Northern Ireland

Peter Hain: Bloody Sunday soldiers should not be prosecuted

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Media captionPeter Hain says it is important for Northern Ireland to look to the future

The former Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain has said British soldiers involved in the Bloody Sunday killings should not be prosecuted.

Fourteen civilians died after soldiers opened fire at a civil rights march in Londonderry in 1972.

Mr Hain's comments follow the news that almost 200 republican paramilitary suspects received letters assuring them they were not being sought by police.

Northern Ireland's justice minister criticised Mr Hain's comments.

Mr Hain said a balanced approach was needed to the issue.

"If the job it seems to me of politicians and political leadership is to say we need to look to the future and if you're going to do that and if you have, as has been the case, addressed the question of former terrorists involved in activity, then it should apply even-handedly right across the board to members of the British security forces as well," Mr Hain said.

However, Northern Ireland's Justice Minister David Ford said: "It almost looks like Peter Hain, having played a part in one sort of pseudo amnesty, is now suggesting another kind of amnesty to try and ingratiate himself with different people in the community," Mr Ford said.

"I think we saw what happened when John Larkin, the attorney general, suggested we draw a line under the past - it was almost universally rejected.

"Yes, there are real difficulties in getting evidence when you go back that far, but that doesn't men that we should abandon the opportunity if there is an opportunity in some cases."

'Ill-judged and inappropriate'

Sinn Fein said Mr Hain's comments were "ill-judged".

The party's Raymond McCartney said some of the Bloody Sunday families "wish to seek prosecution against those responsible for the death of their loved ones.

"Given the ongoing investigation by the PSNI following the Saville inquiry's findings into the events of Bloody Sunday, Peter Hain's comments are ill-judged and inappropriate," he said.

Liam Wray, whose brother Jim was killed on Bloody Sunday, said there was "ample evidence" to prosecute soldiers.

"I've always maintained that the prosecution and conviction, if it's possible, of the people responsible for killing my brother must take place," he said.

"But I've always maintained that it's not important to me if that individual never spends a moment in jail at this time, I'd be happy enough with a judge sending him home on licence."

However, the DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson said: "We are very clear that no-one should be immune from prosecution if they have broken the law.

"But if we were in a situation where people involved in terrorist activity were not pursued for prosecution, then it would be unthinkable that the courts would pursue those who were involved in killings related to the state."

Mr Hain, who served as Northern Ireland Secretary from 2005 to 2007, said dealing with the issue of so-called On the Runs paved the way for the IRA declaring an end to its war and the decommissioning of weapons.

It was revealed earlier this week that John Downey, who was accused of killing four soldiers in the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombing would not be prosecuted because he had been received a letter to say he would not face trial.

A judge ruled that an official assurance given in error meant Mr Downey - who had denied murder - could not be prosecuted.

The decision could affect 186 other people wanted for terror-related offences in the Troubles who received similar assurances.

Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson has threatened to resign unless an inquiry was launched and the letters rescinded. A judge is examining the entire issue but the letters remain in effect.

Mr Hain said the system had been operated "totally lawfully".

"There was nothing furtive or sordid, it did not involved an immunity, it did not involve a get out of jail free card, it did not involve an amnesty.

"It was the normal criminal justice process whereby if somebody wanted to inquire if they were still wanted by the authorities and the police, then they could go to, in this case, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), and ask, do you still have an interest in me?

"The PSNI then investigated it under the supervision of the law officers and the attorney general.

"If there was no interest in them they got a letter saying so.

"The last few lines of that letter said if anything else comes to light, or words to that effect, or if there is any request for extradition, because these people were all outside UK jurisdiction, then that's a different matter entirely."

The PSNI launched a murder investigation after the Saville Inquiry's 2010 report into the Bloody Sunday killings was heavily critical of the Army.

Thirteen civilians were killed in Londonderry in 1972, while the 14th victim died from wounds five months later.

Last month police appealed to the one thousand Saville Inquiry witnesses - soldiers and civilians - to make statements as part of a criminal investigation.

The nationalist SDLP said Mr Hain's latest comments on the issue were "inevitable and predictable".

Foyle MP Mark Durkan said: "Those who have stood over the scheme revealed in the High Court case have claimed that it doesn't imply an amnesty, and that everybody really knew everything about it.

"Yet now, one of its authors is saying that the fact of the scheme should mean amnesty for everybody and anybody in relation to anything."