THE moral question of whether soldiers involved in the Bloody Sunday killings should be prosecuted has been pulled into the spotlight, after former Secretary of State Peter Hain suggested it should not happen.
The Labour MP sparked fury after saying there should be an amnesty for British military involved in the atrocity in a similar way to that offered to republican on-the-runs (OTRs).
As a PSNI inquiry into the role of security forces in the 1972 Bloody Sunday deaths continues, Mr Hain insisted a "balanced approach" had to be taken, following revelations of the letters sent to almost 200 republican OTRs.
He argued: "If you have addressed the question of former terrorists involved in activity, then it should apply even-handedly right across the board to members of the British security forces as well."
Mr Hain added that he broadly agreed with the view of Northern Ireland Attorney General John Larkin – with whom Hain has bitterly clashed previously – that a line should be drawn under the past.
"And if we are going to draw a line on historic and, in all probability, fruitless investigations, that must include the pursuit of soldiers involved in the Bloody Sunday incident," he said.
"Diverting police time to investigate Bloody Sunday soldiers or crimes from the Troubles seems a waste when the priority today should be tracking down the tiny, but dangerous, attacks from IRA dissident groups..."
Mr Hain's views fuelled the fall-out of the John Downey case, which sparked a political crisis last week when a Crown prosecution case alleging that he was involved in the 1982 Hyde Park bomb collapsed.
Downey had wrongly been told by the PSNI that he was not wanted for questioning or prosecution in the UK, despite a Metropolitan Police warrant for his arrest for the murders of soldiers.
The case revealed the extent of an assurance scheme for OTRs and a deal the last Labour government struck with Sinn Fein that saw more than 180 individuals given letters similar to Mr Downey's, clearing their way to return home.
Justice Minister David Ford was among those furious with Mr Hain's suggestions. "It almost looks like Peter Hain, having played a part in one sort of pseudo amnesty, is now suggesting another kind of amnesty to try and ingratiate himself with different people in the community," he said.
"By saying that we should not investigate crimes committed during the Troubles, Peter Hain's comments go against the rule of law. We cannot ignore the past.
"Just as John Larkin's proposal about granting amnesties was rejected by nearly every political party, I am sure that Peter Hain's comments will be similarly rejected by most politicians."
Sinn Fein, which has defended the scheme under which republican paramilitary suspects were given assurances they were not being sought, also rebuked Mr Hain.
Foyle MLA Raymond McCartney said:"Given the ongoing investigation by the PSNI following the Saville inquiry's findings into the events of Bloody Sunday, Peter Hain's comments are ill-judged and inappropriate."
The DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson said due legal process should be observed in all cases. "There should be no amnesty for anyone," he said.
SDLP Foyle MP Mark Durkan has described the comments from Mr Hain as "inevitable".
"I know that many families may be anxious and aggrieved by the inevitable and predictable line that has now come from Peter Hain, and will be pushed by others, but this is a consequence of Sinn Fein's selfish misdealing, which we will have to work hard to resist – firstly by reminding people both the Eames-Bradley report and the Haass drafts ruled out amnesty as a basis for dealing with the past," he added.
Meanwhile, Mr Hain was also being urged to tell all he knows to the judge-led inquiry being set up by David Cameron over the 'letters of comfort' to republicans.
Alliance leader Ford said he believed Mr Hain's statement to Parliament on the issue was "less than the complete" picture and also added there was an "oral onus" on former prime minister Tony Blair to give evidence to the inquiry, which is expected to get off the ground in the next few weeks. It also emerged that another ex-secretary of state, Peter Mandelson, is likely to give evidence to the inquiry, announced after First Minister Peter Robinson threatened to resign last week and plunge the Assembly into new elections.
Mr Robinson was also yesterday maintaining pressure on Peter Hain, who also argued that difficult compromises had to be made to secure the restoration of the devolved government headed by the DUP and Sinn Fein – and reiterated that the letters did not amount to an amnesty.
But the DUP leader yesterday pointed to a written Parliamentary answer from Mr Hain to then Ulster Unionist MP Lady Hermon, that the government did not have any proposals for dealing with on-the-runs. Mr Robinson said: "The question must surely be asked, has Peter Hain misled Parliament? He must now explain why he made those comments. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Parliament was intentionally kept in the dark by the Blair administration."
WHAT A SOLDIER SAYS...
A SOLDIER facing questioning in the new Bloody Sunday investigation has spoken of his anger that suspected Hyde Park bomber John Downey was given an official government guarantee he would not face trial.
The former paratrooper said it was "appalling" that Downey had escaped prosecution for the 1982 IRA blast in which he denies involvement.
Last week, Old Bailey judge Mr Justice Stevens ruled Downey could not be prosecuted because the PSNI had wrongly guaranteed him immunity.
As former Secretary of State Peter Hain said the case raised questions over whether soldiers involved in Bloody Sunday killings should face prosecution, one soldier wanted for questioning over the 1972 shootings spoke out. The former military man spoke anonymously to the Mail on Sunday and said he had received a letter from the PSNI warning his identity may be exposed during the fresh inquiry into the 1972 massacre of 14 innocent civilians in the Bogside area of Londonderry.
The Ulster-based former paratrooper described it as "double standards".
"So much for British justice," he said. "Being named could end my life. Downey receives a letter promising him he will not have to face justice. I am warned I face another investigation.
"I've had Bloody Sunday hanging over me for more than 40 years, even though I didn't even fire a shot on the day. This has been a lifetime of suspicion and fear that our anonymity will be lifted. Who cares about us? Everything has swung the terrorists' way."
The soldier, who did give evidence to the Saville Inquiry, has refused to reply to the new PSNI investigation.
It requires soldiers to testify again because the evidence they gave to the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday is not admissible in a criminal probe.
It is understood the first requests for Bloody Sunday veterans to be interviewed under caution are expected "very soon".
An MoD spokesman said: "Police are still investigating the events of that day and only when that is complete will the relevant authorities be in a position to decide the next steps. The MoD takes very seriously its obligations to former soldiers who face allegations of wrong-doing while on operations."
WHAT THE FAMILIES SAY...
THE relatives of Bloody Sunday victims have spoken of their disgust after Peter Hain said British soldiers involved in the killings should not be prosecuted.
Last night, Kate Nash, John Kelly and Tony Doherty told the Belfast Telegraph the weight of evidence against the paratroopers is so great "prosecution is inevitable".
Kate Nash's brother William was killed during Bloody Sunday.
"I don't understand the mindset of a Secretary of State saying what he has said," she said. "He is saying dismiss the rule of law. He should walk in my shoes and see how he feels.
"Bloody Sunday are not the only victims. There is Ballymurphy, Kingsmills, right across the board, religion doesn't matter."
Ms Nash said people are still "very angry".
"All I have ever wanted is the rule of law to apply. The law of the land has to apply. It is due process," she added.
Ms Nash is also angry about the on-the-run letter scheme.
"All of this is being done without consulting the victims of this country," she said. "These soldiers hardly need letters. It's all done with a nod and a wink. They have immunity.
"The MOD, the British government and Sinn Fein, to them it doesn't matter the crimes they have committed."
John Kelly's brother Michael was also killed on January 30, 1972.
"I was angry and disgusted by what Peter Hain said. For him to say soldiers should not be prosecuted is hypocritical," he said.
"For me the OTRs and Bloody Sunday are two totally separate issues.OTR was a political decision. Prosecution of soldiers is a judicial decision. I don't see the context."
Tony Doherty's father Patrick was among those killed in the massacre.
He said while his family is not pursuing prosecution, they defend the right of other Bloody Sunday families to take a different view.
Tony said: "I think what many British politicians refuse to acknowledge is the massive inequality in relation to how the law has been used to pursue the various different groups of combatants, as they are described.
"The prosecution against soldiers on Bloody Sunday is in my view unstoppable."
Seven days of political crisis
Tuesday: A court case against John Downey – accused of killing four soldiers in the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombing – collapsed after it emerged he had been given an official letter saying he would not be prosecuted, and it emerged a further 186 republican paramilitaries had received similar assurances.
Wednesday: First Minister Peter Robinson threatened to resign unless an inquiry was launched and the letters rescinded.
Thursday: Prime Minister David Cameron announced a judge-led inquiry to produce a full public account of how the scheme operated and whether any other letters were sent in error.
Friday: DUP, UUP and Alliance united in emergency Assembly debate to voice "disgust" at the scheme.
Saturday: Homecoming party for John Downey cancelled amid criticism and media interest.
Yesterday: Former Secretary of State Peter Hain fuelled the fall-out by saying soldiers involved in Bloody Sunday should not be prosecuted.
LIST OF VICTIMS OF BLOODY SUNDAY
Patrick "Paddy" Doherty (31)
Gerald Donaghy (17)
John "Jackie" Duddy (17)
Hugh Gilmour (17)
Michael Kelly (17)
Michael McDaid (20)
Kevin McElhinney (17)
Bernard "Barney" McGuigan (41)
Gerald McKinney (35)
William "Willie" McKinney (26)
William Nash (19)
James "Jim" Wray (22)
John Young (17)
John Johnston (59)
John Johnson was shot twice on January 30, 1972 and died on June 16, 1972. His family say he died prematurely and that his death was due to the injuries received and trauma he underwent on Bloody Sunday.