Belfast Telegraph

MPs urge Troubles prosecution amnesty for paramilitaries and service personnel

Senior Tory and Labour MPs have written a joint letter to Theresa May calling for an effective amnesty that would cover security force members and paramilitaries suspected of involvement in Troubles crimes.

Four senior parliamentary figures on defence have urged a statute of limitation that would prevent "anyone" from facing trial for offences that happened in the conflict.

The letter has been signed by Tory MP and former Army captain Johnny Mercer, who is leading a backbench rebellion over defence cuts, and Julian Lewis, the Conservative chairman of the Commons Defence select committee.

The select committee, of which Mr Mercer is a member, has previously called for a statute of limitations for British veterans to be introduced.

Kevan Jones, a Labour former defence minister, has also signed the letter along with Dan Jarvis, a Labour MP and former paratrooper.

The letter to Mrs May comes weeks after the Government indicated a statute of limitations proposal would be included in a public consultation exercise in Northern Ireland on future mechanisms to deal with the legacy of the Troubles.

Over the last year, the concept of an amnesty has gained traction among a number of Westminster backbenchers, who claim recent prosecutions of former British soldiers are tantamount to a "witch-hunt".

Prosecutors and police in Northern Ireland insist such allegations simply do not stand up to scrutiny, with a breakdown of figures showing no disproportionate focus on ex-security force members.

The MPs' letter said expert evidence to the defence committee indicated a statute of limitation that only covered security force members would "fall foul" of international law.

They said they were therefore calling for a law that covered anyone involved in Troubles offences, arguing that future prosecutions of paramilitaries were currently unlikely.

They claimed there was "little or no prospect" of cases being taken against paramilitaries, noting that the maximum sentence for loyalists and republicans found guilty was only two years under the terms of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement.

The MPs suggested hundreds of cases against former security force members were in the "judicial pipeline" and stressed that such individuals would not be covered by the provisions of the 1998 peace agreement.

"Some people object to the principle of such a Statute, because it would have to cover the paramilitaries as well as our service personnel; but... few if any paramilitaries will be tried for 'legacy cases' anyway," they wrote.

The letter read: "From opposite sides of the House of Commons we view with great concern moves to bring to court so-called 'legacy cases' against British service personnel, long after the Belfast Agreement brought to an end the Northern Ireland 'Troubles'.

"It seems that several hundred such cases against former British soldiers may be in the judicial pipeline, despite the absence of any new evidence and the passage of up to 40 years or more."

The MPs added: "The time has come, in our view, for the Government and the Labour Opposition to grip this problem, on a bipartisan basis, and agree to co-operate in enacting a Statute of Limitation to prevent historic cases being resurrected."

A range of mechanisms to deal with the conflict legacy were agreed by Northern Ireland politicians in the 2014 Stormont House Agreement; an amnesty was not among them.

The agreed proposals, including a new independent investigatory unit, a truth recovery body and an oral archive, are on ice due to a small number of outstanding disputes.

Amid the political impasse on implementing the new structures, Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire has proposed conducting a consultation exercise to establish the wider public's view.

His recent decision to also include the statute of limitation proposal as an alternative option to the Stormont House bodies came as a surprise to many.

Victims' representatives, Sinn Fein, the DUP and the Irish government are among those who have voiced concern.

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