A senior loyalist has accused the Government of reneging on a deal that meant anyone involved in the conflict here prior to the Good Friday Agreement would not be pursued for prosecution.
The explosive claim is made by William ‘Plum’ Smith – who chaired the 1994 loyalist ceasefire news conference.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, the former Red Hand Commando prisoner suggests the deal, dating back to talks in 1998, amounted to an undeclared amnesty.
But he argues the PSNI and Historical Enquiries Team are breaking the deal in continuing investigations into the past.
Asked why he has chosen to speak now, the loyalist responded: “If it’s not raised now, where does it end? In 20 years’ time are people still going to be looking over their shoulders?”
The police are currently running a major investigation – Operation Ballast – that could cause turmoil not just inside the UVF, but also inside the intelligence world as the handling of agents is examined.
This newspaper understands the issues of continuing investigations and arrests have been raised in recent meetings with the chief constable and secretary of state.
There are fears the loyalist community could be destabilised causing problems for the different leaderships. Recently, the UDA brigadier Jackie McDonald told this newspaper: “We need to draw a line in the sand and move on.”
And William Smith insists that line was drawn back in 1998.
“The word amnesty would provoke a massive negative reaction which the British Government felt they couldn’t live with at that time,” he said.
“That’s why it wasn’t explicitly expressed in the agreement, but that was a clear understanding endorsed by (then secretary of state) Mo Mowlam on behalf of the British Government,” he said.
He said the deal covered not just loyalists, but republicans, |police officers and soldiers. If his interpretation of negotiations is accepted, it would mean those behind the Loughinisland pub shootings would not be pursued.
And it would also mean that IRA attacks pre-dating 1998, and the practices of members of the security forces and services in the so-called “dirty war” would not be examined in “any legal format or proceedings”.
In a detailed statement given to the Belfast Telegraph, Smith, who was prisoners’ spokesman at the time of the Good Friday Agreement negotiations, writes: “As the pen touched the paper to sign the agreement I was under no illusion or ambiguity that:
1) All prisoners would be released within two years and would all go through a mechanism administered by commissioners;
2) That anyone, loyalist, republican, RUC or British Army who were involved in matters connected to the conflict before the ink dried on the agreement would not be pursued in any legal format or proceedings;
3) Those who wished to admit to involvement may go through a due process of law and may be incarcerated for a period not exceeding two years.
“All our constituencies were made fully aware of this position prior to the endorsement of the agreement,” Smith wrote.
Indeed, just hours before that agreement was signed, Smith and a senior figure in the UVF briefed senior loyalist prisoners inside the Maze jail.
A spokesman for the NIO declined to comment on the specifics of Smith’s claim, but referred to the 1998 Sentences Act: “There is a process in place that deals with those who are convicted of crimes pre-1998.”
But Smith insists he is right.
He said: “We went round the country and told people what was agreed, including that (a reference to an undeclared amnesty).
“While I can acknowledge that some people cannot forget the past, it is essential that we do not dwell in the past.
“If we want to move forward as a country and a communityfor the future of our children, these are the steps we must take.”