By Lisa Zengarini
Irish bishops have joined criticism of the UK government’s plans to introduce a statute of limitations for alleged crimes committed during the Troubles that would end prosecutions for killings by both British soldiers and members of militant groups. The proposal was announced last week and also includes an end to all legacy inquests and civil actions related to the thirty year conflict, bypassing the Stormont House Agreement signed by all parties in 2014, which sought to deal with the Northern Ireland legacy in a collaborative way involving all victims.
“Drawing a line under the Troubles”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the proposed plan would allow Northern Ireland to “draw a line under the Troubles”, that officially ended with the so-called Good Friday Peace Agreement of 10 April 1998. However, several victims’ groups, Northern Ireland’s five main political parties and the Irish government, together with the Catholic Bishops of Ireland, are strongly opposed to the legacy proposal.
No line can be drawn to relieve the pain
In a statement issued last week, Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, noted that the plan “will be seen by many victims as a betrayal of trust which denies justice to them and to their loved ones”. “It is disturbing that victims and survivors, those who have paid the highest price for the fragile peace we all enjoy today, once more feel marginalised and neglected”, the Catholic Primate of Ireland said, expressing his disappointment over the Johnson’s comments in the House of Commons. “Dealing with the legacy of our shared past is a complex undertaking which belongs to all of us. It has no “quick-fix”, he pointed out. “No ‘line can be drawn’ to relieve the deep hurt still carried in the aftermath of years of violence, death and life-changing injury”.
Achieving authentic reconciliation for a just and stable peace
Archbishop Martin also recalled that in April 2020 the Catholic bishops in Northern Ireland had already expressed their strong reservations on the UK government’s approach on this issue and their support for the ongoing pursuit of appropriate criminal, legal and civic justice for all victims. Their statement emphasized the need for “prioritising victims as the focal point of a response to dealing with legacy of the past, equal access to justice for all; facing the past however painful and achieving authentic reconciliation for a just and stable peace”, in the region.
The need to prioritize the victims
These arguments were reiterated on Sunday by Bishop Donal McKeown of Derry: “A system that appears to prioritise the feelings of the perpetrators over the distress of the victims is guaranteed only to perpetuate the pain, not draw a line under it”, the prelate remarked in his Sunday homily.
Small number of convictions
Over the past six years there have been only nine prosecutions for offences connected with the Troubles and there are currently around 36 inquests due to be heard, many of which are related to killings by the Army and police. Added to this, there are more than 1,000 civil claims lodged against the Ministry of Defence and other State agencies. In May this year, two British Army veterans accused of murdering an IRA commander in 1972 were acquitted after their trial in Northern Ireland collapsed due to the inadmissibility of prosecution evidence. According to the British government, its proposed ban on prosecutions for Troubles-era offences reflects the dwindling chances of convicting the perpetrators and will help Northern Ireland to move on towards reconciliation.