The British government has been urged by victims’ groups to ‘go back to the drawing board’ and introduce a proper truth recovery process.
New legislation currently under debate at the Westminster parliament is opposed outright by most political parties apart from Sinn Féin, which supports measures for paramilitaries ‘on the run’ but opposes extending the bill to members of the British Crown forces.
Sinn Féin has said that the legislation should only deal with the small number of outstanding and potential conflict-related prosecutions. The cases of the OTRs are considered anamolous and obsolete in light of the prison release scheme.
Sinn Féin Chief Negotiator Martin McGuinness said: “Both the British and Irish governments have admitted that the inclusion of British state forces in the current legislation was never discussed with Sinn Féin.”
Three victims’ groups - Relatives for Justice, the Pat Finucane Centre and Justice for the Forgotten (which represents families killed and injured in the Dublin/Monaghan bombings) - said in a joint statement that Mr Hain should rethink the proposals, which include all those involved in illegal activity before 1998.
The groups listed a number of concerns with the legislation, including that no allowance has been made for international involvement.
“No proper provision is made for the involvement of families,” they added.
The groups also complained about certain powers that the secretary of state will have, including being able to direct that the PSNI withhold documents and information from a certification commissioner.
Relatives for Justice spokesman Mark Thompson said: “The rights and needs of families must be at the core of any proposal. Relatives have a right and need to know the truth.”
Mr Thompson warned it was the British state which was the principal beneficiary of the legislation.
“The only truth recovery process that will enjoy cross-community and cross-border support is one that has international involvement from the outset,” he said.
Mr Thompson said this was not an issue for ‘playing politics’ and all involved should rethink the legislation and approach matters in an open, transparent and inclusive way.
Paul O’Connor, of the Pat Finucane Centre, described the legislation as a dream come true for “the spooks at M15 headquarters”.
“If this legislation had been in place in 1992, the secretary of state could have withheld the name of Brian Nelson and directed the RUC, FRU [British army’s Force Research Unit] and MI5 to withhold evidence from the prosecution,” he said.
Margaret Urwin of Justice for the Forgotten warned the British government could use a national security clause to close down anything that might cause state embarrassment on the Dublin and Monaghan bombings.
The family of a teenager shot dead by the British Army in the Bloody Sunday massacre has also denounced what they described as “diabolical and scandalous” legislation, and demanded its renegotiation.
John Kelly, whose 17-year-old brother Michael, was shot dead by British paratroopers in 1972, said: “Those who committed murder and those in the British establishment who organised and approved it, must have a big smile on their face.
“They can now walk away without repercussions. They will never have to appear in court. All they will be required to do is meet their solicitor, sign a license, and then they can walk off, laughing at us.”
With the nationalist SDLP railing against the legislation and Sinn Féin’s initial support for it, Robert McClenaghan of the anti-collusion campaign An Fhirinne has called for greater consensus on the matter,
Mr McGuinness said it was his party’s view that the British government had again breached its commitments by bending the original agreement on the subject, reached in talks in 2001.
“As both the British and Irish governments have admitted, the inclusion of British state forces in the current legislation was never discussed with Sinn Féin. It was never agreed by Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin has made clear to the British government that the legislation should apply only to OTRs and not to British state forces,” Mr McGuinness said.
The Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has also said he did not know British state forces would come under the OTR legislation.
Speaking after talks with the Tasoieach in Dublin, Gerry Adams urged Taoiseach Bertie Ahern to seek the removal from British legislation of the proposed effective amnesty for members of the British forces.
“It is in breach of the joint communique at Weston Park and it is certainly in breach of any understanding we had with the two governments.”
He rejected the suggestion that state forces should be treated alongside those alleged to have taken part in IRA actions.
He said some of the people who may avail of the legislation “have never been before due process and some of them may be innocent. The fact is that hundreds of people have been killed by the British crown forces and there is an attempt just to further cover up on this issue, and I think people understand that.
Martin McGuinness said: “It’s quite clear what is going on here. The Taoiseach has explained to everyone that this is a big surprise to him.”