The British Prime Minister has said new legislation to deal with outstanding charges and prosecutions from the conflict was vital to the peace process but would cause “anger and anguish”.
Meanwhile, the Sinn Fein President, Gerry Adams has expressed outright opposition to any amnesty for British state forces involved in collusion and other state killings.
The legislation currently going through parliament will benefit IRA Volunteers ‘on the run’ (OTRs) after being involved in armed struggle before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Controversially, it will also benefit unionist paramilitaries and members of the British Crown forces.
All can avoid arrest by applying to a certification commissioner who will check if they are wanted.
If so, they will be issued with a certificate keeping them out of jail prior to their case being heard by a specially set-up tribunal with its own prosecutors and judges.
If found guilty, they would be issued with a licence similar to prisoners released under the Good Friday Agreement, which would be revoked if they reoffend.
While Sinn Fein welcomed the legislation, human-rights group British Irish Rights Watch has voiced concern.
The organisation said the new law would only further suppress the truth about the February 1989 murder of Belfast defence lawyer Pat Finucane.
The British Conservatives have also attacked the legislation, warning that elements of it could be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Observers have pointed out that the Tories have never previously shown any regard for the ECHR, flauting it repeatedly when they were prosecuting the war in Ireland.
Tony Blair yesterday said the law was vital to the peace process.
“It’s never been a secret that we need to do something because otherwise there’s an anomaly,” he told a British parliamentary committee.
“For those people convicted of crimes before the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, they are now out of prison and free.
“People can agree with that or disagree with that but that’s the case. It was always going to be an anomaly we had to resolve in respect of those people who had not been convicted but had been sought pre-1998.
“This hasn’t popped up. There’s a sense in some of the comments made by some of those in Northern Ireland that this has come as a shock.
“This has been part of the discussions we have had with parties in Northern Ireland going back several years.
“I really believe it’s best to get this issue out of the way so we can get on with building an executive and an assembly that are back up and running again. If it hangs over this process much longer, it won’t do any of us any good.”
Speaking at the Westminster parliament today, Gerry Adams said, “After the release of prisoners under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, Sinn Fein raised the issue of the small number of people, known as On-the-Runs, who are displaced from their families and who, if arrested and convicted, would have been eligible for release under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. All of those we are aware of are Irish republicans and number less than two dozen and are firm supporters of the peace process.
“Sinn Fein did not support, propose, discuss or accept that members of the British state forces should be part of the process. For this reason we did not argue for an amnesty.
“On the contrary, we opposed this approach and we sought to ensure the scheme would not hinder the search for the truth or provide immunity for members of British state forces who carried out or were responsible for state killings and collusion. The scheme that we negotiated was published by the two governments at Weston Park in 2003 and related only to OTRs. It did not include members of British state forces.
“Indeed, one of the key factors in Sinn Fein rejecting the position produced by the two governments at Weston Park was the British government’s refusal to agree to an independent judicial inquiry as called for by the family of Pat Finucane. “
“Sinn Fein’s position is absolutely clear, we are opposed to the inclusion of British state forces in the current legislation. In our view it represents the latest attempt by the British state to conceal the truth about its involvement in the killing of citizens.
“Sinn Fein will continue to confront the British government on the denial of truth about collusion.
“Our party activists, including elected representatives, were a primary target in this policy of state murder. Only last week, I was again told that my details, compiled by British intelligence agencies, had been passed to loyalist death squads. This is an urgent and immediate issue for Sinn Fein and we will continue to support the victims of collusion and state violence. The British persist in denying their policy of collusion. They must acknowledge the truth and those who directed this policy, including senior British political figures, must be held to account.”
Michael Rogan, who was re-arrested last November in Tenerife, has denied causing the two explosions at Thiepval Barracks in Lisburn and related charges.