LONDON – Relatives of people killed during Northern Ireland’s decades of violence protested in London and Belfast on Tuesday, urging the government to drop plans to grant immunity to perpetrators of crimes committed during “the Troubles.”
The British government says its Legacy and Reconciliation bill reflects the “vanishingly small” likelihood of convicting people for decades-old crimes. If it becomes law, it will end most prosecutions for killings by both British soldiers and members of militant groups.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis told lawmakers in the House of Commons that change is needed because “the current system is broken.”
“It is delivering neither justice nor information to the vast majority of families,” he said.
More than 3,500 people died — most of them civilians — during three decades of violence, known as the Troubles. involving Irish republican and British loyalist paramilitaries and U.K. troops.
The bill calls for an independent “commission for information recovery” — loosely modelled on South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission — to investigate alleged crimes, and imposes a duty of “full disclosure” on the British government and security services.
People who cooperate with the commission and reveal what they know about past crimes will be granted immunity from prosecution, and new civil claims and inquests over the Troubles will be banned.
People who refuse to speak to the commission could still be charged. The government added that condition after an earlier proposal for a blanket amnesty was rejected by all Northern Ireland’s main political parties, the government of Ireland and human rights groups.
But people who lost loved ones say the law will still allow killers to get away with murder.
Members of the group Relatives for Justice carried a coffin emblazoned with the word “Justice” through central London on Tuesday before delivering an open letter denouncing the bill to the prime minister’s 10 Downing St. office.
The group’s chief executive, Mark Thompson, said the proposed law was “anti-victim.”
“The beneficiaries of this are the people who pulled the triggers and planted the bombs,” said Thompson, whose brother Peter was shot dead by undercover British soldiers in Belfast in 1990.
The 1998 Good Friday peace accord ended large-scale violence in Northern Ireland. As part of the peace process, many militants were released from prison or were not prosecuted for actions during the Troubles. The new law would remove the last hope of putting most of them on trial.
It would also lift the threat of prosecution from troops who served in Northern Ireland decades ago.
Lewis acknowledged that the new law, which will likely take several months to pass through Parliament, would be “very challenging for many.” But he said it would allow a fuller accounting of a dark chapter of history.
Lewis said it was a “painful reality that, with more than two thirds of Troubles-related cases now over 40 years old, the prospect of successful prosecutions is vanishingly small.”
He said the focus would now be on providing “truth and accountability” about the past.
Conservative lawmaker Johnny Mercer, who has campaigned against prosecutions of military veterans of the Troubles, said it was a sad fact that some victims would not get justice and “people will get away with things they should not get away with.”
“There are no winners here,” he said.
“The whole thing is a disaster but we have to do what we can to bring some sort of end and finality and truth to this process for the victims, and that is what I want colleagues to focus on.”