Dublin has warned that Boris Johnson’s plans to end the prosecution of Troubles veterans are “not a done deal”, amid fears that Ireland’s opposition could increase the chances of a legal challenge.
After Brandon Lewis announced the Government would legislate to end prosecutions for all sides involved in the conflict, Simon Coveney, Ireland’s minister for foreign affairs, said the plans were not a “fait accompli”.
He was joined by Micheal Martin, the Taoiseach, who told the Irish Parliament the proposals were wrong for “many, many reasons” and that Troubles crimes should continue to be properly investigated.
The statute of limitations would end prosecutions relating to incidents which occurred before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
It will apply to British veterans, former members of the security services and Royal Ulster Constabulary, as well as the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries.
On Wednesday, a number of senior Tory MPs endorsed the plans, arguing it was the only viable solution to ending the prosecution of elderly veterans.
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Mr Lewis said it would bring to an end the cycle of investigations – of which there are almost 1,200 open cases – and help move Northern Ireland towards an approach of “truth and reconciliation”.
The Government will establish an oral history archive of the Troubles to enable victims to tell their stories, while an independent commission focused on information recovery will also be set up. Ministers hope this will provide some closure to victims and their families.
However, the proposals have been criticised by Northern Ireland’s political parties, as well as victims groups, who say it represents an effective amnesty for terrorists.
Julie Hambleton, whose sister Maxine was among 21 people killed in the IRA pub bomb attacks on Birmingham in 1974, said she was considering legal action to block giving amnesty to terrorists.
On Wednesday night, Ms Hambleton told The Telegraph: “We will go to court over this if we can. I cannot believe the Government is willing to give amnesties to IRA terrorists who killed our loved ones. This is absolutely beyond the pale. Only those in Westminster could come up with this. They have no moral or ethical compass. They don’t know what it’s like to suffer the consequences of a terrorist attack.”
Meanwhile, Mr Coveney told the broadcaster RTE that the proposals, if enacted, would break the 2014 Stormont House Agreement on victims’ rights to truth and justice.
“The British Government is outlining a unilateral position which nobody else has signed up to,” he said, adding that without the support of Belfast or Dublin there will be a “real problem here.”
Echoing his comments, Mr Martin said: “It’s wrong for many, many reasons. I don’t believe in a general amnesty for those who committed murder, whether there were State actors, or whether they’re involved in terrorist or illegal organisations.”
The Government is currently in talks with the Irish Government over the proposals, with insiders acknowledging that securing its support will strengthen the “robustness” of the legislation.
The Telegraph understands that Mr Lewis has received legal advice warning that acting unilaterally could heighten the risk of a challenge being successfully brought at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Statute of limitations ‘the only viable option’
Critics have claimed that a statute for limitations which effectively ends the investigation of serious human rights violations could breach the UK’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.
However, government sources said they would press ahead with the legislation regardless of Ireland’s stance. They added they were confident that the proposals to pivot away from prosecutions towards information recovery would ensure the legislation remained compliant with these obligations.
Defending the move, Mr Lewis told MPs: “If we fail to act now we will be condemning current and future generations to yet further division, preventing further reconciliation at both the individual and societal level.”
“We’ve come to the view that this is the best and only way to facilitate an effective information retrieval and provision process, and the best way to help Northern Ireland move further along the road to reconciliation. It is in reality a painful recognition of the very reality of where we are.”
James Sunderland MP, a former Army colonel who served in the Troubles, told The Telegraph: “A Statute of Limitations may not be the most palatable of solutions and will not please everyone. But I have come to the conclusion it is the only viable option.”
Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, who also served in Northern Ireland, said: “This will not be beloved of anybody but I do recognise sincerely that if we are to move forward, we will all have to make some kind of sacrifice.”