A proposal by Northern Ireland’s attorney general to end prosecutions in Troubles related murders has been heavily criticised by both nationalist and unionist politicians.
John Larkin QC said he also favoured ruling out further inquests and other state investigations into the crimes committed during the 30-year conflict, insisting a line should be drawn on offences perpetrated before the signing of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.
Mr Larkin, the chief legal adviser to the Stormont Executive, has stressed his proposals did not amount to an amnesty.
The nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and the hard-line unionist party Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) have both voiced serious concerns about his comments.
TUV leader Jim Allister expressed his anger.
“I am appalled and angry that the Chief Law Officer, who should be the guardian of the rule of law, is advocating immunity for terrorists,” he said.
“What a kick in the teeth for innocent victims to have the Attorney General, no less, championing the long standing IRA demand that their ‘on the runs’ and anyone responsible for anything before 1998, should be free from the pursuit of the law. It is amnesty.
“Moreover, by this crass proposal the Attorney General validates the terrorist claim that their crimes were different and not really criminal. Mr Larkin is not advocating amnesty for everyone, only for ‘trouble-related’ crimes; thereby endorsing the terrorist propaganda.
“Murder is murder, is murder. It has no sell-by date. It didn’t have for the Nazis, who have still been pursued. Northern Ireland’s criminals must equally never be relieved of the threat of the long arm of the law catching up with them.”
SDLP Assembly Member Alban Maginness said the Attorney General’s comments were of real concern to his party.
“For Mr Larkin to say that his proposal does not constitute an amnesty is wrong,” he said.
“Mr Larkin does recognise that many will interpret it as one - that is because that is what it will effectively be. This would amount to a blanket amnesty and the SDLP do not believe that this would be acceptable.
“The international view, also held by the United Nations, is that general amnesty is not the correct way of proceeding in a post conflict situation.
“The SDLP’s primary concern is for victims and survivors of state and paramilitary violence. They are entitled to justice irrespective of the lapse of time. It is very important to consider such a dramatic policy change from the point of view of those who have suffered.”
Any suggestion in the past that those responsible for killings during the Troubles could potentially escape justice has always proved highly controversial. Mr Larkin’s comments look like they have provoked similar contention.
But he said he felt the time had come to halt prosecutions.
“More than 15 years have passed since the Belfast Agreement, there have been very few prosecutions, and every competent criminal lawyer will tell you the prospects of conviction diminish, perhaps exponentially, with each passing year, so we are in a position now where I think we have to take stock,” said Mr Larkin.
“It strikes me that the time has come to think about putting a line, set at Good Friday 1998, with respect to prosecutions, inquests and other inquiries.”
Former US diplomat Dr Richard Haass is currently trying to achieve political consensus on a number of issues as yet unresolved during the peace process - one of which is how Northern Ireland addresses the legacy of its violent past and the seemingly endless unanswered questions over killings carried out by all sides.
Mr Larkin has outlined his proposals in a submission to Dr Haass.
“Sometimes the fact of an amnesty can be that that which was a crime ceases to be a crime. That wouldn’t be the position here, it would simply be that no criminal proceedings would be possible with respect to those offences,” the Attorney General told the BBC.