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NIreland needs South Africa-style truth commission: Blair

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

The call came as the government in London apologised to Northern Ireland leaders for events in Ballymurphy, west Belfast, in 1971, that left 10 civilians dead.

A coroner on Tuesday ruled that British soldiers used “clearly disproportionate” force against protesters, and all of the victims were “entirely innocent of any wrongdoing”, prompting calls for those responsible to be held accountable.

But with historical prosecutions fraught with controversy in Northern Ireland, Blair said South Africa’s post-apartheid experience would be a better approach, avoiding endless recriminations and court cases with no guarantee of success.

“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.

Blair said Tuesday’s long-awaited inquest hearing over the August 1971 killings in Ballymurphy was “vindication” for the families.

But he added: “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 landmark 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended three decades of bloodshed over British rule 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 which left some 3,500 people dead over three decades.

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, smearing them as paramilitaries.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Downing Street office said he spoke to Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster and her deputy in the power-sharing assembly in Belfast, Michelle O’Neill, and called the events “deeply sad” and “tragic”.

“The Prime Minister apologised unreservedly on behalf of the UK government for the events that took place in Ballymurphy and the huge anguish that the lengthy pursuit of truth has caused the families of those killed,” a statement read.

Johnson’s government 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 what it was signing up for in the Brexit agreement and needs to work harder on implementing the protocol.