The government need to come clean urgently on their bungled proposal for a security forces amnesty

After Sinn Fein held their meeting with Theresa May this afternoon,  Gerry Adams diverted from the apparent failure to make progress on restoring Stormont with a genuine issue:

a potential amnesty from prosecution for security force members who served in the Troubles is to be floated by the British government.

The Irish News carries the fullest version of the story by the PA.  What’s being floated is a statute of limitations in a fundamental and unilateral amendment to the 2014  Stormont House Agreement ( how can you have an “agreement” which is altered  by only one party?), so far without updated detail and a consultation which has yet to begin.

Concerns however are valid as this was precisely what the Commons Defence Select Committee proposed just before the last Westminster general election accompanied by approving noises from James Brokenshire.  This was one of the moves Gerry Adams pounced on to refuse to recognise the Secretary of State as an impartial mediator in the Stormont stand –off. Today’s leak – if that’s what it is – is unlikely to improve his standing with Sinn Fein.

By failing to come clean immediately on the scope of the consultation, the government are bungling the issue again, despite having months if not years to prepare for  this most sensitive of proposals.

The Defence Committee seemed to believe that an amnesty for the security forces would be matched by truth recovery under privilege  i.e.  confessions by former paramiltaries . Amnesty  would not be appropriate for them as they already have the concession – which  the government and many MPs  seem to believe  does not apply to the security forces – of a maximum  two year sentence under the GFA, under the early release scheme of the Northern Ireland Sentences  Act.

But you do not correct an imbalance by creating another one – and one moreover which has no chance of winning cross community consent.

In any case the widespread belief of an imbalance seems be wrong. As has been explained in Eamonn Mallie’s blog,

leading legal authority Kieran McEvoy  argued in his evidence to that committee, there is nothing in the legislation that would prevent it applying to any member of the security forces if they were to be convicted of a scheduled offence.

The Sentence Commissioners were empowered to grant releases so long as the prisoner was not a supporter of a specified (i.e. not on ceasefire) organisation, was not likely to become a supporter of such an organisation or to ‘engage in terrorism’ if released and, if a lifer, that they would not be a danger to the public.

There is nothing there that would exclude a soldier or police officer and nothing that would exclude them if they were today convicted of a scheduled offence committed before the Agreement.

In fact, there were two soldiers in prison at the time and they did apply to the Sentence Commissioners for early release.

These were Guardsmen Fisher and Wright who were in prison for the murder of Peter McBride in North Belfast.

In the event, they were released on life licence directly by the then Secretary of State Mo Mowlam.

.The spokesman from the Northern Ireland Office said: “The secretary of state believes that the next phase is to consult publicly on the details of how the new institutions would work in practice. A public consultation would provide everyone with an interest the opportunity to see the proposed way forward and contribute to the discussion on the issues.

“The Government believes that the Stormont House Agreement proposals represent the best means of addressing Northern Ireland’s past in ways that will be fair, balanced and proportionate.

“In the spirit of open and meaningful consultation, it is right that the government listens to all views.

“The consultation has not been launched at this stage, but the government will be engaging with stakeholders in advance.

We are obliged to move forward so that victims and survivors are able to get the progress they have been seeking for such a long time.

“The best way to do that is following the formation of an Executive, but if that does not prove possible we do need to get on with this.”

Amnesty International said the British government “must not legislate for impunity” through a statute of limitations.

Rather than a move to tempt SF back, this  looks like another piece of basic government bungling which classically divides SF and the DUP and can only damage further the prospects of a return to Stormont. The best that can come out  of it is if it prompts  meaningful debate on a eventual drawing of a line to allow eventual disclosure of  meaningful parts of the the written and verbal records, without fear of prosecution.

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