Amnesty for Army veterans 'would have to apply to terrorists as well'
Fresh proposals to protect Army veterans from prosecution for alleged historic abuses by implementing a 10-year limit on bringing such cases have been branded a "dressed-up amnesty" for republican and loyalist terrorists.
Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie said reports that Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson is planning to bring forward the legislation amounted to a statute of limitations for former soldiers, but one which would benefit paramilitaries.
In 2018, legal advice provided to Parliament revealed that such a move could not be solely restricted to soldiers, and would have to apply to all those involved in the Troubles.
The development comes amid claims that four Army veterans are expected to be charged with murder over the deaths of 13 Bloody Sunday protesters who died when soldiers from the Parachute Regiment opened fire on civil rights marchers in Londonderry in January 1972. A 14th victim died months later.
The landmark Saville Inquiry ruled that all those killed were innocent and left open the potential for charges to be brought against 18 former soldiers.
The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) will meet with victims' families before making an announcement on whether former soldiers will stand trial for a variety of offences - including murder, attempted murder, grievous bodily harm and perjury - on March 14.
Conservative MP Johnny Mercer, a former Army captain who served in Northern Ireland, has defended the elderly Bloody Sunday veterans, branding it "outrageous" that charges could be brought almost five decades later.
"What is the point in prosecuting soldiers almost half a century after the events who have been through an investigation on these events already," he asked?
Colonel Richard Kemp, who commanded troops in Afghanistan, was reported yesterday as describing the prospect of the men being put through the legal process as counterproductive.
"The actions of the Army were not good on Bloody Sunday, but to single out a group of OAPs after all this time is grossly unfair and doesn't serve justice," he told the Sunday Telegraph.
However, former Royal Irish Regiment captain and Military Cross recipient Mr Beattie said he couldn't support Mr Williamson's latest move because it would enable terrorists to escape justice.
"This is literally what we had last year. No matter which way you dress it up, we're talking about a statute of limitations, and a statute of limitations would end up having to apply to everybody through case law," he explained.
"In other words it's an amnesty and we cannot support an amnesty. Therefore we cannot support a statute of limitations."
He continued: "There needs to be balance in the way that we deal with our Troubles. It needs to be fair, proportionate and equitable - if you've broken the law you need to face the law.
"And no one should be above the law and to bring in any form of statute of limitations, it would mean it would have to apply to people who went out to deliberately maim and murder."
Mr Williamson's plans were also condemned by Kate Nash, who branded it "undemocratic". Her brother William (19) was fatally shot by a member of the Parachute Regiment on Bloody Sunday.
"Where's the equality of justice if you give 10-year statute of limitations on their crimes? It's very open to abuse," she insisted.
"What's the point of the law if it's not going to be followed or if those people in power can say, 'You'll get justice but you can't, or you'll be prosecuted but not you'?
"Murder is a very serious crime and no matter committed by who, security forces or anybody, they should be punished.
"No ambiguity, nobody is above the law. If there was a 10-year statute of limitations then you're effectively telling people that's okay, you can go ahead and kill, and no one will be able to touch you, you'll be covered.
"And that's not a good thing in what is supposed to be a democratic society."
Dolores Kelly, the SDLP's justice spokesperson, warned that the 2012 apology given by the then Prime Minister David Cameron that the Army's actions at Bloody Sunday were "unjustified and unjustifiable" would be "seriously undermined" if the government approved the plan.
"I think like many people we would be saying that no one is above the law and, whether the British Government likes it or not, it is right and proper that the security services - be that MI5, the Army, the Navy, the Air Force - are held to a higher standard than terrorists," she said.
Sinn Fein MLA Linda Dillon said the proposal, if implemented, would "effectively put British soldiers above the law" and she also called on the government to end its "stalling" of the legacy agreements reached in 2014.
"There can be no immunity or impunity for British forces," she said. "No one should be above the law, all victims and survivors should have the same access to processes of truth and justice."
Meanwhile, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the DUP - which has lobbied for veterans to receive greater legal protection from prosecution - had not yet received confirmation from the Ministry of Defence of Mr Williamson's plans but would "give careful consideration to this and reserve judgment until we have fully considered the implications of any proposal for veterans who served in Northern Ireland".