Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland politicians vocal in their opposition to Troubles amnesty call

Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson with British troops during training at Salisbury Plain
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson with British troops during training at Salisbury Plain
Brett Campbell

By Brett Campbell

Local politicians yesterday voiced opposition to a call from Defence Minister Gavin Williamson for an amnesty for Troubles killings.

The Ulster Unionists, SDLP and Sinn Fein all distanced themselves from the proposal, which he made in a letter to the Prime Minister urging her to create a statute of limitations to protect British soldiers from prosecution.

"If this means a wider amnesty, so be it," Mr Williamson wrote.

The former Chief Tory whip said the effect of the Good Friday Agreement sentencing reforms, On-the-Run letters - which led to the failure of the prosecution of John Downey for the 1982 Hyde Park bombings - and a "disproportionate focus" on investigating security forces has already resulted in a de-facto amnesty for terrorists.

But Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie, himself a former soldier, has insisted that any attempt to deal with the past must be fair.

"At least Gavin Williamson is honest enough to admit that a statute of limitations will create an amnesty which will apply to terrorists," he said.

While Mr Beattie expressed sympathy with those who have a desire to protect ex-service personnel, he warned that an amnesty would only prevent victims from getting justice leaving the security forces vulnerable to civil action.

The Upper Bann MLA also slammed Arlene Foster and called on her to clarify the DUP's position which he branded as "a picture of confusion".

"In one breath, Arlene Foster says that a statute of limitations has more support from Conservative backbenchers than it does from Unionists, that she is concerned that it will create an amnesty through the back door and that it will take away justice for victims," he said.

"Then in stark contrast, Gavin Robinson MP, just a couple of weeks ago during a debate in Westminster committed the DUP to supporting and working towards a statute of limitations." Mr Beattie said that Mrs Foster needs to get her MPs in line or else be "honest and transparent" by admitting her views are not the views of her party. "This is a leadership issue," he said.

DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson said: “The DUP’s position is clear and has not changed. We do not support an amnesty for terrorists. The ability for families to seek truth and justice must never be closed off. We do not support any process which equates terrorists with those who stood to protect the entire community. OTR letters and early prisoner releases have corrupted the justice process.

"We have outlined support for protections to be offered to veterans who have already been investigated and cleared through an Article 2 compliant process. That does not equate to an amnesty and anyone who would suggest otherwise is wrong.”

Sinn Fein MLA Linda Dillon also rejected the idea of any "self-serving or selective" amnesty and said the only solution was to abide by the mechanism agreed at Stormont House in 2014.

"In that agreement, all parties endorsed legacy mechanisms which should have been operational long before now," she said.

The victims spokesperson said the Defence Secretary's call is "clearly motivated by a desire to protect British State forces from being held to account" rather than by any genuine desire.

"The Legacy Bill is now finally out for consultation after being stalled for years by the British Government and the DUP," she added. "That process needs to take its course."

SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly also opposed any form of amnesty for terrorists.

"There can be no amnesty for those who committed violence in the past," she said. "No one should be off-limits to the rule of law."

Mrs Kelly also said questions must now be asked of the Defence Secretary's rationale.

Alliance leader Naomi Long said her party has been clear from the outset in warning that a statute of limitations would inevitably open the door for a general amnesty.

"To deny victims and their families the right to pursue justice where it is possible is completely unjustified and adds insult to injury," she said.

Mrs Long said Mr Williamson's "blinkered agenda" was detrimental to all those members of the armed forces who served honourably and treats victims as "collateral damage".

Responding to the reaction yesterday the Defence Secretary stood firm on the contents of his letter to the PM. "The reality is that I'm prepared to go to any lengths to stop this ridiculous vendetta," he wrote on Twitter.

However, a Downing Street spokeswoman was quick to reject Mr Williamson's ideas saying that Number 10 "cannot countenance" proposals to grant amnesty to terrorists.

Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley sparked a political row back in May when she unveiled a consultation on the toxic legacy of the Troubles which did not include an amnesty for members of the security forces insisting there was "no support" for it in the region.

Belfast Telegraph


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