Plan Exempting Army veterans from prosecution for incidents during the Troubles sparked a backlash over the political divide in Northern Ireland last night.
Unionists and Sinn Fein – as well as the Irish government – opposed the surprise proposals to introduce a statute of limitations, meaning no soldiers would be charged with shootings before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
Instead, a Nelson Mandela-style “ truth and reconciliation ” process would be implemented, encouraging ex-servicemen and paramilitaries to discuss the events surrounding unsolved deaths without the risk of prosecution.
Plans to exempt Army veterans from prosecution for incidents during the Troubles led to a backlash over the political divide in Northern Ireland last night. British troops are seen in County Armagh in 1981
But the UK government’s proposals would also provide a similar ‘amnesty’ to terrorists, who have already received unprecedented protection under the 1998 peace agreement.
However, there will be an exemption allowing prosecution of war crimes, genocide and torture, it is understood.
The plans, which leaked yesterday, have yet to be signed and are unlikely to be spelled out in the Queen’s speech on Tuesday.
But legislation on “ legacy ” issues could be unveiled before the July 22 parliamentary summer recess.
Veterans applaud the initiative, but a breakaway group representing Ulster’s soldiers said they wouldn’t get “too excited” until a deal was struck.
Whitehall sources denied that the proposals amounted to an ‘amnesty’ – saying there would be no pardon and historic condemnations would stand – but said that even in cases where new evidence emerged, no prosecution would take place.
The Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) detonated two 6-pound gelignite bombs in two pubs in Guildford, England. Police escort members of one of the Old Bailey families.
The move would run counter to the plans contained in the 2014 Stormont House Agreement, which proposed a new independent unit to investigate all unsolved Troubles murders.
Clearly this would be dropped, with a government spokesman saying yesterday that the current system for dealing with the Troubles’ legacy ‘worked for no one’.
He added: ‘[It is] fail to produce satisfactory outcomes for families, place a heavy burden on the criminal justice system and leave society in Northern Ireland paralyzed by its past. ‘
The change in approach comes just days after the groundbreaking trial of two senior paratroopers charged with the murder of IRA commander Joe McCann collapsed, with a judge holding crucial evidence inadmissible.
A further four Northern Ireland veterans have been charged with felonies, including murder-related shootings dating back to 1972.
IRA terror suspects are arrested by British soldiers on Bloody Sunday in Londonderry
Another 12 are awaiting decisions on allegations related to incidents nearly 50 years ago.
The timing also coincides with the conclusions of an inquest into shootings in Ballymurphy, west Belfast, in 1971. A coroner is expected to conclude on Tuesday that ten people shot by paratroopers have been unlawfully killed, leading to for further calls for prosecution of British troops.
Michelle O’Neill, Deputy Prime Minister of Sinn Fein, said: “The reports that the British government is going to establish amnesty for their state forces is another blow to the victims.
It’s another cynical move outlawing British forces. This is legal protection for those involved in state murder. This is not acceptable. ‘
The leader of the traditional Unionist Voice, Jim Allister, added, “If kite flying turns out to be correct in today’s national press, there will be outrageous amnesty for terrorist murder.”
Johnny Mercer was fired as veterans’ minister last month after raising concerns that Northern Ireland forces were being ‘abandoned’.
Yesterday, he welcomed the move on the matter but criticized the leak rather than making a formal announcement after consulting with veterans and families of those who died.
I’m glad some thought is going on in this space, though anonymous quotes from Spads [special advisers] is not the same as a plan. We need to include communities in Northern Ireland, and it is clear that they were surprised by this proposal, as I was. ‘
Irish Taoiseach Micheal Martin said any deviation from the Stormont House Agreement would be a ‘breach of trust’.
Tomorrow 20,000 people are expected to attend a ‘Respect our Veterans’ protest in central London.