Amnesty for soldiers and police officers appears imminent after the election. And the effect on prospects for restoring the Assembly?

The government appear to be on the brink of taking the legacy of the Troubles out of the hands of the Assembly. The only  question remains if they would entertain an agreed counter proposal from the Assembly parties . You can work out for yourself  the prospects of that

The Times (£) are reporting that

The British government has moved one step closer to shielding British soldiers who served during the Troubles from murder prosecutions despite concerns that it could collapse the Stormont House agreement.

The proposed move by the Conservatives, who are expected to be in power after the UK general election, would set London at odds with the Irish government, which maintains that the agreement does not allow Westminster to pass a law granting amnesty to any party accused of a crime during the Troubles.

The British parliament’s defence select committee yesterday published a report that outlined how a statute of limitations covering every death caused by a soldier before 1998 could be set out. It said that as well as an amnesty for soldiers a truth and recovery process should be established for bereaved families. It also repeated claims that ex-servicemen were being unfairly targeted despite protests from the Northern Ireland Public Prosecution Service (PPS) that there was no evidence for such a complaint.

“Our report sets out the steps the government must take in the next parliament — as a priority— to protect former service personnel facing investigations into historical allegations,” the committee said.

The report was published as a last gasp of this Parliament and has clear government backing. On the face of it if the government were actually to proceed on the basis of the Times report  – and Brokenshire has said action is imminent – the effect on the party talks to restore the Assembly can easily be imagined. Rather than an amnesty for the security forces to match the two year limit on sentences for paramilitary crimes – itself a questionable  bias –    it would be  infinitely preferable to allow the courts to draw conclusions from the two year limit of paramilitary sentences for crimes committee before April 1998 or for Parliament enact similar legislation for soldiers and police officers.  Such an Act for the security forces alone  would be open to serious legal challenge.

An amnesty of this kind would only be tolerable if followed by amnesty all round. And that is unacceptable to  most parties including nationalists and public opinion.    There is an unclear implication  in the report that if an HIU (Independent  Historic Investigations Unit )  were set up it would fail to uncover much more evidence against paramilitaries and that net effect of inquiry and inquests would be to concentrate on the security forces, which the committee calls  “oppressive”.

From  the select committee report  

 

2.So far, the overall process of investigations into fatalities in Northern Ireland has been deeply unsatisfactory. The instability of the investigatory bodies, the limited resources and manpower provided to them, and continuing question marks over the independence of the investigations has delivered a vicious cycle of investigation and re-investigation that fails both former service personnel and the families of those who died. (Paragraph 24)

3.It is clear that the status quo is not sustainable. The Legacy Investigation Branch was never intended to be more than a short-term mechanism to bridge the gap until the Stormont House Agreement was implemented. It is morally indefensible for former service personnel to be caught in limbo, with the threat of investigation hanging over them. The Government in the next Parliament must bring forward legislative proposals—as a matter of urgency—to remedy the situation. We outline a menu of possible options in the final chapter of this report. (Paragraph 25)

The space for legal imagination: options for the Government

4.It is clear from the experience of these legacy investigations that, unless a decision is taken to draw a line under all Troubles-related cases, without exception, they will continue to grind on for many years to come—up to half-a-century after the incidents concerned. (Paragraph 51)

5.Accordingly, we recommend the adoption of Option One—the enactment of a statute of limitations, covering all Troubles-related incidents, up to the signing of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, which involved former members of the Armed Forces. This should be coupled with the continuation and development of a truth recovery mechanism which would provide the best possible prospect of bereaved families finding out the facts, once no-one needed to fear being prosecuted. (Paragraph 52)

6.Although it is beyond the strict remit of the Defence Committee, we would encourage the next Government to extend this provision to include former members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and other former security personnel. It will also be a matter for the next Government to decide, after appropriate consultations, whether the statute of limitations should also cover all Troubles-related incidents. (Paragraph 53)

7.If the 1998 legislation had not ensured that future convictions for terrorist crimes—however heinous—would result in nothing more than a short prison sentence, then there would be a case for arguing that natural justice required investigations to continue, no matter how long after the event. (Paragraph 54)

8.We believe that to subject former Service personnel to legal pursuit under the current arrangements is wholly oppressive and a denial of natural justice. It can be ended only by a statute of limitations. Our expert witnesses agreed that the UK Parliament has it entirely within its power to enact such a statute and we call upon the Government in the next Parliament to do so as a matter of urgency. (Paragraph 55)

 

The report said that an amnesty for soldiers was needed because under the terms of Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act, 1998, “terrorists who committed multiple murders during the Troubles face, in practice, no more than a two-year sentence, even if successfully prosecuted”.  (The human rights lawyer Kieran McEvoy) said that it would be preferable to implement the Stormont House agreement and allow cases to be adjudicated in the normal fashion, ensuring the rule of law is upheld. The sentences act could be reviewed then to allow British soldiers to apply for shortened sentences.

Jonathan Tonge, of the department of politics in University of Liverpool, presented data to the committee that showed a cross-community rejection of amnesties for those who admitted perpetuating violence during the Troubles. He also submitted data which showed cross-community support for the principles that all those killed or injured in the Troubles should be seen as victims and that all those bereaved should be treated equally.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London