BELFAST – Britain is pressing ahead with plans to grant legal immunity to former soldiers and others involved in Northern Ireland killings – but only if they tell the truth to a new fact-finding panel.
The approach is designed to give long-retired soldiers a shield against prosecution for many of the approximately 300 killings committed by U.K. forces, including Bloody Sunday and the Ballymurphy Massacre. Both involved members of the Parachute Regiment in 1972, the deadliest year of the conflict.
The U.K. government originally proposed last summer to block all further criminal and civil probes into killings committed during the three-decade conflict over Northern Ireland known as “The Troubles.”
But the Irish government, the Council of Europe and every party in Northern Ireland denounced the idea. Irish republicans wanted to keep open the ability to pursue retired soldiers, intelligence agents and other state officials implicated in collusion with Northern Ireland’s pro-British paramilitary groups. Unionists, conversely, wanted no amnesty offered to veterans of the Provisional IRA for its bombings and shootings that claimed nearly 1,800 lives and maimed thousands more.
This time around, according to the rejigged Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill being published Tuesday, ex-combatants from all factions will be shielded from civil or criminal action only if they give honest and fulsome accounts to a new body called the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery.
This revised idea, when briefed earlier this month by British officials, sparked similar criticisms as before – that it would offer a liar’s charter to retired militants and soldiers who win new legal protections cheaply with self-serving accounts.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis insisted the proposed system will have robust requirements.
“There will not be any automatic access to immunity,” Lewis said in a statement. “It is right that those involved in an investigation cannot obtain ‘something for nothing.’ Immunity will be provided to individuals who cooperate, which provides the best route to give victims and their families answers they have sought for years as well as giving our veterans the certainty they deserve.”
The Northern Ireland Office said the proposed commission would “conduct investigations, consistent with our international obligations, to provide answers for those who want them, in a process supported by full state disclosure and with the power to compel witnesses.”
The commission, it said, would grant immunity to witnesses who are deemed to have given full and truthful accounts.
“Those who do not cooperate with the independent body will not be granted immunity, and will remain liable to prosecution should sufficient evidence exist or come to light,” the NIO said.
Northern Ireland for decades has batted around the idea of creating a South African-style truth commission. But each side of the community until now has rejected it as more likely to provide legal benefits to killers than satisfying answers to their victims.
But Lewis said the proposed process would shed more light on the horrors of the past than court actions typically do.
“The current system is failing. It is delivering neither truth nor justice for the vast majority of families. It is letting down victims and veterans alike,” he said. “Every family who lost a loved one, no matter who they were, will be provided with more information than ever before about the circumstances of their death.”