Northern Ireland

Haass proposals: Limited immunity may be on cards

Despite the rounded dismissal of a suggestion from Northern Ireland Attorney General John Larkin that a line be drawn under Troubles-related prosecutions, there is now an acknowledgement from all politicians that some form of immunity has been incorporated into the Haass proposals. Ireland correspondent Andy Martin examines how it might work.

Row of rifles
Image caption Before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, legislation was passed to allow paramilitary organisations to decommission without fear of prosecution.

"Limited immunity" is the phrase that appears to be acceptable, in principle, to unionist and nationalist politicians, and indeed the secretary of state for Northern Ireland.

Provided of course, that recourse to the criminal justice system is not abandoned.

The details are yet to be thrashed out, but the idea has been used before.

Before the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, legislation was passed to allow paramilitary organisations to decommission without fear of consequence.

It might have taken a further eight years for the bulk of the IRA's arms to be destroyed, but without the legislation, it would not have happened at all.

The deal was simple. No-one caught transporting guns for the purposes of decommissioning would be prosecuted. No forensic evidence from the weapons could be used for prosecution.

The Location of Victims Remains Act of 1999 was designed to help find the bodies of those known as the Disappeared - those abducted, murdered and secretly buried by the IRA.

No prosecution can be brought against anyone who supplies information that leads to the discovery of a body, nor can there be any examination of a body found as a result of that information.

More emotive

"These I think have been seen to be relative successes," said Bryce Dickson, professor of international law at Queen's University Belfast.

He accepts that the immunity under discussion now is more emotive.

"This would be the first time, in recent history anyway, where an oral statement by somebody that they have been involved in a crime may excuse them from being prosecuted or sued."

However, the word "limited" is important.

Anyone who chooses to speak about their part in Northern Ireland's conflict to a statutory commission may not be able to have their own evidence used against them.

That does not mean, however, that evidence uncovered outside of that process cannot be used in a future prosecution.

Loyalist Jim Wilson is candid about his paramilitary past, describing himself as a former member of the Red Hand Commando.

He is now a leading figure in the 'Red Hand Comrades' and the organisation said it would take part in such a process.

'Dirty sectarian war'

"We took loved ones away from people, we took dignity away from people because of the fact that they're left in wheelchairs," he said.

"Our idea is for victims to come to the commission and say, 'my son was murdered, I believe loyalists did it, my family wants to know why he was targeted.'

"To be fair, the answer may come back, 'two of (our) lads were shot the night before and loyalists responded by going out and killing the first Catholic they came to' - dirty sectarian war that it was.

"But I think there's a duty on us to give closure to a lot of families out there who we did hurt."

Such harsh honesty is unusual, and critical to the success of such a proposal is a buy-in from other parties; the IRA, the Army and security services.

Would Jim Wilson take part in such a commission without an immunity clause?

"How do you get someone who is going to end up going and doing time to come and tell you their story?" he said.

"As much as people carry the guilt and the pain, that is literally impossible to do."

'Stunned'

So how far might these confessions go? Will groups name the individual gunmen, or bombers?

"No. It's collective responsibility. The organisations who took part would take responsibility," Jim Wilson said.

Undoubtedly, there will be some victims who will find an element of comfort in such a process. There will be many, however, who are stunned at the suggestion that it could even come close to what they want.

Kenny Donaldson of Innocent Victims United, an umbrella group for 21 support organisations, said: "I haven't heard of a single individual within our organisation suggest that they would like to go down this route.

"If a terrorist looks back and recognises the huge human sacrifice and hurt that they caused to a family, then there is a process for them already.

"They can present themselves at a police station and own up to their offences."

Mr Donaldson said that under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, anyone convicted of a Troubles-related crime carried out prior to 1998, would serve a maximum of two years in jail.

"If they own up to their offences, and serve a meagre two years, they then have paid their debt to society. They have given victims some form of closure and can get on with their lives," he said.

It was always a tall order to solve the problems of flags, parades and particularly the past in the space of just a few months, especially as they have hitherto proved too difficult to solve.

However, decommissioning, to an extent, did occur and policing and justice powers were devolved to the Stormont executive.

Every hurdle in the peace process has been cleared by sharing hurt around all parties.

The worry of victims, is that they will once again be asked to shoulder more of the burden than most.