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Foster backs decision to omit legacy statute protecting ex-soldiers

By Suzanne Breen

DUP leader Arlene Foster has voiced her support for the Government's decision not to include a controversial statute of limitations in draft legacy proposals.

It would have prevented the prosecution of former soldiers for offences committed during the Troubles.

Senior Tory MPs had called for the measure but opponents argued that an amnesty for former servicemen and paramilitaries was unacceptable.

Victims' representatives, nationalist politicians and the Irish government had strongly opposed the move.

Mrs Foster had also criticised the proposal which was popular with Tory back-benchers.

They had complained that the legal pursuit of elderly former soldiers for alleged offences committed four decades ago amounted to a "witch-hunt".

Prosecutors and police have said such allegations don't stand up to scrutiny, with a breakdown of figures showing no disproportionate focus on former security force personnel. The draft legacy proposals which omit a statute of limitations will be published for consultation imminently. They have already been given to Northern Ireland's parties.

Mrs Foster said: "I welcome that a consultation process on legacy is now going ahead.

"There is a need for meaningful consultation as the voice of innocent victims must be heard. Their opinions should shape what happens at the end of any consultation process.

"I am pleased that the statute of limitations has not been included in the consultation.

"There is a need to consider this issue; however the best way to do this is at a UK-wide level. It should not solely focus on Northern Ireland veterans."

Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie criticised the Northern Ireland Office's handling of the draft legacy consultation and said his party had been prevented from raising its concerns.

"This is not the way to treat what are very serious concerns from unionist public representatives and if this is the way that we are going to proceed, then it doesn't bode well for the future," he said.

A new Historical Investigations Unit could effectively be "a parallel police force", Mr Beattie claimed.

SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly said her party recognised the "delays and frustration of victims and survivors" and didn't wish to frustrate the process any further.

"On that basis the SDLP are prepared to agree that the consultation should proceed with the clear caveat that the SDLP is not endorsing the content ... we will submit a comprehensive response to the consultation in due course," she added.

TUV leader Jim Allister wasn't shown the proposals but he said: "As long as the law refuses to draw a distinction between the Shankill bombers killed and injured by the bomb they were planting and the innocent people who were murdered or injured that day while doing their shopping victims will not have justice.

"We don't regard the families of the hijackers on 9/11 as victims. We shouldn't regard the victim makers in Northern Ireland as victims either."

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