Northern Ireland’s politicians slam government plan to give soldiers and terrorists immunity from prosecution
By Larisa Brown, Defence Editor
The Times – 6 May 2021
British veterans and terrorists will be exempt from prosecution for actions taken during the Troubles as part of plans to draw a line under the past, The Times has learnt. Ministers intend to bring in a statute of limitations so no one can be charged over incidents up to the 1998 Good Friday agreement except for cases involving war crimes, genocide or torture. Plans included in the 2014 Stormont House agreement to set up a £150 million unit to investigate all deaths during the Troubles will be scrapped, Whitehall sources confirmed. A Nelson Mandela-style “truth and reconciliation” process will be implemented instead. Those on all sides will be encouraged to come forward to talk about historical events without risk of prosecution. A new legacy commission will use the information to report on individual deaths to fulfil human rights obligations and give families closure.
Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, is also in discussions about building a “truth discovery” museum in the border areas that will aim to move talks away from a “criminal debate to a historical debate”. A Whitehall source said that as part of an “oral history initiative” there would be a “concerted effort” to hear voices that had not been heard before. Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin’s deputy first minister in Northern Ireland, said that her party would oppose such proposals.
“Reports that the British government is to legislate for an amnesty for their state forces is another slap in the face to victims,”
“Another cynical move that will put British forces beyond the law. This is legal protection for those involved in state murder. This is not acceptable.”
Louise Haigh, Labour’s shadow Northern Ireland secretary, also condemned the plans, as well as the manner of their announcement.
“I’ve met with families and the many victims of the conflict as they shared heartbreaking stories of loss,”
“Ministers gave them their word. This major departure, announced via late-night briefings without a hint of consultation, demonstrates an inexcusable disregard for victims.”
Naomi Long, leader of the centrist non-aligned Alliance Party and justice minister in the Stormont executive, tweeted:
“This kind of briefing, before any meaningful engagement with victims’ families, typifies the contempt with which the government is treating victims. I believe that they deserve justice where that is possible: however, at the very least, they deserve not to learn of government plans on Twitter.”
Matthew O’Toole, an SDLP Stormont assembly member, also criticised the scheme and its leaking to the press.
“Imagine your loved one was murdered and the government decided to announce that there would be an amnesty on prosecutions via an unattributed, late-night briefing. We disagree on the substance — but the apparent means of announcing it is truly beyond contempt.”
A renewed commitment to laws aimed at tackling so-called legacy issues will be outlined in the Queen’s Speech next week. The proposals have not yet been signed off. On Tuesday the trial of two former paratroopers collapsed because of a lack of new evidence. The case of Soldier A and Soldier C, who had been accused of murdering an Official IRA commander in 1972, led to calls for laws to protect Northern Ireland veterans.
Whitehall sources denied their proposals amounted to an “amnesty” but made clear that even in cases where new evidence came to light there would be no prosecutions. A source said:
“This government is not going to introduce an amnesty, but the case for change and need for reform is evident. We need an approach to the legacy of the Troubles which focuses on the recovery of information for loved ones and efforts towards lasting reconciliation for all communities.”
Government sources believe they need broad support in Northern Ireland to ensure the process is effective, although they could technically push ahead with the plans without it being signed off by all sides. There are concerns, however, that Sinn Fein could then pull out of the power-sharing deal at Stormont.
British forces are believed to have been responsible for 301 deaths during the Troubles, out of a total of 3,520. At present there are four cases involving former soldiers in which there has been a decision to prosecute, and a further three cases under consideration. The Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland is reviewing those. The statute of limitations is unlikely to apply to cases that are already going through the courts. Hundreds more troops have spent years fearing they could face charges. Ministers have promised repeatedly to address the past in Northern Ireland in a way that is fair to veterans and have faced repeated criticism over long delays to a bill to protect troops.
Julian Lewis, former chairman of the Defence Select Committee, who suggested a truth and reconciliation process several years ago, said:
“The Defence Committee and I maintained that what was good enough for Mandela should be good enough for us and I am delighted that that has won acceptance.”
David Griffin, 80, a Chelsea pensioner who has waited nearly a decade to find out if he will be charged over an incident in 1972, said he would gladly give relatives
“every last detail of what happened”,
“I could tell them truthfully and the family could understand.”
Detectives working for the now defunct Historical Enquiries Team questioned Griffin at the Royal Hospital Chelsea in 2012 in relation to a death of an IRA terrorist in July 1972 during an ambush. Griffin said:
“I was promised ten years ago that within six months I would either be charged or given a letter of complete exoneration and I’m still waiting.”
He said that he would wish to have a senior officer with him from the Ministry of Defence or another person in a position of authority, as well as legal assurances, for him to give testimony to a truth recovery process. Griffin has said he fired his weapon to save his comrades. He has no idea whether it was his bullet that led to the man’s death. Another veteran, referred to as “Dave”, who was a member of the Green Howards regiment and served six tours of Northern Ireland, said he had been waiting for the police to turn up at his house because he had been involved in incidents where people were killed.
“We should all get together and say enough is enough, it is water under the bridge and let’s forget it and carry on.”
Dennis Hutchings is one of four veterans waiting for trial, in his case in Belfast in October on charges of attempted murder and attempted grievous bodily harm with intent over the death of John Pat Cunningham in Co Tyrone in 1974. Hutchings, who turns 80 tomorrow, will join a protest at Parliament Square on Saturday against the treatment of Northern Ireland veterans.
“This is nothing at all to do with the law, this is pure, pure politics”,
he said. He said he did not want there to be a change in the law, adding:
“We want to see a natural lawful process and so far this has not happened, it has all been about the politics and it shouldn’t be.”
Last night Hutchings’s lawyer, Philip Barden at Devonshires Solicitors, sent a letter to the Public Prosecution Service urging an “urgent and transparent review” of the decision to prosecute him in light of the acquittal of Soldiers A and C on Tuesday. He said that there was no evidence against Hutchings and that the handling of his case had been “oppressive”.
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