The UK government has agreed to exclude sexual offences from a proposed amnesty for Troubles-related crimes that will close off all routes to legal redress for victims.
All of Northern Ireland’s political parties who take their seats at Westminster spoke out against the legislation, described by Alliance MP Stephen Farry as unworkable and unamendable.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood noted the debate came on the day a coroner ruled that Kathleen Thompson, a 47-year-old mother-of-six in Derry, was shot dead by a British soldier in an unjustified killing in 1971.
“We have heard already that many of these events were a long time ago,” Mr Eastwood said.
“Today, in 2022, they finally got the result of an inquest that proved that that shooting was unjustified. Under these proposals, no other family would be entitled to get that truth and justice—it would be barred. They would not get access to the inquest process. Whatever people may say about things being a long time ago, we have a case today proving that inquests work, that they get truth for families and that families who have had to suffer and argue and debate and campaign for 50 years can get at least some truth out of this process. This government want to bar that.”
Northern Ireland minister Conor Burns said the legislation was an imperfect solution to a problem that had remained unresolved since the Belfast Agreement was signed in 1998. He said the bill was an attempt to help people move on from the Troubles but that it was difficult and contested.
“It is our contention that the measures are victim-centric, but they also acknowledge that the current system has not been delivering for victims as we think they deserve,” he said.
The legislation would offer immunity from prosecution for perpetrators who cooperate with a new truth recovery body and it would end all inquests and civil actions relating to Troubles-related crimes. Mr Farry said that the prospect of investigation or prosecution was purely theoretical.
“Given that anyone giving an account before the panel would not be under police caution, and therefore their statement could not be used in evidence, who exactly would start an investigation from first principles to take forward any prosecution by giving a file to the Public Prosecution Service?” he said.
A number of Conservative MPs expressed concern about the possibility that perpetrators of sexual offences could avoid prosecution if their crimes were Troubles-related. Mr Burns said he did not believe that sexual offences could fall within the scope of the amnesty but former Conservative leader Iain Duncan-Smith said the government should move to close a possible loophole.
” Let us say, for example, that somebody committed a terrorist offence, in the course of which they committed a sexual offence such as rape. They put themselves forward on the basis that they committed a terrorist attack,” he said.
“My point is that they would get cleared due to the fact that it was locked into the Troubles, because it was committed at the same time. The individual who suffered rape would then have no recourse to the courts.”
Mr Burns said he would work with Labour and other opposition parties to agree an amendment to the bill by the beginning of next week.