Loyalist murals commemorating The Troubles, Newtownards Road, Belfast, Country Antrim, Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland

The Troubles: What Is The Plan To End Historical Prosecutions And Is It An ‘Amnesty?’

Loyalist murals commemorating The Troubles, Newtownards Road, Belfast, Country Antrim, Northern Ireland.

The Government has decided to end the cycle of legacy investigations in Northern Ireland in the aftermath of The Troubles.

Plans announced include introducing a statute of limitations which, in UK law, sets a maximum time after an event within which legal proceedings may be initiated.

It would effectively end all prosecutions related to The Troubles that embroiled Northern Ireland in 30-years of violence and political dispute.

Under the statute of limitations, no prosecution could be brought in relation to all aspects of The Troubles.

The Troubles began in the late 1960s and lasted 30 years until the Good Friday Agreement brought the conflict to an end in 1998.

It mostly occurred in Northern Ireland, but occasionally that violence spilt over to England and mainland Europe. 

It is perhaps most well-known for 'Bloody Sunday' in January 1972, when 13 civilians were killed, with 15 others shot and injured, when soldiers from the Parachute Regiment opened fire on a civil rights demonstration.

One other man died several months later from injuries believed to have been sustained on Bloody Sunday.

During The Troubles, known internationally as the Northern Ireland Conflict, a total of 1,441 soldiers died, 722 as a result of paramilitary attacks. It is estimated that 3,500 civilians died over the 30-year period.

Now, 23 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, the British government plans to uphold a Conservative party manifesto commitment of ending prosecutions against army veterans by passing legislation in Parliament. 

Some groups in Northern Ireland that are against the plans have labelled this move as a "de-facto amnesty."

But what exactly is it, and how will it impact those with a stake in Northern Ireland's complicated past?

British soldiers with sniffer dog, on patrol in Derry Northern Ireland Londonderry The Troubles 1970s
British soldiers with sniffer dog, on patrol in Northern Ireland, 1979. Credit: Alamy

Why Is The Government Introducing The Legislation?

The government has faced mounting pressure from some backbench MPs and British Army veteran groups over prosecutions against army veterans of The Troubles. Recently, prosecutors in Northern Ireland dropped Troubles-era murder charges against two former Armed Forces members after evidence was ruled inadmissible at a court hearing in April. 

In November 2019, the Conservative party included a pledge in its manifesto to protect veterans from what it called "vexatious legal claims that undermine our Armed Forces" from cases "opened during the Troubles." 

However, the Irish government oppose the plans, as do the five main political parties in Northern Ireland and groups that support families affected by the conflict and The Troubles in the country. They have labelled the proposals a "de-facto amnesty" for alleged crimes committed during the Troubles. 

2th April 2019. Rolling Thunder biker protest in Westminster. Thousands of bikers including army veterans and current members of serving forces ride through the city as part of a mass awareness protest to free “Soldier F”, who is currently facing charges from the Bloody Sunday shootings in Londonderry, Northern Ireland in 1972.
Rolling Thunder biker protest in Westminster, 2019, over the prosecution of Soldier F. Credit: Alamy

Who Will The Plans Effect?

In June, British and Irish officials agreed to find a common way out of the issue of Troubles-era prosecutions. The government described these talks as "short and focused."

This has led to the government introducing proposals for legislation which will include a statute of limitations ending all prosecutions relating to The Troubles in Northern Ireland. 

This statute of limitations will apply to security forces and ex-paramilitaries, including former members of the IRA. This has attracted criticism from army veterans, veteran groups, and former veterans minister Johnny Mercer.

Taking to Twitter, Mr Mercer said that there "are better options available."

One of a series of Tweets by the former British Army officer said:

"There can never be any moral equivalence between those who put on uniform to try and prevent civil war in Northern Ireland, and those who got up in the morning to murder women and kids." 

This is not the view of the former head of the British Army, General Lord Richard Dannatt

Appearing on Radio 4's Today programme ahead of the Government announcement, he said that if Mr Mercer "can come up with a better solution, then [he should] put it on the table." He added:

"A lot of us have worked really hard, including him, in discussions with the government to try and find a workable way forward. This is the least worst way, but actually it is going to allow veteran soldiers in their 50s, 60s and 70s to be free from the fear of a knock on the door and investigations which could lead to prosecutions."

What Is The Reaction To The Plans?

The statute of limitations is opposed by Sinn Féin, the other main parties in Northern Ireland and victim groups supporting families of those who died in The Troubles.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said any unilateral action by the British government to end prosecutions would be "a breach of trust" and "a betrayal of the victims".

Many of those consider the plan an 'amnesty' as they argue that such a limitation on bringing prosecutions would deny them the chance to present evidence for specific allegations against, for example, members of the Armed Forces, in court which they fear would deny them justice.

One such group, Wave, which offers support for people affected by conflict in Northern Ireland, wrote to Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the start of July opposing what it called a "de-facto amnesty".

In the letter, Wave said that the "majority of victims and survivors are only too aware that the chances of securing a conviction for crimes that are decades old are beyond remote.

"But to deny them even that possibility by perverting the criminal justice system cannot be right in a country that prides itself on adherence to the rule of law." – Wave.

Appearing alongside Lord Dannatt on the Today programme, Mark Thompson, a spokesperson for Relatives For Justice, another support group in Northern Ireland, said the plans were an example of "the UK using its sovereignty as a shield to prevent an independent unit from scrutinising its activity during the conflict in Ireland."

Mr Thompson pointed out that the proposals would also give "the IRA an amnesty." He added:

"There are several hundred families of British soldiers in Britain who had their loved ones killed, and there's information about that too. So, they are going to be denied justice too. Its unacceptable. There's just no political support for this." 

The proposals were announced in parliament by Secretary of State Brandon Lewis, who said that the "current system was not working." Alongside the statute of limitation plan, Mr Lewis announced plans for a new truth recovery body and an oral history initiative, taking evidence from people from all walks of life impacted by The Troubles.

Earlier, Boris Johnson defended the proposals to MPs. He said:

"We are finally bringing forward a solution to this problem, to enable the people of Northern Ireland to draw a line under the Troubles and to enable the people of Northern Ireland to move forward."

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