For the first time the UK government have admitted they’re considering a general amnesty arising out of the Troubles. Although an amnesty is not government policy, the admission came in a Lords debate instigated by the former Chief of General Staff of the Army Lord Dannatt, supported by other former top brass and former secretaries of state. What remains unclear is how this would affect the Legacy package of the Stormont House Agreement, including the proposal for an independent Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) the terms for which came under sustained attack.
Contemplation of an amnesty appears to conflict with the Theresa May’s flat rejection only in May of an amnesty for security forces recommended by her Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson. The prime minister’s view was echoed in the Commons by the NI Secretary Karen Bradley.
Ms Bradley said that there was no support in the region for a “Northern Ireland-only statute of limitations” as she launched the public consultation on other proposals, including a new independent investigations unit and a truth recovery body. “The people have been very clear to me in Northern Ireland — the way to address the legacy of the past, the way to address the legacy of the Troubles, is for people to go through this process of understanding what happened, for victims to find out the truth and to see justice being done,” she said.
The get- out phrase is “Northern Ireland only.”
I’m obliged to Jeff Dudgeon for drawing attention to the exchanges between General Lord Dannatt and other speakers, and the windup by a junior minister Lord Duncan in the Lords debate yesterday on the draft Legacy Bill.
Arguments were made favouring a statute of limitations for former members of the security forces, many of them well over 70. Several of them had already been cleared after more than one investigation down the years. But would this not immediately tie the hands in advance of the proposed Historical Investigations Unit, the new body to be created out of the government’s dissatisfaction with some of the work of the previous Historical Investigations Team? Why should it be assumed that the HIU would become an accessory to the republican narrative of the Troubles? And doesn ‘t the record, such as it is, cover paramilitary as well as police and army offences?
Former secretaries of state spoke in favour of general “drawing a line.” Perhaps this is inching nearer.
In the debate the former director general of MI5 Jonathan Evans said the prospect of the HIU completing its work in five years was zero. Former RUC officers had approached him with their concerns years ago . We would be having the same debate in 10 years time “and that would be a disgrace”. The government should take a risk and have a statute of limitations covering the security forces and the terrorists.
Would Lord Evans favour giving access to MI5 and other official records as a quid pro quo for an amnesty, I wonder?
From Lord Dannatt’s speech
The case of Sergeant “O”, one of those who gave evidence to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Saville, has become prominent eight years later—some 46 years after the incident itself. There is a horrible suspicion among veterans that the non-self-incriminatory basis on which they gave evidence to Saville has been broached, and that some soldiers now stand liable for further investigation and in fear of a knock on the door. I would be grateful for a categorical assurance from the Minister that the confidential nature of the evidence given to the Saville Inquiry has not been used in subsequent investigations. There is considerable scepticism in the veteran community on this point.
The case of Sergeant “O” is not unique. The case of Corporal Major “H” is also worrying. He was questioned over the case of a young man with learning difficulties, who was shot dead on 15 June 1974. However, after a joint investigation by the civil and military police, within a year, the Ministry of Defence was informed that there would be no prosecution. I have seen a copy of that letter. Nevertheless, the Historical Enquiries Team, set up in September 2005 by the Blair Government, decided to look once more at the Corporal Major “H” case but concluded in 2013 that there was no basis to reopen it formally. After the Historical Enquiries Team was closed down in 2014, a new legacy investigation unit returned to the “H” case, leading the Police Service of Northern Ireland to arrest the corporal major on 21 April 2015 and deport him to Northern Ireland for interview. He was interviewed 26 times over the next four days—16 more times than Harold Shipman—and was charged with attempted murder on 24 April 2015. A complicated court case is still ongoing. The corporal major is now over 75 years old and a sick man.
First, it should be recognised that the British Army is a national institution which should be regulated under the authority of the Westminster Parliament and not allowed to become victim to the intrigues of Stormont, whenever that Assembly might reconvene. The welfare and duty of care towards servicemen and military veterans should clearly be championed by the Secretary of State for Defence and not left to the outcome of a consultation by the Northern Ireland Secretary.
Thirdly, if the principle of double jeopardy is accepted, it would be quite appropriate for a statute of limitations to apply to those cases and individuals that had already been investigated. This would protect policemen and soldiers who were doing their duty in pursuit of the sovereignty of the Crown’s right to rule over the whole of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland but, crucially, it would leave exposed to the full rigours of the law those terrorists who have never been exposed to investigation. That, I submit, is,
“balanced, fair, equitable, and crucially proportionate”.
In conclusion, I add that to many soldiers fighting in the Province during the 1970s and 1980s in particular, it felt like a war zone, although the IRA insurgency was never branded as such. Indeed, we should not forget that in 1972 alone, 102 British soldiers lost their lives fighting in the Province. Of course, the peace process since the Good Friday agreement has brought better times but the continuation of that peace cannot—and must not—be at the expense of more soldiers’ lives ruined.
Viscount Hailsham ( the former Conservative minister Douglas Hogg)
I do not think that it is possible politically or in law to make a distinction between the security services and former terrorists or, indeed, within those classes, and I therefore conclude that there should be a statutory bar on all Trouble-related killings or woundings committed prior to the Good Friday agreement. That should be statutory, not administrative, and could take the form of a statute of limitations, an Act of oblivion or a statutory amnesty and it should apply to both criminal and civil proceedings. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, when he says that it is likely that members of the security forces would be targeted for legal proceedings to a disproportionate extent. I would find that deeply offensive.
I also find it unconscionable—indeed, an abuse of process—that members of the security forces could be prosecuted or sued, while former terrorists now either hold or have held prominent positions in the political life of Northern Ireland and have participated in the Administration of that Province. It is for those reasons that if a Bill is brought forward, I shall certainly vote for a statutory bar of the kind I have identified and, if necessary, I will trigger such a vote.
Lord ( Paul) Bew
The Secretary of State, in talking about the legacy arrangements, has made the point that above all we must promote reconciliation. That is impossible in these particular arrangements. I note, by the way, that one of the key people in the Democratic Unionist Party has already moved away in public from the key paragraph 34 in the legacy section of the Stormont House agreement.
Some movement is now going on. I do not know where the chips will fall, but these arrangements will not bring about any form of reconciliation.
Lord ( Peter) Hain
Proposing a quasi-amnesty or statute of limitations must be done for all, or not at all—a point ably made by the noble Lord, Lord Evans. Currently, we are witnessing a massive diversion of resources into investigating old crimes with no prospect of a successful outcome, with many old citizens—notably retired soldiers and police officers—being stressed out by protracted inquiries.
Lord ( Paul) Murphy
I have now come to the conclusion, like the noble Lord, Lord Evans, and my noble friend Lord Hain, that we must draw a line. The issue is how we do it, when it is done, where it is done and, of course, whether it can be accepted right across the community in Northern Ireland—which it must be for it to be effective.
Junior NI minister Lord Duncan
The reason that we are consulting today and have brought forward an indication of how we might move this in a different direction is that the current arrangements do not work.
We cannot have a situation in which the state, which necessarily records the actions of all those who perform a service for that state, is therefore more likely to be pursued than those who belonged to paramilitary organisations which—as many noble Lords have pointed out—simply did not keep records. We need to recognise that reality. We cannot those who have served this nation being prosecuted simply because it is easier to prosecute them. Justice must be served, but justice must be blind.
I am also aware that in this consultation, as raised by a number of noble Lords, we have focused only on fatalities. It is of course right to strengthen the point that the number of those who were injured is an order of magnitude greater. I would welcome—in fact, I would strongly urge—those who hold that view to make it very clear to the Government that injuries also need to be considered in the wider approach as we seek to bring this consultation towards a conclusion.
The question then of a statute of limitations, or indeed of an amnesty, is a challenge that we must confront foursquare. The issue is: shall we now draw that line and say that, before a particular date, all shall therefore be left behind, whereas after that date we shall act? It is not the policy of the Government to move forward with an amnesty but, as has been pointed out, an amnesty could not apply only to one side; it must apply equally to all.
I suspect the challenge will be that that consensus will be absent. It will call therefore on the Government to lead, to determine what that policy that we will move forward with needs to be.
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