LONDON (Reuters) -The British government has proposed halting all prosecutions of British soldiers and militants involved in three decades of conflict in Northern Ireland, sparking an angry response from victims' families and politicians in Belfast and Dublin.
London has said prosecutions linked to the bloodshed are increasingly unlikely to result in convictions, but allegations over unresolved crimes from Northern Ireland's "Troubles" remain a contentious issue 23 years after a peace deal was struck.
Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin said the move towards what he described as amounting to a general amnesty for those accused of murder and other crimes was not the right way to go "for many, many reasons".
The Irish government had urged London not to push ahead with the move and Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said the proposals were "very much not a done deal" and that the two governments had previously committed to try to find a consensus.
However, Britain's Northern Ireland Minister pledged to bring forward legislation underpinning a statute of limitations in the autumn while also proposing establishing a new independent body to help victims' families find out the truth.
"We know the prospect of the end of criminal prosecutions will be difficult for some to accept. This is not a position that we take lightly," Lewis told parliament, saying he would engage with victims' families.
The conflict pitted mostly Catholic nationalists fighting for a united Ireland against predominantly Protestant unionists who wanted Northern Ireland to stay part of the United Kingdom. It cost some 3,600 lives.
Northern Ireland's main political parties and many victims groups immediately opposed the move. Democratic Unionist Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson MP said it was "totally unacceptable" and would be rejected by everyone in Northern Ireland.
Veterans Commissioner for Northern Ireland Danny Kinahan said veterans did not "on the whole" want an amnesty but that society was not getting anywhere through the courts system.
Three murder trials of former soldiers collapsed in recent weeks due to evidence collected decades ago being ruled inadmissible. They included the 1972 "Bloody Sunday" killings of 13 unarmed Catholic civil rights marchers.
One group representing victims said the proposals were "a perversion of the criminal justice system".
"We are saying to families your loved one's death didn't matter. Some families have not had the processes they should have had and that is simply wrong," Sandra Peake, chief executive of WAVE Trauma Centre, said.
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin and Conor Humphries in Dublin and Ian Graham in Belfast; Editing by Michael Holden and Catherine Evans)