Debate on statute of limitations for Troubles offences provokes backlash

Dr Julian Lewis

A parliamentary debate on introducing a statute of limitations to protect soldiers and other security personnel from prosecution for wrongdoing during the Troubles in Northern Ireland has provoked a backlash from human rights organisations.

Dr Julian Lewis, chair of the defence select committee, yesterday introduced a debate in the House of Commons on a 2017 report by his committee.

The committee backs a statute of limitations, but has expressed uncertainty over who should be included to guarantee its legality.

Dr Lewis (pictured) told MPs: “We do not wish to see hundreds of old cases reopened, in the absence of any new evidence, which would mean that they were highly unlikely to be successfully brought to a conclusion — if a conviction is regarded as successful.

“People would nevertheless be put through a tremendous ordeal at a late stage of their life. At the end of it all, in the vast majority of cases, it would almost certainly be found that they did nothing more than their duty and did not commit any offence at all.

“The Committee’s concern in the report had to be to make a recommendation about what should happen to those personnel. We were unanimous in our belief that a statute of limitations should be enacted for any Troubles-related offences, or alleged offences, up to the date of the Good Friday Agreement.​”

He added: “We felt that it is for the Government of the day to go wider and decide what other groups beside service personnel and associated police and agencies ought to be included, but we did not shy away from pointing out that the unanimous expert legal advice we received from the four professors made it quite clear that if a statute of limitations were introduced for anyone, it had to be introduced for everyone.”

However, Amnesty International said any statute of limitations imposed to block investigations for killings and torture carried out by members of the UK armed services would perpetuate impunity and be an “utter betrayal” of victims’ fundamental right to justice.

Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland campaigns manager, said: “The UK Government must reject any moves to legislate for impunity through a statute of limitations. The effect of such would be to grant a blanket amnesty for human rights abuses committed by former members of the security forces.

“All victims of human rights violations and abuses from Northern Ireland’s conflict have a right to an independent investigation, with the possibility of prosecutions to follow where the evidence leads.

“This is true, whatever the identity of the victim and whatever the identity of the perpetrator. To remove this recourse would be a betrayal of victims’ fundamental right to justice.”

Ms Teggart added: “Victims are paying the price for the failure of government to effectively deal with the past. The current political impasse has served to exacerbate this. The UK Government and all political parties in Northern Ireland need to grasp the nettle now and agree a way forward capable of dealing fully with the past in line with international human rights standards.”