Last year, we wrote about how and why Conservative MPs were putting pressure on the Northern Irish Office to expand protections for ex-servicemen to cover veterans of the conflict in Ulster.
This campaign has not gone away. In December, Mark Francois called on Brandon Lewis to resign over the Government’s failure to bring forward legislation to end prosecutions; just last month protesters ‘blockaded’ the NIO because several former soldiers are facing fresh prosecutions with no new evidence.
Yet the weight may finally be over: early in April the Secretary of State indicated that there would be developments “within weeks”, and the Times reported that “the British government is believed to be close to finalising legislative proposals on so-called legacy killings”. Meanwhile, Leo Docherty told the Daily Telegraph that:
“I’m pleased to say, we expect from the Northern Ireland Office a bill that will give closure to veterans of (Operation) Banner, of whom there are some 300,000. We expect this bill to give closure with honour and finality and I expect that to come forward very soon.”
What is not yet clear is what form it will take. A straightforward amnesty is deeply unpopular on all sides in Northern Ireland.
There is also anger amongst unionists that existing legacy structures are perceived to disproportionately target state security personnel whilst former terrorists enjoy de facto amnesties. We reported last month that Lewis is planning new legislation that will make it clear that New Labour’s controversial ‘comfort letters’ scheme has no basis in law.
He offered an indication as to his line of thought in this report from the Derry Journal:
“When you move through a process that isn’t driven by a prosecution but which is driven by an investigation to get to the truth on a balance of probabilities like the coronial courts then you are seeing people able to get to the truth and to get an understanding”.
Lewis in the same piece emphasises that a statute of limitations does not mean that historical investigations will cease:
“One of the things I think that gets slightly misread in terms of the Command Paper we published last summer is that, yes, it does outline a statute of limitations as a sort of foundation to develop a wider package….I need to be really clear about this – we will continue investigations.”
He specifically references the inquiry into the Ballymurphy massacre, and how difficult it was to get “some recognition of the truth and understanding of what happened” in that case. In the end, the judge-led inquiry took evidence from over 150 witnesses, including “more than 60 former soldiers”, according to the BBC.
Crucially, those that gave evidence were able to do so without fear of prosecution.
Taken together, this suggests the Government may be planning an approach which prioritises ‘truth and understanding’ over increasingly hail-Mary shots at securing criminal justice.
After all, as the Secretary of State has pointed out, nature sets its own statute of limitations: time passes, mortals age, and many of those involved may not be with us for too much longer. Lifting the threat of prosecution may encourage people to engage with ongoing investigations and ensure that victims and their families get at least the truth, if not justice.
Whether or not this will make unionists or nationalists happy is another question.
But it perhaps ought not to be the decisive one. This may be yet another area where a toxic political dynamic suits many of the local players even as it fails to serve the long-term interests of Northern Ireland as a whole. As the author Brian Rowan said of amnesty proposals:
“If we don’t go there, then we aren’t going to have a legacy process and with the wars over, we’re going to spend the next 30 years fighting the peace”.
For so long as it remains part of the United Kingdom, the Government is ultimately responsible for ensuring that Ulster receives not only peace, but order and good government. It cannot content itself with being a sort of constitutional child-minder. If Lewis thinks his proposals (whatever their final shape) are in the best interests of the Province, he should enact them.