BELFAST – Britain is pressing ahead with plans to grant legal immunity to former soldiers and others implicated in the killings in Northern Ireland – but only if they tell the truth to a new investigative group.
The approach is designed to give long-serving retired soldiers a shield against prosecution for many of the nearly 300 murders committed by British forces, including Bloody Sunday and the Ballymurphy massacre. Both involved members of the Parachute Regiment in 1972, the deadliest year of the conflict.
The UK government originally proposed last summer to block all further criminal and civil investigations into the killings during the three-decade dispute over Northern Ireland known as ‘The Troubles’.
But the Irish government, the Council of Europe and all parties in Northern Ireland have denounced the idea. Irish Republicans wanted to keep open the possibility of prosecuting retired soldiers, intelligence officers and other state officials implicated in collusion with pro-British Northern Ireland paramilitary groups. The Unionists, by contrast, wanted no amnesty offered to veterans of the Provisional IRA for its bombings and shootings that left nearly 1,800 dead and maimed thousands more.
This time around, according to the amended The Troubles in Northern Ireland (Inheritance and Reconciliation) Bill published on Tuesday, ex-combatants of all factions will only be protected from civil or criminal prosecution if they are brought to account. honest and comprehensive to a new organ called the Independent. Reconciliation and Information Recovery Commission.
This revised idea, when told earlier this month by British officials, drew similar criticism to that before – that it would offer a liar’s charter to activists and retired soldiers who earn new legal protections at lower cost with interested accounts.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis has insisted the proposed system will have strong requirements.
“There will be no automatic access to immunity,” Lewis said in a statement. “It is normal that people involved in an investigation cannot get ‘something for nothing’. Immunity will be granted to those who cooperate, which is the best way to give victims and their families the answers they have been seeking for years and to give our veterans the certainty they deserve.
The Northern Ireland office said the proposed commission would “conduct inquiries, in line with our international obligations, to provide answers to those who want them, in a process supported by full state disclosure. and with power to compel witnesses”.
The commission, she said, would grant immunity to witnesses deemed to have given full and truthful accounts.
“Those who do not cooperate with the independent body will not be granted immunity and will remain subject to prosecution if sufficient evidence exists or is revealed,” the NIO said.
For decades, Northern Ireland has fought over the idea of creating a South African-style truth commission. But every side of the community has so far dismissed it as more likely to provide legal benefits to killers than give satisfying answers to their victims.
But Lewis said the proposed process would shed more light on the horrors of the past than legal actions typically do.
“The current system is flawed. It does neither truth nor justice for the vast majority of families. It fails victims and veterans,” he said. “Every family who has lost a loved one, no matter who they were, will receive more information about the circumstances of their death than ever before.”