Republicans ‘on the run’ from potential conflict-related prosecutions face an uncertain future following a sudden decision of the British government to abandon new legislation intended to regularise their status.

British Direct Ruler Peter Hain withdrew the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill from the London parliament on Wednesday.

The bill faced strong opposition from both unionists and nationalists.

Unionists attacked what they described as an amnesty for ‘terrorists’, while nationalists reacted angrily when it was revealed the legislation would block the future prosecution of British Crown force members involved in the murder of Catholics.

The British government and Sinn Fein have spent the last 48 hours attacking each other following the dramatic collapse of the legislative proposals.

Sinn Fein, which had sought such a bill in negotiations, initially supported the proposals, but withdrew that support amid a growing nationalist backlash over the inclusion of Crown force members.

“How on earth they thought security forces could be excluded, I don’t know,” moaned British Direct Ruler Peter Hain on Wednesday, as he pulled the proposals.

No alternative is planned and it appears the British government intend to put the issue off until the conclusion of the next round of peace talks.

Up to 150 people will remain exiled after the plan to allow their return was scrapped.

They would have had their cases heard by a special tribunal and, if found guilty, would have been freed on licence without having to go to jail.

Sinn Fein accused Mr Hain and his government of deceptively trying to use the legislation to hide the truth about British collusion in murder and other crimes.

“Any objective examination of the British government’s approach to date on this question will show its overriding concern has consistently been to hide the truth about its own role in the conflict,” said party spokesman Philip McGuigan.

Victims groups welcomed the scrapping of the legislation.

Mark Thompson of Relatives for Justice said now was the time for the British government to deal properly with a truth recovery process.

“We would say now is the optimum moment for the British government to engage in a genuine truth recovery process which adheres to international principles of truth recovery, ie, that it is independent and international and that it deals with a collective past,” he said.

“The legislation should never have been introduced in the first place. It was wrongly called on-the-run legislation because the primary beneficiaries would have been the British government, which could have used public immunity to cover up what it has been up to.”

The Pat Finucane Centre, which has been campaigning for an independent international inquiry into the murder of the Belfast solicitor and allegations of security force collusion in the killing, welcomed the announcement.

It said the legislation had been “fundamentally flawed”.

“We welcome the fact that this legislation has been withdrawn and call on the British government to engage in a genuine consultation on the way forward, bearing in mind international standards for truth recovery,” it said.

Robert McClenaghan of republican group An Fhirinne described yesterday’s decision as “excellent news”.

“The British government was trying to be very deceitful and was using a piece of legislation for dealing with on-the-runs as a way of getting Crown forces, who have been engaged over 30 years in mass murder, off the hook,” he said.

Currently, any IRA Volunteer prosecuted and jailed in connection with charges arising from the conflict before 1998 is entitled to be released under licence.

However, one Donegal-based councillor has said he should not have to wait months for new laws to allow him back to the Six Counties.

PSNI still want to question Gerry McMonagle in relation to an IRA attack in 1982, despite having already been cleared by a magistrate.

Mr McMonagle said the issue “has to be resolved with the people who it affects the most”.

“These are the people who have since 1970 until the present day to leave their homes through one reason and another, and one injustice and another,” he said.

“The way to get it resolved is to ensure the British forces aren’t included in the legislation and to get it back in Parliament as soon as possible.”


Meanwhile, Sinn Fein has criticised the Dublin government for putting on hold its plans to give an amnesty for a small number of republicans.

Around six IRA members wanted south of the border had hoped to be able to return home. However, the plan has been suspended by Dublin’s Foreign Minister, Dermot Ahern.

Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly, who was himself on the run in the 1980s, said Dublin had no requirement to follow the example set by London.

“The fact was that in the south there is a much smaller number that would be involved,” he said.

“But it was still an anomaly which came from the Good Friday Agreement and could have been sorted out.”

“The fact that the British have acted in bad faith should be no reason for the Irish government to join them in terms of them refusing to go ahead with this process.”

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© 2006 Irish Republican News