Brandon Lewis on Wednesday announced that the Government will legislate to end Troubles prosecutions for all combatants as he attempted to quell a backlash from families of victims of IRA terror.
Mr Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, confirmed proposals to introduce a statute of limitations which will prevent further prosecutions related to deaths from the conflict that occurred prior to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
It will apply to all sides, including members of the British Army, MI5 and the Royal Ulster Constabulary as well as the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries, and means almost 1,200 open cases are set to be abandoned.
The Telegraph understands the Government will seek to table a Bill in the autumn when MPs return from the summer recess. However, the proposals have been fiercely criticised by Northern Ireland’s political parties, as well as victims’ groups, who argue that it is an effective amnesty for terrorists.
Setting out the historic decision, Mr Lewis said it was not a position ministers had taken "lightly".
He said the cycle of investigations of recent years, which have resulted in a string of failed court cases involving British veterans, showed the current model was "not working" and was failing to provide justice for the families of victims.
"If we fail to act now, we will be condemning current and future generations to yet further division, preventing further reconciliation at both the individual and societal level," he said.
"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. It is in reality a painful recognition of the very reality of where we are."
Earlier on Wednesday, Boris Johnson told MPs: "The sad fact remains that there are many members of the armed services who continue to face the threat of vexatious prosecutions well into their 70s, 80s and later.
"We’re finally bringing forward a solution to this problem, to enable the province of Northern Ireland to draw a line under the Troubles, to enable the people of Northern Ireland to move forward."
Boris Johnson said the move would 'enable the province of Northern Ireland to draw a line under the Troubles'
Credit: House of Commons/PA
Julie Hambleton, whose older sister Maxine was among 21 people killed in the 1974 IRA bombings in Birmingham, on Wednesday described the move as "obscene".
In a letter sent to Mr Johnson on behalf of the Justice 4 The 21 campaign group, she wrote: "Tell me, Prime Minister, if one of your loved ones was blown up beyond recognition, where you were only able to identify your son or daughter by their fingernails because their face had been burned so severely from the blast and little of their remains were left intact, would you be so quick to agree to such obscene legislation being implemented?
"You would do everything in your power to find the murderers and bring them to justice, which is exactly what we campaign for every day. At what point did your government lose sight of its moral, ethical and judicial backbone?"
But the plans were backed by the Conservative MP James Sunderland, one of the highest-ranking veterans in Parliament, who said: "This is difficult work and it requires compromise. So I am slightly baffled today and in previous weeks by some of the negativity that I have encountered with regards to the statute, because I believe we have a responsibility in Westminster to get behind it."
The former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith recalled his military service in Northern Ireland, including how a friend was "captured, tortured, murdered and his body has never been found".
He told the Commons: "His parents died never knowing where he was or what happened to him. The Good Friday Agreement, with its associations and the letters of comfort that followed, have meant pretty much that many of us have accepted now, sadly, we’ll never know the truth about what happened to that brave man.
"This will not be beloved of anybody but I do recognise sincerely that, if we are to move forward, we will all have to make some kind of sacrifice."
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the leader of the DUP, warned that the statute of limitations would be "rejected by everyone in Northern Ireland who stands for justice and the rule of law".
He said: "The past is complex and we have always believed that any process to deal with the legacy of our troubled past should be victim-centred. 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.
"There can be no equivalence between the soldier and police officer who served their country and those cowardly terrorists who hid behind masks and terrorised under the cover of darkness. We find any such attempted equivalence as offensive."
Seeking to contain the fallout, Mr Lewis said Northern Ireland needed to move beyond a focus on criminal investigations and towards truth and reconciliation.
To do this, he announced that the Government will establish an oral history of the Troubles, modelled on the approach taken to recording the history of East Germany prior to the unification of the country in 1990. The plan will see the creation of an official archive where victims and others can tell their stories of the conflict.
The Telegraph understands that ministers hope to enlist the support of a university or museum to ensure the archive is publicly available. Government sources pointed to a recent oral history archive established by Queen’s University Belfast, called Victims and Dealing With the Past, as a blueprint for the proposals.
Mr Lewis will also establish an independent commission focused on information recovery, which will include enabling perpetrators of crimes during the Troubles to tell the truth about their involvement without fear of prosecution.
Ministers hope this will provide some closure for the families impacted, who have otherwise been able to secure justice through the courts.