Northern Ireland: UK cabinet 'spat' over unsolved killings inquiry

By Laura Kuenssberg
Political editor

Image caption,
The new unit will take over the work of the Historical Enquiries Team

Cabinet ministers have raised concerns over plans to introduce a new body that would investigate unsolved killings from the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Introducing a new "Historical Investigations Unit" was a major part of the 2014 Stormont House agreement.

It was agreed then to create a new independent body to deal with killings where there had been no prosecutions.

But several ministers told colleagues on Tuesday that the proposal was unacceptable in its current form.

In what has been described as a "spat", Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson is understood to have raised concerns that military veterans might not have enough protections under the proposed system.

Another minister who expressed worries said there had not been a huge argument, but that it had been made clear to the government that it had to do more to make sure that former military personnel weren't unfairly targeted, or dragged through the courts.

One cabinet source told the BBC: "This has got catastrophe written all over it for the government and will carry very little sympathy with the majority of the British public who won't be able to get their heads round us not getting behind our veterans."

But others familiar with the process said that the new HIU would "end the current witch hunt" where veterans and former police officers are already hit disproportionately, providing a new system that is fair, independent and proportionate. Figures obtained by the BBC challenge the claim that investigations are unfairly focused on the security forces.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The defence secretary is understood to have raised objections

It is hoped the proposed unit would be able to investigate terrorist killings more vigorously than under the current piecemeal system. The plan was also included in the Tories' Northern Irish election manifesto.

A source said: "We want to find a way forward and we believe that the right way is to consult on this. Leaving the status quo as it exists is to let down our armed forces, as the current system it hits our armed forces disproportionately."

They suggested the idea of providing a statute of limitation for veterans would be legally impossible.

A Number 10 source said it was hoped the consultation would be carried out "expeditiously" although they would not be drawn on a date.

The Northern Ireland Office has circulated a draft consultation document on "legacy" matters to the main Stormont parties.

It is understood the draft does not contain a controversial suggestion for a so-called statute of limitations.

It would have prevented the prosecution of former soldiers for offences connected to the Troubles.