Victims groups have said international action is needed to put pressure of the British government to change course on its planned law of impunity for war crimes committed by its forces in the north of Ireland.
Campaigners held a symbolic funeral procession through the grounds of the Stormont estate this week to protest plans unveiled by British Direct Ruler Brandon Lewis to deal with the legacy of the conflict in the north of Ireland.
The proposal is a clear breach by Britain of the 2014 Stormont House Agreement.
The protesters wore white masks and black top hats as they carried a coffin bearing the word ‘justice’ to the gates of British government offices at Stormont House, the seat of direct rule in Belfast.
Lewis announced earlier this month that he intends to introduce legislation to create a proposed statute of limitations which would end all prosecutions for so-called ‘Troubles’ incidents.
The proposals, which prime minister Boris Johnson said would allow his government to “draw a line” under the conflict, would also end all legacy inquests and civil actions.
The plan has been heavily criticised by all the main political parties in the north of Ireland as well as the Dublin government, and by all victims’ and survivors’ groups. A recent poll shows that seven out of 10 people do not agree to the plan.
A man whose son was murdered two decades ago said the plan to end prosecutions was “disgusting”.
Paul McIlwaine was one of a number of relatives who took part in the protest. “It is the most disgusting thing I have heard yet,” he said.
Mr McIlwaine, whose teenage son David was stabbed to death by unionist paramilitaries in 2000 after leaving a nightclub in County Armagh, said:
“Brandon Lewis announced that things weren’t working in this country, but they were working. It was very slow but the answers were coming and they were damning,” he said. “That is why they have done this.”
The protest was organised by Belfast-based lobby group Relatives for Justice. Its chief executive Mark Thompson said the proposals aim to do away with due process and the rule of law, the fundamentals of the Good Friday Agreement, the Human Rights Act, the European Convention on Human Rights.
“We are seeing a powerful demonstration today in terms of saying we will not stand for this, we will not allow the British government to bury the truth. We buried our loved ones so we won’t allow them to bury truth or accountability,” he said.
“What this is about is the rule of law. The British government stand on their own in these proposals, they have no support from the Irish government or the Executive or any of the political parties on these islands. They are going contrary to the rule of law and democracy and they need to come back from the brink.
“The message is if you carry this through, what you are doing is killing the rights of relatives, the rights of citizens, you are killing the rule of law, you are killing everything associated with a functioning democracy and it is not acceptable.”
He said there would be a challenge in the courts, but his organisation were also reaching out to the international community and Irish America. There have been calls for an emergency summit involving the US government to intervene on the issue.
He said the Tory plan wold bring “Armageddon” in terms of the politics in the north of Ireland.
“This will cause discord and disharmony, hurt and injustice, and that is not the foundation of which to build a society post-conflict.”
He added that “the only way we can stop the British is with the intervention of the Biden administration”.
“We have three months before the British legislate,” he said.
“There needs to be an emergency summit in Washington, where Biden sends a representative of his administration to tell the British government that they can’t go down this route.
“If they go down this route they’re taking away the rule of law, accountability, victims’ rights, and due process.
“We’ve had decades of conflict because there has been no democracy or rule of law. If they go down that route then the Good Friday Agreement is meaningless for families.”
Meanwhile, a leading lawyer has said the London government is “running scared” of the decisions which might emerge from legacy investigations.
He said: “We are not yet in a totalitarian state where citizens are denied rights to access the courts. I’ve every confidence the independence of the judiciary will prevail and protect those inalienable rights.”
Kevin Winters of KRW Law said the timing of “this draconian threat” in the government’s plans wasn’t coincidental.
“It comes on the back of increased judicial oversight and engagement on conflict-related litigation before the courts.
“The numbers of legacy-themed criminal cases involving British military veterans is minimal compared to the volume of High Court civil actions alleging various statutory breaches and wrongs including conspiracy to murder, negligence and collusion.
“We are just at the point of finally having a number of inquests listed where there are allegations of state collusion.”
Mr Winters said London did not want another finding similar to the inquest into the Ballymurphy Massacre.
“It does not want its Prime Minister to be dragged to Parliament again to make an apology as an empty and hollow gesture,” he said.
“It is afraid of the independence of the courts in this jurisdiction because it cannot influence or control the out-workings of the judgments and decisions. The out-workings of hundreds of pending civil actions and inquests will cost it financially and reputationally — it is now trying to block that.”