral history initiative.

The government is set to consult with political parties and victims’ groups before introducing legislation in the autumn, but yesterday published a 32-page command paper which makes clear that it wants to close down virtually all avenues for holding to account those who killed during the Troubles.

Secretary of State Brandon Lewis told the Commons: “We know that the prospect of the end of criminal prosecutions will be difficult for some to accept and this is not a position we take lightly.

“But we’ve come to the view that this is the best and only way to facilitate an effective information retrieval and provision process, and the best way to help Northern Ireland move further along the road to reconciliation.

“It is in reality a painful recognition of the very reality of where we are.”

Northern Ireland’s parties and bereaved families were almost unanimous in criticising the statute of limitations as a “de facto amnesty”.

Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin said the proposals were “wrong for many, many reasons”.

Speaking earlier during Prime Minister’s Questions, Boris Johnson said: “The people of Northern Ireland must, if we possibly can allow them to, move forwards now.”

But Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “I worked in Northern Ireland for six years with the Policing Board and the police. I’ve also prosecuted terrorists as the director of public prosecutions, so I know how difficult and how sensitive this is. But a blanket amnesty, including for terrorists, is plain wrong.”

Mr Johnson said: “The sad fact remains that there are many members of the armed services w Victims from across the communal divide yesterday united against a proposed statute of limitations on legacy prosecutions.

Sandra Peake, chief executive of the WAVE Trauma Centre, said that it had been clear for more than a year that “the sole driving force behind these proposals is to protect veterans”.

She said: “The regular briefings to newspapers sympathetic to the government have focused only on veterans issues and there is a very good reason for that.

“That is what these proposals are about and the needs of victims and survivors are not even of a second order.

“The notion that an amnesty for paramilitaries who move amongst the families of those they have murdered will aid reconciliation is beyond absurd and victims and survivors know that even if the secretary of state does not.

“Either he doesn’t understand or he doesn’t care but either way what he is proposing is obscene and will bring nothing but further pain and anguish to people who have suffered so much.”

Ms Peake said that the government was effectively telling victims “that what happened to their loved ones no longer matters”.

“The government is telling those who carried out the most horrendous crimes that what they did no longer matters.”

Ms Peake added: “The prime minister and secretary of state may hope that time and mortality will resolve these complex and sensitive issues and that perverting the criminal justice system while in effect telling victims and survivors to dry their eyes and be quiet is the answer. They could not be more wrong.”

Families of the 10 killed by soldiers in the Ballymurphy area of west Belfast in 1971 came together to watch Mr Lewis’ statement to the House of Commons yesterday.

Eileen McKeown, daughter of Joseph Corr, said they see the proposal was the government’s “cynical attempt to bring an amnesty and a plan to bury its war crimes”.

She said the proposals “will not be tolerated and will be legally challenged”.

Michael O’Hare, whose 12-year-old sister Majella was shot by a soldier in 1976, said the proposals were an “utter and unacceptable betrayal” and were “inflicting great pain on my family and other victims denied justice”.

ho continue to face the threat of vexatious prosecutions well into their 70s, 80s and later, and we’re finally bringing forward a solution to this problem, to enable the province of Northern Ireland to draw a line under the Troubles, to enable the people of Northern Ireland to move forward.

“I think someone with greater statesmanship and clarity of vision would have seen that and given these proposals a fair wind.”

Donaldson: This is moral overreach

The plan for an effective amnesty is “totally unacceptable” and “a moral overreach that cannot be accepted”, new DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has said.

The Lagan Valley MP, who spoke in the Commons yesterday, said in a statement that “victims will see these proposals as perpetrator-focused rather than victim-focused and an insult to both the memory of those innocent victims who lost their lives during our ‘Troubles’ and their families.”

He added: “There can be no equivalence between the soldier and police officer who served their country and those cowardly terrorists who hid behind masks and terrorised under the cover of darkness. We find any such attempted equivalence as offensive.”

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill accused the government of introducing an amnesty “to protect state forces from their ‘dirty role’ in Ireland”.

The Sinn Fein vice president said: “These proposals are about putting British state forces who killed Irish citizens beyond the law. It is further insult to grieving families.

“This is about the British government simply protecting their own state forces and the policy makers responsible for shoot to kill, state murder and collusion; facilitating impunity and blocking accountability.”

Former UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said that “we do not and will never support” the amnesty because “the Ulster Unionist Party is – and always has been – the party of law and order; no ifs, no buts”.

The Strangford MLA and former victims’ commissioner said that what was happening was “plain wrong”.

TUV East Belfast representative John Ross said: “While elderly veterans have been dragged through the courts not a single terrorist who remained on good terms with the Provo leadership has been brought to book since the Belfast Agreement.”

He added: “It is telling too that the secretary of state envisages this as something which can be bolted on to Stormont House.

“The parties which agreed to proposals need to be clear that they are pulling their support for Stormont House.”

Lewis accuses MP of being ‘emotive’ over Patsy Gillespie

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood yesterday challenged the secretary of state to come and see the widow of a man made into a human bomb by the IRA and explain to her why he was forcing through an amnesty for those who did that.

The Foyle MP put it to Brandon Lewis: “In October 1990, Patsy Gillespie was abducted from his home by the IRA. His family were told he would be back soon, while being held at gunpoint.

“Patsy was then chained to the driver’s seat of a van filled with explosives and forced at gunpoint to drive that van to a nearby Army base. The IRA then remotely detonated the bomb, killing Patsy and five soldiers.

“Will the secretary of state come with me and explain to his widow Kathleen why he wants to protect his killers from prosecution and even investigation?”

Mr Lewis responded dismissively, saying: “I appreciate that the honourable gentleman tends in this House, as we saw yesterday, to use emotive comments for soundbites, often for his own social media outlet.

“To use somebody’s harrowing experience and loss in that way says much about him.

“I would happily meet any victims to talk to them about the experience they have been through and why we need to be honest with them about what is achievable and how we help Northern Ireland to move forward in a positive way, rather than continuing to use harrowing experiences like that for political ends in the way he has done in the past 24 hours.”

Alliance MP Stephen Farry told Mr Lewis: “These shameful proposals are an insult to all victims and indeed to many veterans who served honourably.

“They do not draw a line but rather cross the line of justice and the rule of law ... there is near universal disapproval of these proposals in Northern Ireland.”

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