Politicians need to make up their minds and decide if they want to prosecute historic Troubles cases or offer an amnesty in order to embed the peace process, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) has said.
Barra McGrory QC said the political uncertainty over dealing with Northern Ireland's violent past needs to be addressed – but society faces a stark choice in order to stop the thorny issue continuing to drift.
"Either it decides now to go down the route, the very difficult route, of determining that we are going to forego the investigation and prosecution of the past in favour of embedding the political institutions or the peace process, or between that and deciding whether or not the peace process is best served by continuing to prosecute the past," he said.
"If it is going to be the latter then I think there needs to be a very clear investigative structure established with very clear lines of definition and with significant resources and if that is going to be done it needs to have terms of reference which will cover all criminality from all sides."
The DPP highlighted difficulties in prosecuting old cases – including impaired memories, dead witnesses or perpetrators and limitations using modern evidence-gathering methods like DNA.
He said his Public Prosecution Service (PPS) would need proper resources for large-scale investigations.
"That has not yet happened," Mr McGrory told a transitional justice conference in Belfast.
But he said he would continue to prosecute where the evidence existed to deliver true justice.
"As the Director of Public Prosecutions I don't think it is my role to deny any victim of an injustice the delivery of true justice to that person or his or her family. As the DPP that is what I must strive to do in the current circumstances," he said.
DUP victims spokesman Jeffrey Donaldson said his party strenuously opposed the idea of an absolute amnesty for perpetrators.
"However, we recognise that there is a need to deal with the past and to find ways in which Northern Ireland can begin to move forward but at the same time mean the victims are not denied the right to both truth and justice about what happened to their loved ones," he said. "We certainly want to see reconciliation but it must not be at the price of truth and justice."
Sinn Fein's Mitchel McLaughlin has suggested a process of reconciliation could be moved forward by separating it from the search for the truth about what happened during the Troubles.
Sinn Fein's position has long been supportive of a truth and reconciliation process, but Mr McLaughlin said: "As long as they remain a binary process, then one can't go forward without the other.
"There are too many things that we could do that aren't being addressed."
"Perhaps the time has come when our society should reflect on how we are going to address these issues because we appear to be drifting along at the moment in a sort of vacuum of some uncertainty."
Barra McGrory QC, Director of Public Prosecutions