Victims and politicians from across the island of Ireland have voiced anger at the prospect of a form of amnesty on Troubles prosecutions.
Northern Ireland’s two main parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, have both criticised the reported move by the UK Government to introduce a statute of limitations on prosecuting offences committed prior to the signing of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.
The Irish Government has also made clear its opposition, with Taoiseach Micheal Martin claiming any such proposal would represent a “breach of trust”.
Irish ministers are angered that Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis apparently did not mention the plan during a range of engagements in Dublin on Wednesday.
Victims of republican, loyalist and state violence have also expressed outrage at what would amount to blanket protection from prosecution for ex-security force members and former paramilitaries.
Mark Kelly, who was a teenager when he saw his 12-year-old sister, Carol-Ann, die after being struck in the back of the head by a plastic bullet in Belfast in 1981, described it as “absolutely disgraceful”.
“When I heard the news, I was just so angry, I felt like I did on the day Carol-Ann was killed … I think I am even more angry now than I was then,” he told the PA news agency.
The Times and Daily Telegraph reported the statute of limitations plan on Thursday.
The bar on prosecutions would apply to the vast majority of Troubles killings, though an exemption would apply to war crimes, such as torture, according to the papers.
The reported move, some detail of which could be announced in next week’s Queen’s Speech, would signal the scrapping of a key mechanism agreed by the UK and Irish Governments and main Northern Ireland parties in the 2014 Stormont House Agreement.
The Stormont House proposals included a new independent investigation unit to re-examine all unsolved killings.
Taoiseach Mr Martin said: “The Irish Government is very clear. It has an agreement in place with the British Government and with the parties of Northern Ireland and with many victims’ organisations. That is the Stormont House agreement of 2014.
“Any unilateral move from that would be a breach of trust, as far as we are concerned.
“For us the victims are the priority and the victims will remain the priority.”
Sinn Fein and the DUP outlined differing reasons for their opposition to any form of amnesty.
The republican party portrayed the move as an attempt to protect British veterans from due process while the region’s main unionist party is angered by the prospect of paramilitaries evading justice.
DUP MP Gavin Robinson said veterans should not be subjected to a “cycle of reinvestigations” in the absence of new evidence.
However, he insisted that access to justice was a vital principle in how Northern Ireland deals with its past.
“Anyone who committed a crime should be held accountable for that if evidence can be put before a court and a conviction secured,” he said.
“There has been a deliberate attempt by some to conflate protections for armed forces veterans with some sort of blanket protection against any prosecution.
“We must be clear that if someone has committed murder, they should be prosecuted for that crime regardless of who they are.”
He added: “Anyone who suggests that our veterans should be treated in the same way as paramilitaries are wrong and that is why the suggestion of an amnesty is wrong.
“The Government should not seek to evade its responsibility to those who served in our armed forces through such an approach.”
Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said the reports had come as a “devastating blow” to victims. She urged the Irish Government to “stand up” for the Stormont House deal.
“Many of these families have spent decades trying to get the truth about the killings of their loved ones in the face of cover-up, wilful destruction of evidence, and failures to investigate crimes including murder,” she said.
“What Boris Johnson and the British government is doing is an attempt to put British soldiers above the law and prevent investigations into murder, torture, shoot-to-kill and collusion involving British forces in Ireland.
“This is an attack on the rule of law.”
Northern Ireland’s police chief Simon Byrne said he has had no advance sight of what the Government is planning, other than that an announcement is anticipated in Tuesday’s Queen’s Speech.
Mr Byrne declined to be drawn on whether or not he would support the reported statute of limitations
However, he made clear that the PSNI had “consistently” voiced its support for the Stormont House Agreement mechanisms.
Last March, Mr Lewis announced an intention to unilaterally move away from the Stormont House deal.
He said only Troubles killings where compelling new evidence had emerged would receive a full police reinvestigation.
He added that most unsolved cases would be closed and a new law would prevent them being reopened.
On Tuesday, the trial of two former paratroopers accused of the murder of Official IRA commander Joe McCann in 1972 collapsed due to legal issues related to the admissibility of statements and interviews given by the ex-soldiers.
A UK Government spokesman did not deny the reports that a statute of limitations was planned.
“The Government has clear objectives for addressing the legacy of the Troubles and delivering its manifesto commitments to veterans who served in Northern Ireland,” he said.
“We want to deal with the past in a way that helps society in Northern Ireland to look forward rather than back.
“It is clear to all that the current system for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles is not working for anyone, failing to bring satisfactory outcomes for families, placing a heavy burden on the criminal justice system, and leaving society in Northern Ireland hamstrung by its past.”