The Catholic and Church of Ireland Primates of Ireland have warned that British government legislation to deal with the legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland is an effective "amnesty" that will deepen division.
In a joint letter in today's Financial Times, Archbishop Eamon Martin and Archbishop John McDowell say the promoters of the new laws "have effectively set aside the toil and goodwill of those who have been journeying with victims for decades".
The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill, which begins its journey through the British House of Lords this week, is opposed by all political parties and victims' groups in Northern Ireland, and the Irish government.
The church leaders say that much of the pastoral work of clergy during the Troubles often involved supporting those who have suffered the violent death or serious injury of a loved one.
"Our predecessors, through the worst years of the Troubles, walked in front of thousands of coffins," their letter states.
"Our generation of clergy has comforted and prayed with individuals and families for whom the heartbreak has, in some cases, seeped through generations.
"The legacy of the Troubles remains an open wound and the frailest of seams in our political and social life.
"There is no universal remedy for this great pain, but there can be honesty, integrity and compassion in trying to find the best way forward."
The primates point out that a previous formula to deal with the legacy of the Troubles, the Stormont House Agreement of 2014, has been negotiated by local political parties and the British and Irish governments.
They say the agreed provisions surfaced again in a later agreement involving the same parties in 2020 and on both occasions, most victims' groups welcomed the decisions made.
While the British government has insisted it is "listening" to victims, the letter says the fact that it produced a Bill "so heavily weighted in favour of the perpetrators of violence suggests otherwise".
"The bill contains provisions that set the bar for immunity from prosecution pitiably low (effectively granting an amnesty), and will not, in all likelihood, provide relatives with the quality of information for which they have yearned for so long," the letter adds.
European Convention of Human Rights
The church leaders also say that virtually all independent legal opinion they have seen casts serious doubt on whether the case "review" provisions of the legislation will comply with Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights which requires access to a proper investigation of loss of life.
They add that anyone with a basic understanding of paramilitary culture in Northern Ireland could not expect many perpetrators to risk offering their accounts for the record.
The letter is also critical of the inclusion of the word "reconciliation" in the title of the bill.
"Reconciliation in both the religious and civil senses involves the restoration of relationships; it requires patience, the slow building of trust leading to courageous truth telling, and immense forbearance," they write.
"Nothing in this bill goes anywhere near providing the environment for that to take place.
"Perhaps the very opposite. The individual at the heart of this bill is not the victim — rather, they are a strange hybrid of the perpetrator and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland for the time being.
"The latter is given powers to appoint personnel, make regulations regarding its work, issue "guidance" on the immunity process, initiate reviews, direct a response to historical findings, appoint those responsible for the historiographic work and control the overall budget.
"In other words, it grants the secretary of state the powers of a commissar rather than a minister of the Crown."
Archbishops Martin and McDowell say that addressing the legacy of the past "has been perhaps the greatest failing of both politicians and civil society in Northern Ireland since the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement in 1998."
They add: "This bill will not achieve any of its purposes. On the contrary, it will deepen division and further demoralise all but a tiny minority of those it purports to help. It seems almost as though it has been designed to fail."