Troubles veterans welcome South Africa-style ‘truth’ commission that would make British soldiers exempt from prosecution over killings – but ‘amnesty’ proposals spark backlash on both sides of the Irish Border

  • New statute of limitations so no one can be charged over incidents up to the 1998 Good Friday agreement
  • Block on trials linked to the Troubles would apply to both IRA terrorists and veterans of the Armed Forces  
  • Government will look at ‘truth and reconciliation’ model similar to that used in post-Apartheid South Africa
  • Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis is now in discussions about building a ‘truth discovery’ museum

British veterans who served in Northern Ireland have today welcomed proposals to make them exempt from prosecution under new legislation to be announced in the Queen’s Speech next week. 

Ministers will introduce a statute of limitations so no one can be charged over incidents up to the 1998 Good Friday agreement – except for cases involving war crimes, genocide or torture.

But politicians on both sides of the Irish border have condemned the move, which would see a block on trials linked to the Troubles apply to both Irish Republican Army (IRA) terrorists and veterans of the Armed Forces.

Instead, the Government will move towards an approach echoing the ‘truth and reconciliation’ model used in post-Apartheid South Africa, where all sides come forward to talk about historical events without risk of prosecution.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis is now in discussions about building a ‘truth discovery’ museum in the border areas that will aim to move things from a ‘criminal debate to a historical debate’.

The legislation comes after the murder trial of two ex-paratroopers accused of shooting Joe McCann, an IRA commander responsible for the deaths of 15 British soldiers, collapsed on Tuesday after just six days.

The statute of limitations is unlikely to apply to cases that are already going through the courts. British forces are thought to have been responsible for 301 deaths during the Troubles, out of a total of 3,520.

Among the veterans welcoming the plans is former Royal Marine David Griffin, 80, a Chelsea pensioner (left) who has been waiting since 2012 for a decision on whether he will be charged over an incident in July 1972. He is also pictured in 1970 (right)

British troops, in the foreground, clash with demonstrators in Belfast in May 1981 during the Troubles in Northern Ireland

Among the veterans welcoming the plans is former Royal Marine David Griffin, 80, a Chelsea pensioner who has been waiting since 2012 for a decision on whether he will be charged over a shooting incident in July 1972.

He told The Times that he would give the relatives of those who died ‘every last detail of what happened’, adding: ‘I was promised ten years ago that within six months I would either be charged or given a letter of complete exoneration and I’m still waiting.’

Prosecutors to review cases of at least 16 after IRA trial fiasco 

At least 16 Army veterans facing charges over shootings during the Troubles will have their cases reviewed following the collapse of a landmark trial.

Prosecutors will re-examine evidence dating back to 1972 after Soldiers A and C were acquitted of the killing that year of Official IRA commander Joe McCann.

A judge ruled statements given by the men, now 71 and 70, in the immediate aftermath of the shooting – and again in 2010 – were inadmissible.

His scathing comments, which led the prosecution to offer no evidence on the sixth day of the trial on Tuesday, could place a number of prosecutions of ex-military personnel in doubt.

Four soldiers have already been charged with offences including murder. A further 12 are awaiting decisions on prosecutions following historic investigations by the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Seven were members of a covert military unit made up of members of the SAS, Royal Marines and Parachute Regiment instructed to ‘eliminate’ suspected members of the IRA. 

The failed prosecution of Soldiers A and C was the first carried out against ex-servicemen in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. 

The province’s deputy director of public prosecutions said lawyers would now ‘carefully consider’ whether the judge’s comments would affect other cases.

Mr Justice John O’Hara dismissed the statements Soldiers A and C gave following the shooting of McCann, saying they were ‘compelled’ to make them and did not have legal representation.

Soldiers involved in fatal incidents were not questioned by police under caution until a year later, in 1973.

Justice O’Hara also ruled that the interviews the veterans voluntarily gave to the Historical Enquiries Team in 2010 were inadmissible because they were largely based on their 1972 statements.

He said investigators did not caution the men under suspicion of murder as they were not aware their report would be used in a criminal prosecution. 

In any event, Paul Johnston, deputy director of the HET, concluded in his report into the death of McCann that there was ‘no new or compelling evidence’. Despite his findings, charges were brought without the veterans even being arrested or interviewed by police.

Philip Barden of Devonshires Solicitors, which represents Soldiers A and C and other Northern Ireland veterans, said any statements obtained prior to 1973 should be ruled inadmissible in future cases.

He added that proceedings stemming from HET statements would also need to be ‘carefully looked at’ to ensure defendants were cautioned for specific offences. 

A veteran known as Soldier B is charged with the murder of teenager Daniel Hegarty in Londonderry in 1972 during an Army operation.

Another known as Soldier F is charged with two counts of murder and four counts of attempted murder in relation to 1972’s Bloody Sunday deaths.

And Dennis Hutchings, a 79-year-old former soldier in the Life Guards, is charged with attempted murder over a shooting in County Tyrone in 1974.

Mr Griffin added that he would want to have legal assurances as well as a senior Ministry of Defence officer with him before he gave evidence in the ‘truth and reconciliation’ process.

He was originally questioned in 2012 by the Historical Enquiries Team, and the case was then passed onto the Legacy Investigations Branch of the Police Service of Northern Ireland – but he has still not yet heard whether he will be charged or exonerated.

Another veteran known as ‘Dave’, who was part of the Green Howards regiment, also told The Times: ‘We should all get together and say enough is enough, it is water under the bridge and let’s forget it and carry on.’

Johnny Mercer, who was sacked as Veterans’ Affairs minister last month, said the past two Queen’s Speeches have contained lines promising to take action to protect Northern Ireland veterans but the Government is yet to deliver. 

Many victims of the Troubles are vehemently opposed to any statute of limitations, which they characterise as an amnesty that will thwart their chances of justice.

The bar on prosecutions would apply across the board, including former security force members and paramilitaries, but an exemption would still enable war crimes, such as torture, to be prosecuted, according to reports in The Times and Daily Telegraph.

The reported move, some detail of which could be announced in next week’s Queen’s Speech, would signal the scrapping of a key mechanism agreed by the UK and Irish Governments and main Northern Ireland parties in the 2014 Stormont House Agreement.

The Stormont House proposals included a new independent investigation unit to re-examine all unsolved killings.

Responding to the development, Northern Ireland deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill tweeted: ‘Reports that British government are to legislate for an amnesty for their state forces is another slap in the face to victims.

‘Another cynical move that will put British forces beyond the law. This is legal protection for those involved in state murder. This is not acceptable.’

Ireland’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Simon Coveney, who met Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis in Dublin on Wednesday, also expressed concern.

It is understood that, while legacy was discussed at the meeting, the potential of a statute of limitations being introduced in the Queen’s Speech was not raised.

Ministers in Dublin are said to be dismayed by the reports.

A spokesman for Mr Coveney said: ‘The Irish Government discussed with our UK colleagues the commitments of the Stormont House Agreement and strongly advised against any unilateral action on such sensitive issues.

‘We reiterated that only through a collective approach can we deal with these issues comprehensively and fairly in a way that responds to the needs of victims, survivors and society as a whole. Victims and their families are the only priority.’

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood tweeted: ‘If true, this will be the biggest betrayal of victims by the British government & will put a huge obstacle in the way of true reconciliation. This is the most unprincipled & cynical British government in many years and that’s saying something. An absolute disgrace. Shame on them.’

Alliance Party leader and Stormont Justice Minister Naomi Long tweeted: ‘This kind of briefing, before any meaningful engagement with victims’ families, typifies the contempt with which Govt are treating victims.

‘I believe that they deserve justice where that is possible: however, at the very least, they deserve not to learn of Govt plans on Twitter.’

Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister expressed concern that an amnesty could be introduced.

‘If the kite-flying in today’s national press proves correct, then amnesty for terrorist murder is shamefully on its way,’ he said. 

Northern Ireland deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill (left) said the reports were ‘another slap in the face to victims’, while Ireland’s Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney (right) also expressed concern

Ireland’s Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney (left) with Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis in Dublin yesterday

‘Amnesty for terrorists in the tailwind of action to protect veterans is not acceptable, either by reason of the equivalence it embraces or the disproportionate advantage to terrorists.  

‘Though the release of prisoners and ‘On the Run’ letters, as props to ‘the process’, were softening up sops towards amnesty, its final delivery is as repulsive as the steps which paved its way.

Official IRA leader Joe McCann, 24, was shot dead by paratroopers as he attempted to evade arrest by a plain clothed police officer in the Markets Area of Belfast in 1972

‘Once more, if this proceeds, what we are really seeing is the sanitisation of terrorism, whereby premeditated murder and genocidal actions will be excused and innocent victims and those they lost once more demeaned as worthless.’

Last March, Mr Lewis announced an intention to unilaterally move away from the Stormont House deal.

He said only Troubles killings where compelling new evidence had emerged would receive a full police reinvestigation.

He added that most unsolved cases would be closed and a new law would prevent them being reopened.

On Tuesday, the trial of two former paratroopers accused of the murder of Official IRA commander Joe McCann in 1972 collapsed due to legal issues related to the admissibility of statements and interviews given by the ex-soldiers.

Responding to reports that a statute of limitations is to be introduced, a UK Government spokesman said: ‘The Government has clear objectives for addressing the legacy of the Troubles and delivering its manifesto commitments to veterans who served in Northern Ireland.

‘We want to deal with the past in a way that helps society in Northern Ireland to look forward rather than back.

‘It is clear to all that the current system for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles is not working for anyone, failing to bring satisfactory outcomes for families, placing a heavy burden on the criminal justice system, and leaving society in Northern Ireland hamstrung by its past.’

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