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Friday, 11 May 2018

Government launch consultation on Northern Ireland troubles legacy

Written by David Young

The Government has formally unveiled a long-delayed consultation on proposals to deal with the toxic legacy of the Northern Ireland Troubles, amid a political row over the exclusion of an amnesty for security force members.

The four-month public consultation will seek to canvass views on a series of new mechanisms to investigate, document and uncover the truth around killings during the 30-year conflict.

It is based on a blueprint agreed by the Stormont parties and UK and Irish Governments in the 2014 Stormont House Agreement.

The implementation of the agreed mechanisms, which include a new independent investigation unit and a truth recovery body, has been delayed amid ongoing political discord in Northern Ireland.

The consultation is a bid to inject some momentum into efforts to making those new bodies a reality, but it has become embroiled in controversy over what is not included in the document, rather than what is.

Late last year, the Government, which is to spend £150 million setting up the new institutions, indicated that a statute of limitations protecting security force members from historic prosecutions may be added to the consultation.

The prospect of such a move was met by a wave of opposition in Northern Ireland.

Both Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists voiced concern, as did the Irish Government and representatives of the victims sector.

The DUP and some military veterans in Northern Ireland made the point that any such statute would, by law, have to be extended to also cover former paramilitaries - something they branded unacceptable.

Senior DUP figures favour protections for ex-service personnel as part of wider legislation that focuses on all conflicts, including Iraq and Afghanistan.

While the decision to remove the contentious proposal from the consultation was therefore widely expected in Northern Ireland, it has nonetheless generated opposition both within the Cabinet and on the Conservative backbenches.

Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson is understood to be among ministers unhappy at the prospect of veteran servicemen being prosecuted.

Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley insisted on Friday that the new mechanisms would be "balanced, proportionate, transparent, fair and equitable".

"I welcome the opportunity to launch the consultation today, seeking views on how to address the legacy of Northern Ireland's troubled past," she said.

"Since my appointment as Secretary of State, I have heard deeply moving stories about the suffering that victims and survivors have lived with for decades and the profound and lasting impact on individuals, families and communities.

"This consultation provides the opportunity to begin a process that has the potential to provide better outcomes for victims, survivors and their families. There is broad agreement that the current complex system does not work well for anyone and we are determined to put that right.

"In an area as sensitive as the troubled past in Northern Ireland, it is important that we recognise and listen to all views. Any way forward will only work if it can command confidence from across the community.

"Now is the time for everyone with an interest in addressing the legacy of Northern Ireland's troubled past to have their say.">

While not publicly backing calls for an amnesty, Prime Minister Theresa May sparked controversy earlier this week when she claimed that, as things stand in Northern Ireland, the only people currently being investigated over Troubles incidents were former security force members.

That claim appeared to run contrary to figures published by the police and prosecutors in Northern Ireland last year.

Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) statistics indicate more of its legacy resources are deployed investigating paramilitaries, while a breakdown of cases taken by the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) in recent years shows more have been pursued against republican and loyalists than security force personnel.

On Wednesday, Mrs May told the Commons that the current system in Northern Ireland is "patently unfair".

Her remarks came as some of her backbenchers criticised the Government's failure to include a statute of limitations on security force prosecutions in the legacy consultation.

Over recent years, the concept of an amnesty has gained traction among a number of Westminster backbenchers, who claim that recent prosecutions of former British soldiers are tantamount to a "witch-hunt".

Prosecutors and police in Northern Ireland insist such allegations simply do not stand up to scrutiny, with a breakdown of figures showing no disproportionate focus on ex-security force members.

The consultation will close on September 10.

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2018, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Michael Cooper / PA Wire.

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