By Rebecca Black, PA
A move to tweak a plan to offer an effective amnesty for Troubles-related crimes has been met with opposition in Northern Ireland.
There was outrage last year when the UK government unveiled proposals to offer an effective amnesty for Troubles offences.
The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill appears to have been tweaked in response to the almost universal opposition to the original proposals.
It is described as being aimed at providing better outcomes for victims, survivors and veterans.
However, both Sinn Féin and the DUP as well as victims’ groups have expressed opposition.
Details outlined following the Queen’s Speech revealed the focus remains on ending what the UK government terms the “cycle of investigations that has failed both victims and veterans”.
However, immunity for individuals is proposed to depend on their co-operation with a new Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery.
The new body aims to help individuals and family members to seek and receive information about Troubles-related deaths and serious injuries.
It is also designed to produce an historical record of what is known in relation to every death that occurred during the Troubles.
The UK government described having “listened carefully” to responses to the original proposals.
As a result, it says a model where immunity is “only provided to individuals who co-operate with the new commission provides the best route to give victims and their families the answers they have sought for years as well as giving our veterans the certainty they deserve”.
The tweaked proposals leave open the route of prosecution if individuals are not deemed to have earned their immunity.
The Bill is to extend and apply in the main across the UK, with some provisions extending and applying to Northern Ireland only.
More than 3,500 people were killed during the Troubles, including over 1,000 members of the security forces.
Most of the deaths are attributed to republican paramilitaries while 30 per cent are blamed on loyalist paramilitaries, and 10 per cent attributed to the security forces.
The current legacy workload for the Police Service of Northern Ireland is more than 900 cases involving 1,200 deaths.
The UK government indicated that using limited resources to pursue a small number of cases to prosecution means only a tiny number of families stand even a chance of seeing someone prosecuted over the death of their loved one.
Secretary of State Brandon Lewis described it as an “improved approach” to addressing legacy, adding: “The government is confident that forthcoming legislation will better support those most impacted by the Troubles.”
However, Sinn Féin’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill said it is not the way to deal with the past.
“We must deal with the past so we don’t burden today’s generation with that, we must deal with the past to give people the closure they need, and I am very certain the way to do that is not to give impunity and immunity to British serving forces here,” she said.
“I am very certain we need a proper way to deal with the past that gives people what they need and the British government approach I am quite sure will not reflect what is needed here.”
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said some innocent victims have waited decades for the opportunity to have justice, adding: “They have the right to pursue that.”
“We will judge what the government proposes against whether the opportunity for justice still remains,” he told reporters in London.
“We haven’t seen the detail of what the government is proposing so I can’t comment on that until we see it, but we have very clear principles in terms of how we deal with the legacy of the past.
“We must not allow a situation to develop where people are able to rewrite the narrative which suggests that the terrorists who committed terrible atrocities across the board are somehow either exonerated or can walk away.
“That is not what I think the people of Northern Ireland want. They want truth, but they also want justice.”
Ireland’s Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said he welcomed the “abandonment of plans for a blanket amnesty”.
He told RTE radio: “These are new proposals. I think it’s very important that the British government should now engage with us and, in particular, engage with the parties in Northern Ireland and the victims’ groups.”
Amnesty International described the UK government proposals as a “sinister denial of rights”.
Grainne Teggart, campaigns manager, said the proposals also “dismiss victims’ strong objections and are a worrying interference in the rule of law”.
“No-one is fooled by the UK government’s attempt to dress this up as anything other than a process designed to block victims from ever getting justice. Once again, victims are being shamefully let down,” she said.
“The right thing for government to do is clear – deliver a comprehensive and human rights-compliant way to deal with the past. If they don’t, parliament must reject this.
“It is unacceptable that families, whose suffering extends over many decades, are faced with government legislation which would put perpetrators of crimes – both state and non-state – above the law and beyond accountability.”
Michael O’Hare, whose 12-year-old sister Majella was shot dead by a British Army soldier in 1976, is being supported by Amnesty in seeking an independent investigation into his sister’s death.
“My family has fought for decades for truth and justice. Anything less than full vindication of our rights is a painful and devastating betrayal to us and all victims who have fought long and hard for their loved ones,” he said.
“The UK parliament must stand with victims and send a clear message that the rule of law applies to all. We will not accept our paths to justice ever being so cruelly blocked. No-one is above the law.”
Victims’ groups, including Relatives for Justice and the Truth and Justice Movement, have also expressed dismay at the proposals.
The UK prime minister’s official spokesman insisted the government’s approach struck the right balance.
“We have listened to not just the parties but the victims’ sector, veterans, individuals, organisations from across civil society,” the spokesman said.
“The previous approach was not working. We believe that this will help with effective information recovery which provides answers for families and delivers on our commitments for Northern Ireland.”