For more than two years the government has allowed the question to hang – the issue of some amnesty or statute of limitations for soldiers who served here in the conflict period;
Let it hang, even though they knew that for soldiers alone it was not and is not deliverable.
The starting point is in the recommendation of the Defence Committee dating back to April 2017, a little over two years ago.
It can be summarised as follows;
– a statute of limitations for former members of the armed forces covering all Troubles-related incidents up to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998;
– that the government should consider extending this to include RUC officers and other security personnel, and
– that after consultation, the government should consider whether it should apply to all incidents in the conflict period. Alongside this, there should be a truth-recovery mechanism.
In November 2017, I reported that the planned Northern Ireland legacy consultation that was being prepared at that time would have an additional chapter: “Alternative Approaches to addressing The Past”.
This would take the consultation beyond the structure proposed as part of the Stormont House Agreement of 2014 for a new Historical Investigations Unit (HIU), an Independent Commission on Information Retrieval (ICIR), Oral History Archive and a reconciliation element.
In late 2017, the intention was to include the Defence Committee’s recommendation also.
At the time Queen’s University Law Professor Kieran McEvoy commented: “If there’s going to be a statute of limitations, that’s an amnesty. It’s an amnesty that will apply to all of the actors in the conflict – both state and non-state.”
Recently, I read and noted an unpublished February 2018 draft of the planned Northern Ireland legacy consultation.
One of its parts, spread across four pages, had that heading: Alternative Approaches to addressing The Past, including this question:
What are your views on the potential effectiveness and appropriateness of alternative approaches such as amnesties and a statute of limitations to address the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past?
Several months later, this section and question would disappear from the final version of the legacy consultation here.
Was that a surprise?
No, and for this reason. That during the negotiation leading to the political draft agreement at Stormont in February last year, we reported on this website a separate negotiation between Sinn Fein and the Northern Ireland Office.
Above, is part of what I wrote on February 17th last year. Does it stand up to scrutiny?
The DUP, convincing only itself, denied the draft agreement with Sinn Fein; a denial that will make a deal all the more difficult in the latest Stormont talks but, in the extract above, look at what we reported on the separate legacy agreement at that time.
The timing fits with what the Sunday Telegraph is now running across the pages of its newspaper.
That a Downing Street memo dated March 2018 and sent to the Northern Ireland Office and Ministry of Defence stated: “The Prime Minister has decided that the consultation document should not contain specific reference to a ‘statute of limitations’ or ‘amnesties’, in line with government policy.”
Does any of this mean that the amnesty war has been won and lost?
No it does not, but it can’t be won for soldiers alone.
The legal protections being discussed for veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan do not have to be stretched to cover others in those situations.
Here, any statute of limitations – or the same thing differently described – would apply to republicans and loyalists, bringing the amnesty debate onto the stage.
If the government wants to legally protect troops and police officers from the planned historical investigations here, then it has that decision to make.
An amnesty for all or an amnesty for none.
Might such a move assist a truth-recovery or information-retrieval process?
This is something that would have to be properly considered.
In the waiting, what we are seeing is a recasting of the conflict period on a different stage.
In the here and now, there are big decisions to be made, but there is not a strong enough government to make them.