The U.K. government announced Wednesday that it plans to introduce a statute of limitations for alleged crimes committed during decades of violence in Northern Ireland, a move that would end prosecution for killings by both British soldiers and members of militant groups.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis told lawmakers in the House of Commons that the statute would “apply equally to all Troubles-related incidents.” He said the change reflected the increasing difficulty of prosecuting people for long-ago crimes.
More than 3,500 people died — most of them civilians — during three decades of violence known as the “Troubles,” a three-way conflict involving Irish republican and British loyalist paramilitaries and U.K. troops.
“We know that the prospect of the end of criminal prosecutions will be difficult for some to accept, and this is not a position we take lightly,” Lewis said.
“But we’ve come to the view that this is the best and only way to facilitate an effective information retrieval and provision process, and the best way to help Northern Ireland move further along the road to reconciliation,” he said. “It is, in reality, a painful recognition of the very reality of where we are.”
The statute of limitations will accompanied by a new independent body tasked with uncovering and compiling information about Troubles-related deaths and injuries, according to Lewis.
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The 1998 Good Friday peace accord ended large-scale violence in Northern Ireland. As part of the peace process, many militants were released from prison or were not prosecuted for actions during the Troubles.
The U.K.’s Conservative government is under pressure from many party members and the military to lift the threat of prosecution from troops who served in Northern Ireland decades ago. Several prosecutions of former soldiers for alleged Troubles crimes have recently collapsed.
Earlier this month, authorities announced plans to halt the prosecution of two former British soldiers over the killing of three people in Northern Ireland in 1972, including two shot dead on “Bloody Sunday,” when paratroopers killed 13 Catholic civilians in the city of Londonderry.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the statute of limitations would stop army veterans facing “vexatious prosecutions well into their 70s and 80s.”
He told lawmakers that the plan would “enable the province of Northern Ireland to draw a line under the Troubles, to enable the people of Northern Ireland to move forward.”
Putting a time limit on prosecutions will also mean the perpetrators of some paramilitary attacks could escape justice.
The opposition Labour Party called the statute of limitations “an amnesty in all but name” for murder.
Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, said “victims will see these proposals as perpetrator-focused rather than victim-focused and an insult to both the memory of those innocent victims who lost their lives during our Troubles and their families.”
“We understand that with the passage of time the prospect of justice is diminishing for many, but these proposals, if passed, will extinguish that flickering flame of justice completely and is a moral overreach that cannot be accepted,” Donaldson said.
The Associated Press contributed to this article