A Tory vow to amend British law to protect former British soldiers from prosecutions relating to their crimes in the north of Ireland has been condemned as an attempt to use the conflict in Ireland for electoral gain.
Under the proposals a British Conservative government, if returned, would amend the Human Rights Act so it does not apply to deaths in all conflict zones before it came into force in the year 2000.
“If I’m elected on the 12th December, I want the message from my government to our armed forces to be louder and clearer than ever: we salute you and we will always support you,” said Tory leader Boris Johnson. He was returning from a visit to a potato crisp factory in Tandragee, County Armagh, where a banner had been erected in support of alleged Bloody Sunday killer soldier, ‘Soldier F’.
Although widely believed to be an electoral ploy, it reflects previous Tory promises to former British soldiers accused of murder in the north of Ireland that they would be protected. It also follows the exposure at a tribunal last week that agents in the pay of British military intelligence continue to be “given permission” to commit crimes in the north of Ireland, as well as in Britain itself.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney in a tweet said, “There is no statute of limitations, no amnesty for anyone who committed crimes in Northern Ireland. The law must apply to all, without exception, to achieve reconciliation.”
The SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the Conservative government was “obsessed” with the idea of granting amnesty to soldiers.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said the proposal was “Tory kite-flying”, while adding, “Those families who wish to pursue justice should face no impediment, that the truth must out, that the British state record here of mayhem and violence and state collusion, that that story will be told even as that same establishment tries to frustrate the efforts of families – many of whom for half a century have sought simply the truth.”
The British Defence secretary Ben Wallace has complained about “repeated and vexatious claims” against British soldiers, although official figures show a large majority of legacy prosecutions since 2011 have actually been taken against republicans -- 17 republicans have been prosecuted, compared to just five cases brought against members of the Crown Forces.
One difficulty the British government could face is that any form of amnesty for former Crown Force personnel would also be expected to apply to former IRA and INLA Volunteers.
Mark Thompson, of Relatives for Justice, said Mr Johnson and the Conservatives were engaging in pre-election “rhetoric, misinformation and a bit of propaganda” and that if there were an amnesty for one group there would be an amnesty for all.
He added, “They have promised they are going to protect soldiers when in reality they know legally they are not in a position to do it. The only position they are in is to pass through parliament a general amnesty for all combatants, and that provides an even bigger headache for them.”
Political commentator Brian Feeney said the promise of an amnesty for killer soldiers proves that “the British couldn’t care less about international agreements” as it would also mean derogating from the European Convention of Himan Rights in violation of the Good Friday Agreement.
“Here is a classic example of Perfidious Albion airily planning to disregard unilaterally an international treaty for electoral gain,” he said. “Dublin needs to step up to the mark.”