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John Downey (67) is currently on bail charged with murdering two soldiers in 1972

John Downey (67) is currently on bail charged with murdering two soldiers in 1972

Bobby Rodgers (66) was given a reduced, two-year jail sentence in 2013 for gunning down teenager Eileen Docherty in 1973.

Bobby Rodgers (66) was given a reduced, two-year jail sentence in 2013 for gunning down teenager Eileen Docherty in 1973.

John Downey (67) is currently on bail charged with murdering two soldiers in 1972

Controversial proposals to limit investigations into unsolved murders committed during the Troubles have the secret backing of republicans and loyalists.

Paramilitary sources on both sides of the sectarian divide say they agreed to the format during mediated discussions with Northern Ireland Office (NIO) officials.

This paved the way for a Government announcement last Wednesday that new legislation will prevent approximately 2,000 closed cases from ever being reopened.

These unsolved murders will be quickly assessed by a new independent body, with only a small number looked at more closely and only then when there is "new compelling evidence and a realistic prospect of a prosecution".

Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Michele O'Neill described the new approach as "unacceptable".

However, Sunday Life understands that it privately has the backing of senior IRA figures and the leaders of loyalist paramilitary organisations.

They want an end to historic pre-1998 Good Friday Agreement prosecutions which could see elderly members put behind bars.

Veteran republican John Downey (67) is currently on bail charged with murdering two soldiers in 1972, while UVF hitman Bobby Rodgers (66) was given a reduced, two-year jail sentence in 2013 for gunning down teenager Eileen Docherty in 1973.

A mammoth Police Ombudsman probe into several killings carried out by the Shankill UVF between 1989 and 2010, which involved numerous informants, is expected to recommend prosecutions when it is published later this year.

Determined to avoid a repeat of the Rodgers case, UVF chiefs have been lobbying Government officials to draw the line on Troubles investigations.

One source familiar with the negotiations insists republicans have also adopted a similar tactic - despite the public criticism from Sinn Fein of plans to limit historic probes.

"Both UVF and Provisional IRA figures were putting pressure on the NIO to suspend investigations into pre-1998 murders," explained the insider.

"This paved the way for the Government's announcement last Wednesday. It's hugely controversial, but has gone almost unnoticed because of the coronavirus crisis."

Referencing the new legislation, a NIO spokesman said: "Once cases have been considered, there will be a legal bar on any future investigation occurring.

"This will end the cycle of re-investigations for the families of victims and (Army) veterans alike."

All political parties have been briefed on the plan, which will now go before Westminster to be made into law after the Covid-19 crisis subsides. Not re-investigating the 2,000 unsolved Troubles murders will save the Government £400m.

Sinn Fein MLA Michelle O'Neill said: "What is being proposed is not the implementation of Stormont House as committed to in the New Decade, New Approach document, nor is it fully human-rights compliant."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood added: "It is an act of spectacular bad faith for the Secretary of State to seek to undermine previous agreements in the absence of clear consensus from all parties. We will robustly resist these proposals."

Amnesty International has described the new Government proposals as "a further betrayal of victims already let down by the Government's failure to put in place mechanisms to deliver truth, justice and accountability".

Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie has called for more clarity around the proposals, saying: "We need to see the detail of this and cannot be expected to pass judgment on these proposals until we have had sufficient time to assess them.

"Who will be in this new independent body, what is the caseload, will it include murders committed outside Northern Ireland? Who will decide what is new compelling evidence, how long will this process last and at what cost?" he added.

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