There has been intense anger at British government plans to introduce an amnesty from conflict prosecutions from which former political prisoners would be disbarred.
Under the legislation, introduced at Westminster on Tuesday, war crimes carried out by members of the British Crown Forces will be included in a blanket amnesty covering all conflict-related prosecutions and inquests.
However, the legislation proposed at Westminster includes an openly discriminatory condition that those with a previous conviction “for a relevant Troubles-related offence” cannot apply.
It also contains a condition that only existing claims will be allowed to continue. Another condition requires compliance with a still unknown “truth recovery mechanism”.
Christine Duffy, whose brother Seamus Duffy, was the last person killed by a plastic bullet in the north, said the British government are “looking after their own”.
The 15-year-old died after being struck by a plastic bullet fired by an RUC member on August 9 1989. The teenager was named after his uncle Seamus Cassidy, who was shot dead by the British army in 1972.
“Honestly I’m not surprised by it, they have treated us like much over all these years,” she said.
“But we will not let them get away with it, we will continue to fight for my brother and uncle Seamus - we will keep fighting until we get truth and justice for both of them.”
Lawyer Kevin Winters, of KRW Law, whose firm issued 76 writs on Tuesday, said that the manner in which the draft Bill has been introduced is “disingenuous”.
Mr Winters said that there was no indication beforehand that a section would be inserted to exclude any civil action issued on the day of the first reading of the bill before parliament.
“In our view this breaches Article 6 of the ECHR - the right to a fair hearing,” he said.
Mr Winters said the bill will be challenged through the courts. “Our entire office staff were involved throughout the day in issuing of over 70 emergency High Court actions against the state alleging various torts including misfeasance (collusion), failure to investigate and extra judicial killings and executions,” he said.
“At the start of the day we had no inkling that a crude and unjust line would be drawn to guillotine any cases issued on the day of the first reading.
“It will lead to inevitable judicial review challenge if there’s an attempt to exclude these freshly issued cases.”
Mark Thompson from Relatives for Justice said the proposals are a setback to peace building work. He described it as a “bill of shame”.
“Reconciliation will never be achieved under these terms,” he said.
“The British government are on a war footing through the prism of victims and legacy.”
Mr Thompson said the London government has previously “fought families in the courts to prevent disclosure and discovery of information including locking down files for 100 years in some cases.
“And now they are locking down the courts and have the audacity to tell victims the process they propose will deliver and is in society’s best interest,” he said.
“The only interests served are those of the British establishment.
“This is a unilateral move away from the Stormont House Agreement and all legal obligations. It ignores the role of the Irish government and the executive parties.
“No matter what way this Bill is dressed up it still equates to a blanket amnesty.
“It is anti-rule of law, anti-justice, anti-democratic and anti-Good Friday Agreement.
“Moreover, it is completely perpetrator-led and perpetrator-centred. It is anti-victim.”
Gavin Booth, of Phoenix Law, said the actions of the London government are “reprehensible” and “serve only to reinforce the narrative that they have more to hide”.
“Many families today have issued proceedings and will continue to oppose all steps by the government to block their access to the courts and ultimately the truth.”
In the Dublin parliament, Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald compared the bill to “the actions of a rogue state” and warned it meant the “shredding of the Stormont House Agreement”.
Sinn Féin Policing and Justice spokesperson Gerry Kelly said the legacy proposals are “a cruel blow” to victims and their families, some of whom have been waiting for truth and justice for more than five decades.
He described the British State’s attempt to pull down the shutters on citizens attempting to access the courts as “akin to the actions of a totalitarian state”.
“These latest proposals are effectively an amnesty through the back door for British state forces, their intelligence services and agents who murdered Irish citizens during the conflict in Ireland,” he said.
“It is yet another example of this Tory government attempting to bin an international agreement made with the Irish government and the other parties at Stormont House in 2014 which gave victims and their families access to truth, justice and reconciliation.
“This is also an attempt to shut citizens out of the courts, to deny families inquests on the deaths of their loved ones, to deny access to judicial reviews and to the civil courts.”
The “whitewash” of collusion actions will not promote reconciliation, a victims’ campaigner has said.
Raymond McCord, whose son was killed by the loyalists acting in collusion with British forces, described the proposals for dealing with the past as “disgusting”.
Mr McCord said the “clear message to victims was to f.. off”.
“Throwing litter in the street will be a bigger crime than mass murder … this whitewash of all these murders, to turn around and say it’ll bring reconciliation … I’m from the unionist community, I don’t need this to reconcile me with someone from the nationalist community because they are my friends.
“They were never my enemy. The proposals are unworkable and they (government) know it, and I will do everything in my power to stop these going through Parliament.”
Sinn Féin Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill also slammed the legislation, saying it “appears to be to cover up and close down any investigation into British state policy in Northern Ireland over the last 50 years”.
“In effect, they’re like pouring concrete over Britain’s role in the conflict,” she told the BBC.
“There should not be an amnesty for anybody, this is absolutely all about the British government trying to cover up their role in the conflict and for the record Sinn Féin has always cautioned against any proposals for a statute of limitations, and we have made that clear in all of the consultations that have happened to date.
“But what this proposal, and it is a British government proposal, the focus is on bringing forward an amnesty that supports a policy intent by them to cover up and to prioritise the wants of British military above the needs of victims, and we have many families that are sitting this morning that are really concerned, and they’re devastated because this is so far reaching.
“It’s not just about investigations, it’s about preventing live or pending legal processes, no access to legacy inquests, judicial review, civil cases, it’s about shutting down everything, and how is that building for a better future.
“That is not the way to deal with the past and create a better future.
“The impact of conflict is intergenerational and I see that every day and this really saddens me on the part of all those people who have been hurt and injured in the conflict.”