Northern Ireland needs South Africa-style truth commission: Blair

Modelled on South Africa's post-apartheid experience, the commission would be a better approach than endless recriminations in court prosecutions, said the former British prime minister.

Former British prime minister Tony Blair. Picture: AFP.

LONDON - British former prime minister Tony Blair called Wednesday for a truth and reconciliation commission for Northern Ireland to address historical crimes on both sides of "The Troubles".

Modelled on South Africa's post-apartheid experience, the commission would be a better approach than endless recriminations in court prosecutions, Blair indicated, a day after a coroner's inquest heavily criticised British troops over 10 deaths in 1971.

"Obviously I sympathise with the government. We tried to deal with this ourselves when we were in government," he told ITV News, as London prepares new legislation to try to draw a line under accusations of wrongful deaths in past conflicts.

"So you've got agonising stories and terrible stories of distress, and people who've lost their loved ones, but you've got it on all sides," Blair stressed, noting the many victims too of IRA violence in Northern Ireland.

Tuesday's long-awaited inquest hearing over the 1971 killings in Ballymurphy found that British soldiers used "clearly disproportionate" force, and the 10 civilians shot dead were all innocent of any crimes.

That finding was "vindication" for the families, Blair said, adding, "but I honestly believe... if you try and go through all of these cases and have court cases and criminal prosecutions, you don't resolve it".

Blair's government negotiated the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended three decades of bloodshed in Northern Ireland.

He said of a South Africa-style commission, in which victims and perpetrators would both have their say with amnesties on offer, "well, we did try but there wasn't the support for it at the time".

"But I agree it's possible that you need to return to something like that. Sure I would back that."

NEW TENSIONS AFTER BREXIT

The 10 people in Ballymurphy were killed at the height of "The Troubles", a brutal sectarian conflict over British rule in Northern Ireland which left some 3,500 people dead.

Relatives of the victims claimed paratroopers - who the following year shot dead 14 civilians during a civil rights march on "Bloody Sunday" - had "a licence to kill" and then covered up their actions.

The UK government, however, remains determined to end what it calls "vexatious" prosecutions of any army personnel, and says it will soon introduce new legislation addressing the legacy of Northern Irish unrest.

The legislation will inflame tensions in Northern Ireland after fresh violence since the UK quit the European Union, a move which left the province in a regulatory half-way house between its markets in mainland Britain and in Ireland.

Brexit minister David Frost and Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis met business and community representatives in the province on a two-day visit this week, to take stock of the UK-EU "Northern Ireland Protocol".

"It's clear from my visit that the protocol is presenting significant challenges for many in Northern Ireland," Frost said in a statement late Tuesday.

"Businesses have gone to extraordinary efforts to make the current requirements work, but it is hard to see that the way the protocol is currently operating can be sustainable for long," he said.

The EU, however, insists Britain knew full well what it was signing up for in the Brexit agreement and needs to work harder on implementing the protocol.

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