Belfast Telegraph

Emotive issue must be debated

Editor's Viewpoint

The reaction to Attorney General John Larkin's proposal to draw a line under the past by ending investigations, inquests and prosecutions relating to Troubles-era murders is unsurprising and understandable. The police and legal community share his analysis that successful prosecutions grow more unlikely every day that passes and the money spent on investigating past offences is hampering policing of present day crime.

However many victims' relatives are appalled at his suggestion. Their continuing hurt, no matter how long ago their bereavement, is evident. Many of them want the killers of their loved ones punished and that is entirely understandable. It is hard to argue against the fact that murder should always be murder.

The present system may not be full justice – since anyone convicted would get only a maximum sentence of two years – but it would be some consolation. Politicians, except for the NI21 party, have rejected the proposal, but then it is not a likely vote-catcher. Mr Larkin is an isolated figure with Dublin and London distancing themselves from his proposal.

Yet his analysis of the current situation stands scrutiny. There won't be many successful prosecutions and only lawyers will get rich from future legal proceedings. But there is a flaw in his vision of the way forward. While the state could release all information it holds on killings there would be no compulsion on paramilitaries to come clean.

Why would any killer admit to their crime if they knew they were not going to be prosecuted? There would have to be some stick along with that carrot, such as a clause in any new legislation saying that killers who did not volunteer the truth could still be brought to court if traced.

Dealing with the past is a debate which will not go away. It is not surprising that we sometimes turn our backs on proposals such as the Eames-Bradley report, and this is now happening to Mr Larkin.

We do not subscribe to some of the conspiracy theories which suggest his proposal is a softening-up process for future legislation.

What we accept is that he has reopened a debate that is important we have.

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