The five main political parties in Northern Ireland have once again slammed legacy plans after a virtual roundtable meeting with the British and Irish governments.
NI Secretary Brandon Lewis and the Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney met with local parties on Friday after a proposed amnesty on Troubles prosecutions was met with widespread condemnation from across the political spectrum and from victims.
DUP leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, said reconciliation in Northern Ireland could not be achieved by opting to “sacrifice justice”.
“We recognise that the passage of time presents evidential and prosecutorial difficulties, but the answer is not to arbitrarily remove all judicial recourse for innocent victims. Perpetrators should never be able to sleep easy in their bed,” he said.
Comparing the controversy of releasing certain political prisoners as part of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, he said the current plans would also “undermine the integrity and foundations” of the criminal justice system.
Urging the Government to listen to victims, he also said the Irish Government were in no position to judge.
“Dublin has spectacularly failed to deal with the legacy of republican terrorists using that state as a haven. They have also failed to cooperate with ongoing investigations,” he said.
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald accused the UK Government of acting “in total bad faith” and was now “clearly intent” on walking away from the Stormont House Agreement.
She has called for another meeting of the party leaders forum early next week and said Sinn Fein was committed to working with other parties and victims to deliver truth and justice.
Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie, however, said he will refuse to attend any future meetings on legacy chaired by Sinn Fein.
“The Ulster Unionist Party is committed to doing everything possible to ensure that innocent victims retain the right to pursue justice for their loved ones,” he said.
“However, what I will not do in pursuit of that goal is give cover to Sinn Fein who are misrepresenting the role of the Party Leaders` Forum as a political prop. I will not be attending discussions on legacy chaired by Sinn Fein.”
He added: “It was Mary Lou McDonald who said that the IRA campaign was justified without a thought for the thousands of victims created by the IRA terror machine. As I said before, we need to widen the lens of discussions on legacy and that includes focusing in on the role of terrorist organisations, including the IRA, and those who supported them.”
Shortly after he revealed that death threats had been made against him for naming Soldier F in parliament, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Brandon Lewis could not be allowed to impose amnesties.
“There is a strong consensus among party leaders that the British Government proposal for an amnesty for those involved in serious conflict-related crimes cannot be allowed to proceed,” he said.
“It represents a gross distortion of the structures agreed by most parties during the Stormont House Agreement and abandons the needs of victims and survivors.
“It is pathetic that Boris Johnson and Brandon Lewis pushed ahead with this announcement before the consultation and engagement process with political parties and victims had begun in any serious way. This process cannot have a predetermined outcome that fails to deliver truth, justice, accountability and acknowledgement that victims and survivors need.
“The SDLP will not give this government a free run on legacy. We will continue to take a stand for victims and survivors. The Assembly will now meet next week giving all parties an opportunity to send a united message to the British Government – we stand with victims and we will stand against this amnesty.”
Alliance leader and Justice Minister Naomi Long said she refused to “provide cover for anything that amounts to an amnesty”.
“I was clear in the meeting this process has to be centered on victims, who have been re-traumatised this week thanks to the actions of the UK Government. Any suggestion their right to access justice as been denied will hurt them further.
“The Prime Minister has stated in blunt and callous terms we need to draw a line under this issue and move on. That is easy said for those who have not suffered any loss, but it is harder to do when you have to live with that loss and pain on a daily basis. It is imperative we restore the focus back to the needs of victims – this should not be simply a political discussion.”
She now questioned if the government actions had now taken the Stormont House Agreement off the table.
“It is not morally right, politically acceptable or respectful of victims’ needs to deny justice in that way. The integrity of the justice system and primacy of victims are key to shaping any process and Alliance will continue to fight to ensure that is the case.”