04 January 2006

London to press on for amnesty

Irish Echo

By Anne Cadwallader
acadwallader@irishecho.com

BELFAST - The British government is coming under intense pressure to drop the proposed legislation that would give a partial amnesty to paramilitaries, police officers and British soldiers accused of breaking the law.

It's understood, however, that despite the total opposition of all Northern Ireland's political parties, as well as various human rights bodies and victims' groups, London is determined to press ahead.

It is preparing, however, to change the legislation -- which would offer police officers and soldiers a virtual amnesty for crimes as serious as murder. Sinn Fein says no republican fugitive is prepared to cooperate with the bill.

Opposition parties in Britain and even a number of key Labour government supporters have also criticized the bill, including Paul Murphy, a former Northern Secretary.

As it stands, the bill offers anyone who committed a terrorist-type offence before 1998 the option of applying to a special tribunal. The person does not have to appear in person or answer questions.

They would, however, be entitled to legal representation and, if convicted, be immediately released on license.

It's understood London is prepared to stipulate a time limit after which no one can apply for the partial amnesty. London is also planning to demand that applicants must appear in person and answer questions.

The proposals will also mean that, if evidence emerges at the special tribunal, victims to take action for damages against offenders can use it.

While Sinn Fein initially supported the legislation, it was taken aback when London inserted the clause allowing police officers and British soldiers to apply.

After it became clear London would not remove this clause, Sinn Fein did a U-turn, saying no republican was interested in the bill if it applied to state killers or perpetrators.

The SDLP leader, Mark Durkan, has labeled the bill one of the worst ever to be produced by London, said the British Government must "heed the call now made by all the political parties in the North to withdraw the Northern Ireland Offences Bill."

"Instead," he said, "we need to work on positive proposals for truth, recognition and remembrance that put victims' rights at their heart."

SDLP Newry and Armagh assemblyman, Dominic Bradley, also said the Taoiseach was wrong to continue pushing for the implementation of the British legislation.

"It's crazy," he said, "to say you're pressing ahead because of a commitment when the people to whom that commitment was given, Sinn Fein, no longer want it."

This story appeared in the issue of January 4 - 10, 2006

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