LEGACY AGREEMENT “ON LIFE SUPPORT” – By Brian Rowan

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The headline above tells a story of concern from inside the Stormont talks.

It is an assessment offered by one of the party negotiators as he watches the push for legal protections for military veterans gain momentum at Westminster.

The government knows that any statute of limitations that would apply to soldiers and police officers would have to be extended to cover republicans and loyalists; and, on Wednesday Theresa May again ruled out any move that would become “an amnesty for the terrorists”.

Today’s Prime Minister won’t have the last say on this. 

Her words are becoming more and more meaningless. She has little or no authority. The big decisions on Brexit and this place will stretch beyond her reign.

Last week,  the Northern Ireland Office pulled a planned and signalled announcement on legacy next steps. 

It left the stage clear for Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt to set out her stall for strengthened legal protections for veterans who fought in Iraq  and Afghanistan.

These would include a statutory presumption against prosecution for alleged offences committed outside the UK in the course of duty more than ten years previously, and which have been the subject of previous investigation.

A further statement on Tuesday stressed this was not a statute of limitations or amnesty, but others will see it as just that.

Tuesday’s statement from the Defence Secretary, included this:

Anything that has the appearance of an amnesty for soldiers, will further undermine the legacy consultation here.

Asked for his assessment of the Stormont House Agreement, one party negotiator responded: “It’s on life support” – adding that the silence of the Northern Ireland Office since pulling its planned announcement last week “will add to the conspiracy”.

Another source described the “double talk” on legacy – this a reference to this battle inside government; legal protections versus historical investigations.

Which is it to be? It cannot be both.

The Stormont House Agreement – which has become a disagreement – would if implemented introduce a new Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) alongside an Independent Commission on Information Retrieval (ICIR).

A consultation has been completed, but next steps when eventually announced could, once more, open out the debate. If it does, then this argument for legal protections for military veterans could yet get louder.

The governments wanted to keep the issue of legacy outside the latest Stormont negotiations. In the words of one negotiator trying to stop it from “contaminating” the talks.

The different working groups, including those addressing a programme for government and reform of the petition of concern were meeting on Wednesday; but, inside or outside these talks, legacy will be central to any agreement.

Will the talks stretch beyond the end of this month?

There is a view that there will be enough in the stock taking review to allow them to continue.

That does not mean agreement on the “hard issues”; but, for now, the talking itself is being viewed as progress.

One source described Sinn Fein on a “tight script”. That nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and the “rights stuff hasn’t landed”. 

It is the “stuff” that in the end will determine whether a deal can be done.

Add in RHI and Brexit and the chaos of Westminster politics and nothing is certain.

“To whom are the talks reporting?” one source asked.  “We might not have a Prime Minister at the end of next week.”

That is when Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Prime Minister Theresa May are meant to make their assessment of the Stormont negotiations thus far.

The chaos in London will become more of a distraction here.

Who follows May?

What follows May?

Until there is some stability at Westminster, it is difficult to imagine any deal here.

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About Author

Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist/author. A former BBC correspondent in Belfast, four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Press and Broadcast Awards. He is the author of several books on the peace process and contributed chapters to 'Reporting the Troubles' and 'Brexit and Northern Ireland: Bordering on Confusion'.

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