A stable, functioning democracy requires a firm foundation – fundamental rules and understandings between government and the people it serves which are consistently applied. One of those key principles is that the rule of law should apply to everyone equally – that justice should be available to all.
Part of the legacy of the Troubles, which continues to cast a shadow over the present, is the sense of injustice created when people feel their right to due process, a fair trial, and equal treatment before the law has been denied or frustrated either by the Government or by others in their community.
The Stormont House Agreement dealt with the past and its legacy, proposed new structures and mechanisms, which were agreed by all parties, seeking to address that historic deficit. It is therefore disturbing the Government is even considering including the possibility of a statute of limitations for offences carried out by soldiers during the Troubles, in its pre-legislative consultation process, creating an inequality before the law between members of the armed forces and those whom they were meant to protect.
Alliance recently wrote to the Secretary of State for Defence, as well as having written to the previous and current Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland, to express our profound concern at this proposal.
To include in the official consultation even an exploratory question regarding a statute of limitations will inevitably create a perception the Government is either supportive of, or at the very least, open to such an approach.
This would increase political tensions in the ongoing talks process and give the appearance of bad faith on the part of Government towards that Agreement by deviating unilaterally from it and at a time when trust and confidence are required to deliver a successful resolution to the current impasse.
To be clear, none of the local parties support a statute of limitations – those from across the political spectrum have expressed their opposition to it since the outset, however, there is a danger the inclusion of a question regarding a statute of limitations could lead to some groups disengaging from the consultation process entirely.
Not only is that damaging to the prospect of achieving legacy arrangements with broad political and community support, but it could lead to a situation where instead of being put to rest, such a question may instead end up receiving significant support among those who do respond. That will put the Government into the position of either having to legislate for something none of the parties support or ignoring the results of its own consultation, further undermining trust.
However, Alliance’s objections are far more fundamental than simply timing and process. The majority of servicemen and women who served here during the Troubles did so to uphold the law and operated entirely within it – doing so honourably.
Introducing a statute of limitations which creates immunity from prosecution for crimes committed while serving gives weight to the narrative of physical force republicans that state forces acted above and outside the law with impunity. To do so insults the integrity of the majority of service personnel, who served wholly within the law. It also has particularly significant consequences for those former soldiers who continue to live in the communities in which they served. Veterans who have contacted me are completely opposed to this proposal for that reason.
Further, the inclusion of this question will almost inevitably reopen demands from paramilitaries for a general amnesty for all Troubles-related crimes, denying victims the right to even seek justice.
Every party opposed this when first proposed in 2005, forcing the Labour Government to abandon its plans in Westminster. More recently, the Coalition Government acted rightly to end the effective back-door amnesty for republican ‘on-the-runs’ in its 2015 Commons statement that letters issued to republicans should no longer be relied upon in court.
For too long, we have laboured under a selective approach to the rule of law, where people try to defend the indefensible and argue the ends justify the means. If we are to build a truly different future, we need to end that equivocation.
To even open the door on the consideration of a statute of limitations does injury to the rule of law in our society which, at its most basic, requires we all be equal before the law. Any person accused of breaking the law should stand trial and if the evidential thresholds are met, be convicted, regardless of whether they were a terrorist or a member of the security forces. The Good Friday Agreement then allows for their early release, but the conviction stands and justice has been done.
Any denial in law of due process by creating an effective amnesty would not only compound the hurt and trauma already suffered by victims and survivors, but would set back the development of a fair and just society, founded on the rule of law and equality before it here for decades.