After the British Government brought forward its plans to legislate for the ending of all Troubles-related prosecutions, MLAs, victims’ groups and families have been united in their condemnation of the plans, which would grant an amnesty to those accused of historic crimes during the conflict.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the Westminster Parliament that a general amnesty would allow Northern Ireland “to draw a line under the Troubles”, while Secretary of State Brandon Lewis said that the legislation was “the best way to help Northern Ireland move further along the road to reconciliation”. These plans have been condemned across political and societal lines, including by former Director of Public Prosecutions Barra McGrory QC, who writes in this issue of agendaNi that “it is one thing to creatively re-examine ways to provide an efficient and meaningful process to provide justice for the thousands of citizens who feel they were deeply wronged, but it is another to propose to abolish all forms of due process in a single stroke”.
In his Commons statement outlining the legislation, Lewis detailed that the proposed plan would contain within it a “statute of limitations, to apply equally to all Troubles-related incidents”. This statute of limitations will apply equally to members and former members of the security forces as well as ex-paramilitaries. The plan also includes instructions to bring an end to all legacy inquests and civil actions related to the conflict that have not yet been brought before the courts. The Government’s paper, Addressing the Legacy of Northern Ireland’s Past, does not make any mention of what it intends to do with cases currently before the courts.
The Government brought forward their plans to legislate against any further Troubles-related prosecutions in July following the collapse of two high profile court cases against former British soldiers. The trial of Soldiers A and C, accused of the 1972 murder of Official IRA commander Joe McCann, collapsed in May after a judge ruled that the prosecution’s evidence – interviews given by the pair to the Historical Enquiries Team in 2010 – was inadmissible. Just a week before the Government announced its legacy plans, one of the most high-profile legacy trials also collapsed.
“We will provide certainty to former members of the security forces, many of whom remain fearful of the prospect of being the subject of ongoing investigations that will hang over them for years to come.”
Secretary of State Brandon Lewis MP
“It suppresses truth and justice, is an insult to the memories of those murdered, and is the ultimate betrayal of victims.”
The case against Soldiers B and F, charged with two counts of murder and five of attempted murder during the Parachute Regiment’s Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry in 1972, was dropped when prosecutors decided against proceeding with the case, stating that the evidence it considered to be admissible did not meet the criteria for bringing a case forward.
The week following the British Government’s announcement of their plans, a majority of MLAs in Stormont voted to back a motion opposing the plans. The motion, which has no legally binding status on the Westminster plan, was backed by all parties. SDLP Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon MLA said that the announcement of the plans had left people “stunned”. “Victims and survivors have been let down for far too long,” she said. “We won’t be able to move forward by leaving them behind and, as a society, we should be ashamed that to date, we have done just that.”
DUP MLA Mervyn Storey said that the proposals had been “given the rejection from this house that they deserve”, while UUP leader Doug Beattie stated that it was important for MLAs to “stand together” on the issue. He stated that victims and their families deserve their right to seek justice and that “we cannot take away that hope”. Alliance Party leader and Minister for Justice Naomi Long MLA said that it was “desperately sad and utterly shameful” that members had to be recalled to “denounce” the plans.
People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll said that the proposals would “slam the door to those who lost loved ones” and that the statute of limitations “amounts to a retrospective licence to kill”. Green Party MLA Clare Bailey described the proposals as “appalling”. Deputy First Minister and Sinn Féin Leader in the North Michelle O’Neill accused the British Government of being unable to “handle the truth” of the Troubles and stated that the proposals were an “affront to all families” involved.
There has also been widespread apprehension and outright condemnation of the plans from outside Stormont, with Taoiseach Micheál Martin raising “serious concerns” over the plans in a phone call with Prime Minister Johnson. “He emphasised that there can be no pre-determined outcome to the consultation process currently underway,” an Irish Government statement said.
In a meeting of Troubles victims from across the divide, Raymond McCord, whose son was killed by loyalists, stated that the families “totally rejected” the proposals and accused the British Government of “attempting to dismantle the justice system”. “It suppresses truth and justice, is an insult to the memories of those murdered, and is the ultimate betrayal of victims,” he said. Julie Hambleton, whose sister was killed by republicans, stated that there is “no way on God’s green earth will we sit back and allow any government to implement a piece of legislation that completely wipes away any memory of any of our loved ones”.
On the week of the 50th anniversary of the Ballymurphy massacre, perpetrated by the Parachute Regiment, the Shadow Secretary of State, Labour MP Louise Haigh, met with the families of the 10 people killed in the west Belfast area in 1971, who were recently declared “entirely innocent” after an inquest. Haigh said that those that she had talked to in both Britain and Northern Ireland had been “unanimous” in their opposition to the plans. “We need to see a change of heart and a proposal that’s committed to the rule of law and finding truth and justice for victims across the picture,” she said.
It would appear that the efforts of Johnson and Lewis to “draw a line” under the conflict have backfired and instead united all of Northern Ireland in condemnation, a rare thing indeed. Such plans have been mooted at least since the days of Theresa May’s premiership and to see Johnson bringing forward legislation to satisfy what has been a backbench demand in his party for some time now is realistically no surprise, what may be a surprise to Johnson, Lewis, et al. is the strength of opposition to their ideas. “We’ll put up a fight,” John Teggart, whose father Danny was killed in Ballymurphy, said after the visit of Haigh, summing up the resolve of the victims’ families. “We’ll put up a good fight.”