Backstory: The UK’s Troubles ‘Amnesty’

A series of articles discussing what some are calling the UK’s “de facto amnesty” for those involved in Troubles-related killings.

  1. Northern Secretary says proposals are ‘painful recognition of the reality of where we are’

2. Proposals characterised as ‘de facto amnesty’ for killers

3. Key events since the Troubles began

4. London denies this is a de facto amnesty for killers, but that is how it is being perceived

5. Proposals to end prosecutions relating to Troubles before 1998 opposed by Irish government

6. Relatives express anger at what they say is an effective amnesty for perpetrators of atrocities

Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis speaking in the House of Commons. He said that in the autumn he proposed to bring in a statute of limitations banning all prosecutions of Troubles-related killings and other crimes. Photograph: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA Wire

Plan to end all Troubles-related prosecutions widely criticised (1)

Northern Secretary says proposals are ‘1 recognition of the reality of where we are’

15 July 2021 | Gerry Moriarty | Irish Times

Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis’s plans to introduce what has been characterised as a “de facto amnesty” for those involved in Troubles-related killings has prompted widespread criticism from politicians and victims’ groups.

Mr Lewis told the House of Commons on Wednesday that in the autumn he proposed to bring in a statute of limitations banning all prosecutions of Troubles-related killings and other crimes.

This would mean that there would be no future prosecutions of republican and loyalist paramilitaries or of former British soldiers and police officers, most likely up to 1998.

He also proposed an end to all legacy inquests and civil cases relating to the Troubles.

Mr Lewis said the proposals were a “painful recognition of the reality of where we are” in terms of trying to deal with the past.

The Northern Secretary also proposed the creation of a new independent body that would focus on truth recovery over Troubles killings and other actions, as well as a “major oral history initiative”.

In the House of Commons British prime minister Boris Johnson implicitly acknowledged that the proposals were in part motivated by British public and political opposition to any prosecution of former British soldiers over Troubles killings.

“The sad fact remains that there are many members of the armed services who continue to face the threat of vexatious prosecutions well into their 70s and 80s,” he told MPs.

While some Tory MPs welcomed the proposals because it would save ex-British soldiers from possible prosecution, the Irish Government, the five main parties in Northern Ireland and victims’ groups condemned the plans, with several portraying them as a “de facto amnesty for killers”.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin told the Dáil, “it’s not the right way to go. It’s wrong.”

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said he did not accept that the British government’s plan was “a fait accompli”.

Highly critical

Senior Irish Government sources were highly critical of the British move, which they believe is a response to domestic political pressure in Westminster over army veterans rather than a constructive move for the North.

It is understood that Dublin will lay out its opposition to the move at a meeting scheduled for this Friday between the Irish and British governments and the leaders of the five parties in the North.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said that all Northern party leaders should use the meeting to demonstrate their collective opposition to the proposals.

However, a number of such meetings have previously been cancelled, and sources in Dublin said it will be a test of the British government’s willingness to engage if the meeting goes ahead.

Sandra Peake, head of the Wave Trauma Centre, the largest cross-community victims and survivors support group in Northern Ireland, said the British government was “telling those who carried out the most horrendous crimes that what they did no longer matters”.

Family members of Ballymurphy massacre victims Eileen McKeown (left), daughter of Joseph Corr, and Mary Corr, daughter in law of Joseph Corr, at Springhill Community House in Belfast, watching Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis announcing the UK Government’s plans to introduce legislation to end all prosecutions related to the Northern Ireland Troubles before 1998. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Britain’s plan to end all Troubles prosecutions deplored by NI politicians, victims’ groups (2)

Proposals characterised as ‘de facto amnesty’ for killers

15 July 2021 | Gerry Moriarty | Irish Times

Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis’s proposals to end all Troubles-related prosecutions have triggered a wave of criticism from victims’ groups and political parties in Northern Ireland.

Mr Lewis plans to introduce legislation in the autumn that would involve a statute of limitations on prosecutions relating to the Troubles up to 1998 that would apply to paramilitaries and former British soldiers and police officers.

He also proposes to end all legacy inquests and civil cases relating to the conflict.

Mr Lewis also plans to create a new truth recovery body and an oral history of the Troubles.

The North’s five main parties deplored the proposals as did many victims’ groups.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the proposals were an “effective amnesty for Troubles related crimes” and were “totally unacceptable and will be rejected by everyone in Northern Ireland who stands for justice and the rule of law”.

“There can be no equivalence between the soldier and police officer who served their country and those cowardly terrorists who hid behind masks and terrorised under the cover of darkness,” he said.

Sinn Féin’s Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the proposals would protect British state forces from their “dirty role” in Ireland.

She added, “Why are the British government intent in taking this route? It has to be two things in my mind. It has to be to protect state forces and their dirty role here in Ireland. I think it also has to be to protect those in suits who directed British state murder, murder of Irish citizens.”

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said “Boris Johnson and Brandon Lewis have chosen to close down justice for families who have campaigned for the truth about what happened to their loved ones for decades”.

“Even worse, they wrapped it up in the language of reconciliation. The message that they are sending to the victims of state and paramilitary murderers is that they should give up their campaign for truth because they have become a barrier to reconciliation. It is absolutely perverse,” he said.


Ulster Unionist Party leader, Doug Beattie said the proposals reinforced “the injustice which has already been dealt to victims”.

“It`s the wrong path and will tread on the emotions of innocent victims and their families. Nobody has the right to deny them the hope that someday, finally, they might see justice being done,” he said.

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said the proposals were “an assault on the rule of law and human rights”.

“This approach is framed solely around the perceived need to address what is a false narrative of vexatious investigations of army veterans,” he said. “It is shocking the Government facilitates a de facto amnesty across the board, including for republican and loyalist terrorists, to achieve this.”

John Ross, the East Belfast Traditional Unionist Voice representative said the proposals were a kick in the teeth not just for victims but for ex-servicemen and women who did so much for Northern Ireland”.

Sandra Peake, head of the Wave Trauma Centre, the largest cross community victims and survivors support group in Northern Ireland, said the British government was “telling those who carried out the most horrendous crimes that what they did no longer matters”.

She said the proposals were “perverting the criminal justice system while in effect telling victims and survivors to dry their eyes and be quiet”.

John Teggart, spokesman for the families of 10 people killed in Ballymurphy in west Belfast in 1971 said the proposals were a “cynical attempt” by the British government “to bring in an amnesty and a plan to bury its war crimes”.


Relatives of the victims of the 1974 IRA Birmingham pub bombings in which 21 people were killed described the plan to end all prosecutions as “obscene”.

The Pat Finucane Centre and Justice for the Forgotten in a joint statement said the proposals represented a “retrospective license to kill for the British army and RUC”.

They said, “This is not about ‘all sides’. Republicans and, to a lesser extent, loyalists were prosecuted and went to prison in their thousands. Soldiers and police were protected by the state and the criminal justice system. This is about protecting former British soldiers and ensuring that no proper investigations into collusion can take place.”

Kenny Donaldson, spokesman for Innocent Victims United which largely represents victims of IRA violence said it was “not for the prime minister of the UK, The Taoiseach or any other representative of government to arbitrarily close down justice because of vested interest, masquerading as concern for enabling Northern Ireland to move forward and draw a line under a painful past”.

The Guardian | 15 July 2021 (3)

Key events since the Troubles began

14 August 1969

First deployment of British troops

Soldiers sent in to try to quell rioting in Derry which broke out after nationalists threw stones and bottles at a contentious Protestant Apprentice Boys parade two days earlier

30 January 1972

Bloody Sunday

British army fatally shoots 13 Catholic protesters during a civil rights march in Derry against internment

March 1972

Direct rule imposed

Edward Heath’s Conservative government closes the unionist-dominated Stormont parliament and imposes direct rule, which is to last for 26 years.

5 October 1974

Guildford pub bombings

IRA expands campaign to mainland Britain, detonating bombs in two pubs in Guildford, killing five people, and continues to target other pubs popular with army personnel across the country

30 March 1979

Airey Neave assassinated

The Irish National Liberation Army kills the shadow Northern Ireland secretary, who is a close confidant of Margaret Thatcher, with a car bomb

5 May 1981

Bobby Sands dies

After 66 days on hunger strike, during which he was elected to parliament, the IRA member Bobby Sands dies in detention in the Maze prison

12 October 1984

Brighton hotel bombing

An IRA bomb explodes at the Grand hotel during the Conservative party conference, killing five people and injuring 30, including the party chairman, Norman Tebbit.

10 April 1998

Good Friday agreement reached

After two years of intensive talks, the agreement is signed and is celebrated as the end of the Troubles. It establishes the Northern Ireland assembly, with David Trimble as its first minister

15 August 1998

A car bomb planted by the Real IRA, a dissident splinter group, kills 29 people in Omagh, County Tyrone

8 May 2007

The Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Féin agree to enter a historic power-sharing government, with Ian Paisley as first minister and Martin McGuinness as his deputy

British paratroopers take away civil rights demonstrators on Bloody Sunday after the paratroopers opened fire on a civil rights march, killing 14 civilians. Photograph: Getty

Britain’s stance on Troubles killings brings more anguish to victims (4)

London denies this is a de facto amnesty for killers, but that is how it is being perceived

From the beginning of his time in Belfast, Northern Ireland Secretary of State Brandon Lewis signalled that he was going to deal with the past in his own way, and not be bound by past agreements.

The cynical believe his intentions are motivated by British prime minister Boris Johnson’s determination to ensure that no British soldier should face prosecution for Troubles killings.

Johnson’s focus on the British army in the House of Commons on Wednesday offered substance to that suspicion, where he concentrated on “the sad fact” of now elderly ex-soldiers facing “the threat of vexatious prosecutions”.

“We’re finally bringing forward a solution to this problem, to enable the province of Northern Ireland to draw a line under the Troubles, to enable the people of Northern Ireland to move forward,” he said.

This has long been Johnson’s approach. Even before he was elected to 10 Downing Street, he said “we need to end unfair trials of people who served queen and country”. If anything, that view helped him get to number 10.

London denies this is a de facto amnesty for killers, but that is generally how it is being perceived. The perpetrators of some of the most horrific acts of the Troubles will not face justice in this life.

These include the British army’s action in Derry, but it includes, too, the IRA’s slaughter of Enniskillen, the Disappeared, and the Ulster Volunteer Force men responsible for the Dublin and Monaghan bombings.

Instead, Lewis’s proposals, say London, do not offer criminal justice but they offer “acknowledgment, accountability and truth” which, it argues, are a form of justice. Also, Lewis argues that he is being honest about what can be done.

2014 agreement

However, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney insists the British government’s plans are not a done deal and he is still investing some hope in the December 2014 Stormont House Agreement.

That deal proposed an historical investigations unit to investigate Troubles killings; an independent commission so perpetrators could tell the truth but not be prosecuted; and an oral history archive for victims’ stories.

Lewis’s proposal in the Commons dispensed with the first element of the Stormont House Agreement, a historical investigations unit, while seeking to hold on to the prospect of finding truth for the bereaved.

But in ending any prospect of prosecution, he has caused renewed anguish and trauma to many victims. Most knew there was little chance that anyone would go to jail, but there was still hope.

For them, there also was a relieving symbolism in the law still having a long arm. For many, there is nothing abstract about this, since many see the killers of their loved ones as they go about their daily business.

The five main Northern Irish political parties also oppose the proposals, but there will be a suspicion that, privately, some politicians have long known that very few people were ever going to be convicted.

In dealing with the past in such a cold-hearted pragmatic manner, Lewis will have taken from their hands a problem Northern Ireland politicians could never resolve.

While Sinn Féin deplores his actions, there will be little doubt that former IRA members, perhaps some now heavily involved in Sinn Féin politics, will be relieved there is no chance that they will ever stand in the dock.

Some 3,700 people were killed during the Troubles with tens of thousands injured. Most occurred before 1998, the cut-off point for Troubles prosecutions, as proposed by the Northern Secretary.

Figures issued by the PSNI late in 2019 showed that the PSNI Legacy Investigation branch had 1,130 cases on its books, touching on the deaths of 1,421 people over decades.

Of these, 583 deaths were attributed to republicans, 294 deaths to loyalists, 289 deaths to the British army, 51 to police, 69 were of unknown attribution and 135 were non-paramilitary related deaths.


In the past 15 years there were many attempts to deal with the past, but the template was the 2009 Eames Bradley Consultative Group report on the past.

It proposed investigation, truth recovery and reconciliation, but it never got off the ground because it suggested a £12,000 (€14,000) “recognition payment” to all those killed, or hurt, including paramilitaries, many of them killers.

But at least it can be said that the Northern Ireland Secretary is embracing the possibility of truth recovery, as recommended by Eames and Bradley, if not of justice.

Under former chief constable Sir Hugh Orde, the PSNI’s Historical Enquiry Team (HET) chronologically dealt with more than 1,600 cases between its formation in 2005 and 2014 when effectively it folded.

It was not successful in terms of convictions – it had just three – but it did provide the truth behind hundreds of killings, which was a comfort to those still aching with loss.

For those who still grieve, Wednesday was another unhappy, unsettling and miserable day. If anything positive is to come from it all, the IRA, loyalists, the British army, MI5 and so many other players face just one question.

Will they now, decades on, deliver the truth, if not the justice, the victims require? Will Sinn Féin, the only one of the main Northern parties linked to a paramilitary organisation, urge the IRA to tell its own story, truthfully?

Brandon Lewis: Troubles amnesty plan best chance of ‘some sense of justice’ 

UK confirms plan to call time on Troubles prosecutions (5)

Proposals to end prosecutions relating to Troubles before 1998 opposed by Irish government

14 July 2021 | Ben Quinn | The Guardian

All criminal prosecutions relating to the Troubles and future attempts to take civil actions would be blocked under UK government plans that have united Northern Ireland’s parties in opposition.

The proposals, which are also opposed by the Irish government, were announced by Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, who told MPs it was a “painful truth” that criminal investigations were unlikely to deliver successful outcomes.

Instead, the plan envisages the establishment of a new independent body, likened to South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission and intended to help families find the truth about what happened to their loved ones.

The Information Recovery Body would have “full access” to information from state agencies and could take statements from individuals, according to a UK government document.

In a reference to republican and loyalist groups, it expresses the hope that “others” would also provide disclosures.

A third component will be an oral history initiative designed to let people from all backgrounds share experiences and perspectives relating to the Troubles. Legislation will be introduced by the end of the autumn.

The current system for dealing with the legacy of Northern Ireland’s conflict had been continuing to divide communities and it was time to do something “bold and different”, said Lewis.

Lewis said that current and future generations would be condemned to division, and reconciliation would be impeded if the government did not act.

“It is, in reality, a painful recognition of the very reality of where we are,” he told the Commons.

The proposals come with unprecedented plans to bring the shutters down on current and future inquests and civil actions, many of which relate to killings involving the army and police.

The UK government still wants people to come forward with information and believes that it would be a “disincentive” for people to do so if civil actions continued.

But the move, details of which had been leaked to the media in advance of being announced, has been rejected by all five political parties in Northern Ireland’s devolved government, and by victims’ groups and the Irish government.

Ireland’s minister for foreign affairs, Simon Coveney, also went on Irish radio to accuse the British government of reneging on commitments by both governments on “legacy” issues from the conflict and seeking to avoid applying the rule of law to atrocities.

He said he did not believe the proposals would be supported by the parties or people in Northern Ireland, adding: “There will be a strong onus on the UK government in the engagement process to explain how their proposals could fully comply with their European Convention on Human Rights and other legal and international human rights obligations.”

Many victims were having their worst fears realised in the proposals, claimed Amnesty International UK, which accused the British government of “closing down paths to justice”.

Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the Democratic Unionist party, said: “Victims will see these proposals as perpetrator-focused rather than victim-focused and an insult to both the memory of those innocent victims who lost their lives during our Troubles and their families.”

Boris Johnson’s earlier description of the plans as a way for “a line to be drawn” under the events of the past were also condemned, with the Alliance party MP Stephen Farry saying that they “crossed a line”.

More than 3,500 people died during the conflict, which stretched from the early 1970s to the Good Friday agreement in 1998.

But while specialist police investigators have looked at unsolved murders, attempts to bring prosecutions have struggled and the UK government has come under pressure from Tory MPs and sections of the media which regard the inquiries as a “witch-hunt” against ageing service personnel.

Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service this July announced its intention to withdraw proceedings against two former soldiers for murders in 1972.

That followed a review of the cases by the service in light of a court ruling that caused the collapse of another Troubles murder trial involving two military veterans.

On Wednesday, Lewis cited figures, from the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which he said proved that the focus on criminal investigations was not working.

The force was considering almost 1,200 cases, which represented a fraction of the 3,500 deaths and it would take more than 20 years to investigate using current resources, he said.

It is understood that the UK government believes that others will engage with the proposals once the “heat” around the announcement passes.

However, questions remain – ranging from what they would mean for future extradition requests to the UK government, through the legal standing of information given to the Information Recovery Body and in the oral history.

The shadow Northern Ireland secretary, Louise Haigh, accused the government of putting its own party political interests before the country in its plans for an “amnesty” on the Troubles.

In Belfast, relatives of those who died in the 1971 Ballymurphy massacre (left to right) Eileen McKeown, Mary Corr and Irene Connolly watch Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis speaking in the Commons on Wednesday. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

Northern Ireland victims’ families condemn plan to end Troubles prosecutions

Relatives express anger at what they say is an effective amnesty for perpetrators of atrocities

14 July 2021 | Rory Carroll  | The Guardian

Relatives of people killed during the Northern Ireland Troubles have condemned the government’s plan to end all criminal prosecutions as a death knell to their hopes for justice and accountability.

Families from all sides of the conflict expressed anger and hurt on Wednesday at what they said was an effective amnesty for perpetrators.

“We’re seeing de facto impunity,” said Mark Thompson, whose brother Peter was shot dead by British soldiers in Belfast in 1990. “This is a government that doesn’t care a jot for human rights and the rule of law.”

Relatives who lost family members to republican and loyalist paramilitaries said Boris Johnson’s government was extinguishing any slender hopes of one day seeing terrorist killers behind bars.

“Tell me, prime minister, if one of your loved ones was blown up beyond recognition, where you were only able to identify your son or daughter by their fingernails because their face had been burned so severely from the blast and little of their remains were left intact, would you be so quick to agree to such obscene legislation being implemented?” said Julie Hambleton, whose sister Maxine was one of 21 people killed when the IRA bombed pubs in Birmingham in 1974.

The Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, unveiled the plan to deal with so-called legacy cases to the Commons. It proposes a statute of limitations that would end all prosecutions in Troubles-related cases pre-dating the 1998 Good Friday agreement.

The government’s aim is to shield army and other security force veterans from what it considers vexatious prosecutions. That requires extending the same protection to former paramilitaries.

Johnson was sacrificing bereaved families for his own political interest, said Shane Laverty, whose brother Robert, an 18-year-old police constable, was shot dead in 1972.

“He’s separating the idea of law and order with a pen. He doesn’t care what the people in Northern Ireland think and we are left to pick up the pieces. It creates a group of people who feel very disenfranchised and have nowhere to go.”

Of approximately 3,600 killings during the conflict, which started in 1969, more than 3,000 remain unsolved. The cold case backlog has tangled policing and politics and produced just a handful of prosecutions.

Thompson, who heads the group Relatives for Justice, said the government was junking the 2014 Stormont House agreement, which charted a path to truth and reconciliation, to protect the security forces. “We were lectured in the conflict about the rule of law. Now we see the very opposite happen when they’re the ones in the dock.”

Earlier this month, prosecutors halted the trial of Soldier F, who is accused of two murders during the Bloody Sunday shootings in Derry, saying the test for prosecution was no longer met. A legal challenge to that decision is likely to be overtaken by the government’s plan.

The statute of limitations is not expected to apply to killings committed after the Good Friday agreement, which was signed on 10 April 1998.

A dissident IRA bomb killed 29 people in Omagh four months later, leaving the perpetrators open to prosecution. Claire Monteith, who lost her 16-year-old brother Alan in the atrocity, said the government’s plan created two tiers of victims either side of the calendar.

“It’s a knife in the heart for all of us. Victims and survivors are exhausted trying to get truth and justice,” she said.


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