For lasting peace in the province, we must enact a statute of limitations for all Troubles-related offences
Sunday Telegraph – 11 July 2021
My colleague Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, has a difficult task to carry out in the next few weeks. He has promised, before Parliament breaks up for the summer at the end of the month, to set out the Government's proposals on how it intends to deal with the legacy of Northern Ireland's past – the descent into violence and sectarianism from the 1960s and the three awful decades which followed, known as The Troubles. He has a manifesto pledge to fulfil on ending the cycle of vexatious prosecutions against former members of our Armed Forces who served during those times.
I urge him to be bold.
I served as chairman of the Defence Select Committee for several years. How to move things on in Northern Ireland, where the legacy of the bloody Troubles still casts a long shadow, was an issue to which we returned time and again. Like many others, I have thought long and hard about an answer. To use that cliché of clichés, there is no easy one – and if there were, someone manifestly would have come upon it before now.
Nevertheless, l have had to conclude that there is only one solution. We must draw a clear, unbreakable line by enacting a Statute of Limitations to prevent the prosecution of any and all Troubles-related offences. It must apply to all sides – our Service personnel, Police, Loyalists and Nationalists alike. This does not set lawbreakers on the same level as the forces of law and order, any more than the fact that the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and the Sentences Act which followed it – limiting prison terms relating to The Troubles – already does.
I understand that this will be hard to swallow for some people. However, to be clear, this should not be interpreted as an amnesty. An amnesty is a pardon. This will not be a pardon. It would be a clear and hard-headed assessment of where we actually are. I believe it would give individuals and Northern Ireland's society, as a whole, the best opportunity to move on from the past.
The collapse last month of the trials of two former soldiers has again underlined the vanishingly small probability of any successful prosecutions. The passage of time, the poor quality of evidence (or indeed lack thereof after IRA decommissioning from the late 1990s wiped out the possibility of ballistics), the frail or failing memory of elderly witnesses, or the absence of any at all – we need to be honest with ourselves and realistic about the unlikelihood of anyone being convicted. This means all the gruelling investigations will continue to come to nothing.
The Defence Select Committee considered that a "qualified" statute of limitations was a possible solution. It qualified this proposed Statute with possible prosecution only if "new and compelling" evidence of wrongdoing emerged.
Yet, I have personally concluded that this simply shifts the difficulties from one place to another. The reality is that in order to decide what constitutes "new and compelling" evidence, one would need to have an equally exhaustive investigatory process of some kind. In essence, this would create a shadow system of what we have now, with veterans – the overwhelming majority of whom served with decency, valour and at great personal risk – left with the spectre of a grim trial hanging over them.
A proposal of a Statute of Limitations is not an abrogation of the pursuit of truth and accountability. With the threat of prosecution removed, the second arm of the new process would come into play. Coupled with the Statute would be a Truth Recovery Mechanism which would enable everyone involved to come forward and say what really happened with no fear of self-incrimination or prosecution. This fulfils the requirements of international law that matters be properly investigated – and it offers by far the best prospect of the truth finally being told.
The most famous example of such a body is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa post-apartheid from the 1990s. If such a construct was good enough for Nelson Mandela, why should it not be the answer for the Northern Ireland tragedy, too?
Brandon Lewis must keep his promise. In doing so, I trust he will forgo any sense of hubris. Yet he should be in no doubt that he must deliver to the scale of the challenge, if Northern Ireland is to take its next big step forward towards lasting peace and prosperity and achieving its full and indisputable potential at the heart of our United Kingdom.