Relatives of Troubles’ victims have expressed outrage at a proposal by the North’s attorney general to end prosecutions in conflict related cases.
John Larkin QC, the chief legal adviser to the Stormont Executive, 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.
Stephen Gault, whose father Samuel was killed in the 1987 IRA Poppy Day bombing in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh – an outrage for which no one has ever been convicted – said he was disgusted.
“How dare he airbrush the innocent people who were murdered at the hands of terrorists to move things forward. I just think it’s totally disgusting,” he said.
Mr Gault said he had spoken to Mr Larkin before about his campaign for justice.
“He said if I wanted any help with reference to Enniskillen don’t be afraid to give me a shout and now he turns round and says this?” he said.
“It’s totally, totally disgusting – my father’s murder and countless thousands of others are just being brushed under the carpet to move things forward.”
Mickey McKinney, whose brother William was killed by British soldiers on Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972, branded Mr Larkin’s proposal as “ridiculous”.
The police are currently re-investigating Bloody Sunday, with relatives of those killed having long campaigned for the soldiers involved to be prosecuted.
“I think this man’s comments are totally ridiculous,” he said.
Mr McKinney said any suggestion that the police investigation into the deaths of his brother and the other victims would be halted would cause great anger.
“I would be very angry, my brother and everybody else who was shot dead on Bloody Sunday was murdered, it was state murder, it would cause outrage,” he said.
“My family, and I am sure all the other families, would be very, very angry at this. I think it would change things a whole lot.”
He added: “What they (the soldiers) did that day, they have to be held accountable for.”
Mr Larkin has stressed his proposals did not amount to an amnesty. 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.”
He told the BBC: “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 1998 Omagh bomb, which was perpetrated after the Good Friday Agreement, would not be covered by Mr Larkin’s suggestion.
Michael Gallagher, whose son Aiden was killed in the August 1998 Real IRA attack, which claimed the lives of 29 people, including a woman pregnant with twins, said the attorney general was sending out a totally wrong message, especially to dissident republicans who have murdered two soldiers, two policemen and a prison officer in the last five years.
“He is saying: ’If you murder enough people, the government will make a deal with you and you will eventually get off’,” said Mr Gallagher.
“These people should be pursued. This province has suffered some of the worst serial killings in Europe. People are entitled to the type of justice we have had in Britain for 1,000 years. We cannot be regionalised as part of the UK. ”
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 the North 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.
Mr Gault and Mr Gallagher are among victims’ relatives meeting Dr Haass today in Derry.
The Democratic Unionists, the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and the hard-line unionist party Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) have all voiced serious concerns about the attorney general’s comments.
DUP Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson said: “There is no nation in the free world today where murder is not a crime, you cannot say that murder is not a crime – it is. There are 3,000 unsolved murders in Northern Ireland and those families are entitled to the right to pursue justice.”
SDLP Assembly Member Alban Maginness said: “For Mr Larkin to say that his proposal does not constitute an amnesty is wrong.
“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.”
TUV leader Jim Allister said he was “appalled and angered”.
“Mr Larkin is not advocating amnesty for everyone, only for ’trouble-related’ crimes; thereby endorsing the terrorist propaganda,” he said.
“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.”