Loyalists called for a cut-off date later than 1998, while republicans wanted other legacy mechanisms to stay
Loyalist and republican paramilitary representatives were aware of the Government’s plans for a de facto amnesty prior to the announcement by the Secretary of State on Wednesday after a series of briefings with intermediaries.
Loyalist paramilitary groups are said to be in favour of the Statute of Limitations but asked that the cut off date be later than 1998, while republicans had indicated they could agree to the amnesty but not the shutting down of all other legacy mechanisms, including Troubles inquests.
The Addressing the Legacy of Northern Ireland’s Past command paper, published on Wednesday by the Government, contained few surprises in terms of Westminster’s intent to end future criminal investigations and prosecutions.
Secretary of State Brandon Lewis told MPs of plans for a "statute of limitations, to apply equally to all Troubles-related incidents".
"We know that the prospect of the end of criminal prosecutions will be difficult for some to accept, and this is not a position that we take lightly," said Mr Lewis.
"But we have arrived at the view that this would be the best way to facilitate an effective information retrieval and provision process, and the best way to help Northern Ireland move further along the road to reconciliation.
"It is a painful recognition of the reality of where we are.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: "The sad fact remains that there are many members of the armed services who continue to face the threat of vexatious prosecutions well into their 70s and 80s. We are finally bringing forward a solution to this problem, to enable the people of Northern Ireland to draw a line under the Troubles and to enable the people of Northern Ireland to move forward."
A “short, sharp” period of talks with local parties and the Irish government will now take place, although the legislation covering the Statute of Limitations is expected to begin its journey through the Commons by the autumn.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood called the plans “a serious act of bad faith” saying they breach the Stormont House Agreement.
“Boris Johnson and Brandon Lewis have chosen to close down justice for families who have campaigned for the truth about what happened to their loved ones for decades. Even worse, they wrapped it up in the language of reconciliation,” he said.
Ulster Unionist leader and former soldier Doug Beattie called it the “wrong path” saying the proposals would “tread on the emotions of innocent victims and their families”.
“We warned about this when some were championing a Statute of Limitations despite the inevitable conclusion that it would lead to an amnesty for terrorists,” he added.
The DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said: “Understandably many victims will feel that these proposals represent a further denial of the opportunity to secure justice for their loved ones.
“There can be no equivalence between the soldier and police officer who served their country and those cowardly terrorists who hid behind masks and terrorised under the cover of darkness. We find any such attempted equivalence as offensive”.
Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O’Neill said the Government had shown “a total disregard for all victims and survivors”.
“They are protecting their own state forces and those responsible for shoot to kill, state murder and collusion”, she said.
A truth recovery process alongside a story telling project will go ahead as agreed in the Stormont House Agreement. Families can ask for a report on their loved one’s death, with input from republicans, loyalists and the security forces. However, suspects will not be named in the reports. It is not clear who would lead truth recovery, and whether that will be an independent. judge led process.
As part of plans for reconciliation the Government said it is interested in ”increasing integrated education” and looking at a joint education project with the Irish government, such as
“a cross border university situated in the North West. This could symbolise the importance of North-South cooperation, representing an important step in achieving greater social cohesion”.
The Government is also seeking to close down all Troubles related inquests and civil cases. According to the Government’s figures there are over 1,000 civil claims against the State.
The shutting down of all alternative forms of investigation is also expected to include the Police Ombudsman, who will have all legacy cases removed from her office and information gathered by the watchdog added to any truth recovery mechanism.
The proposals aimed at protecting former soldiers from future criminal investigations have been condemned. Axel Schmidt of Ulster Human Rights Watch said: “To equate officers and military veterans – agents of the State – in the same bracket as those who were hell-bent on murdering them makes a laughing-stock out of our system of justice”.