The devil will be in the detail but as a example of news management in advance, the UK Government’s plans for a Troubles amnesty could hardly be worse for opinion in Northern Ireland
Veterans who served in Northern Ireland are finally set to be freed from the threat of prosecution.
In a victory for the Daily Mail, a planned statute of limitations will today be announced covering all incidents during the Troubles.
The move by Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis is expected to bring justice for up to 200 British soldiers who served during 30 years of bloody conflict in the Province.
So after the initial euphoria, concerns start to creep in.
But, in a bitter blow, it will also give an effective amnesty to IRA terrorists who murdered and maimed thousands during the period.
The plan could lead to the end of proceedings against a 65-year-old man who was arrested in Belfast last year in connection with the 1974 IRA pub bombings in Birmingham, in which 21 people were killed.
In a further blow, the move may come too late to halt the prosecution of two former soldiers which are already before the courts.
Ministers were advised that they would fall foul of human rights laws if the amnesty was applied on only one side.
Last night, the relatives of civilians shot dead by soldiers during a notorious Troubles flashpoint in Ballymurphy, west Belfast, in 1971, said so-called ‘amnesty’ plans amounted to the Government ‘burying war crimes’.
Paul Young, a former Blues and Royals soldier now working with the Justice for Northern Ireland Veterans campaign group, said: ‘Like everything else, the devil is in the detail. We have always resisted the equivalence or to be seen as the same as terrorists and that’s the problem with this amnesty.
‘Veterans will be overjoyed if the legislation is acceptable to us and ends the constant cycle of trauma with repeated investigations. But we have seen things before and they haven’t been good – we welcome a chance to look at these proposals. We do believe the Government wants this to stop and is trying to find a way through, but it has to be the right way through.’
But former Tory veteran minister Johnny Mercer said the idea was simplistic.
Mr Mercer, who quit the Government over its failure to end the witch hunt against British veterans, said: ‘A statute of limitations without qualification is an amnesty – something I have always opposed.
‘We should not, in all conscience, cut off pathways to justice where evidence exists, simply because of time passed. It would be wrong to do so, and veterans who fought to keep the peace within the strict constraints of the law in Northern Ireland have never advocated this path.’
It’s generally accepted by most of those close to legacy cases that evidence to secure convictions is now unobtainable or legally unreliable. This has been confirmed by two recent cases. In McCann the court ruled that the contemporary accounts given to the Royal Military Police not under caution and over “ coffee and biscuits” were inadmissible. The decision to drop the Bloody Sunday case against Soldier F is being legally challenged but looks like the end of a long and agonising road. It left the local MP Colum Eastwood impotently naming him under parliamentary privilege but without further circulation.
The record is indeed unimpressive but is an artificial cut-off point the way to handle it? As of January this year..
Prosecutors have handled just 19 legacy case files, more than half involving the military, since a new police unit was set up six years ago, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
Only five cases out of an overall total of 953 involving 1,184 deaths are currently being probed by the PSNI’s Legacy Investigation Branch (LIB), while nine are “under review”.
Nine people have been charged since January 2015 – six former members of the Army, two republicans and a single loyalist, currently on trial. There have been no convictions since the cases were transferred to the unit from the Historical Enquiries Team.
Funding of £150 million over five years is still available despite Arlene Foster’s refusal to trigger it.
Why has the British government made this change of tack which has been festering for months if not years? It violates the significant degree of agreement achieved in NI and with Dublin ( which is materially involved). Even the Malone House Group championed by the Newsletter and which insists that the system disproportionately targets the security forces is unlikely to be impressed.
A draft Bill had been generally agreed by all parties and confirmed in New Decade, New Agreement. It provided for separate institutions, long in the pipe line, of a new independent historic investigations unit to review the case load and recommend prosecutions and separate information Retrieval and Oral History bodies. Now it seems the process is to be conflated into a single body, suggesting there will be little or no risk in issuing legally prejudicial information.
A legally separate HIU would have better preserved the rule of law. Why has this been abandoned when it would probably have led to a similar conclusion but more transparently and more compliant with Human Rights law? It’s blatantly obvious they were throwing a bone to the super patriots of English Conservatism who under Johnson, have taken over the party, over what was for them a comparatively minor issue. In their political calculations, Northern Ireland opinion, even when partly united, is expendable.
This is among the reactions Brandon Lewis will face today and in the coming days. But yet again – and even more than over Brexit and the Protocol – Northern Ireland opinion is being flouted. At Westminster the opinion of the former English director of public prosecutions who leads the Labour Party is one which will be eagerly awaited.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London