A victims group said it is “hugely disappointed” after the Secretary of State responded following a direct plea to the Prime Minister to intervene to ensure an inquest into the death of a soldier takes place.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, UUP leader Doug Beattie and TUV leader Jim Allister wrote a joint letter to Rishi Sunak about Corporal James Elliott.
The 37-year-old was abducted and murdered by the Provisional IRA in 1972.
While Northern Ireland’s Attorney General Brenda King has ordered a fresh inquest into his death, concern has been expressed that the Government’s legacy Bill will prevent it taking place.
The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill, which is progressing through Parliament, proposes immunity for people accused of crimes during the Troubles – as long as they co-operate with a new truth recovery body – and will stop future court processes.
The Bill has been opposed by victims group, most of the political parties and the Irish government.
They point out that no-one has been convicted of his murder, and that the Government’s legacy Bill could close the door on the inquest.
It is understood that it is considered normal practice for the Prime Minister to ask his ministers to respond on his and the Government’s behalf on issues for which they are responsible.
In his responding letter, Mr Heaton-Harris is understood to have expressed his sympathies to the Elliott family, acknowledging he “paid the ultimate sacrifice in service to the state … as he sought to protect the citizens of Northern Ireland”, adding: “We owe him, and them, a debt of gratitude”.
He went on to write that the Government wants to establish mechanisms to address the legacy of the past which can deliver better outcomes for families who have waited many years for any form of acknowledgement and accountability.
However victims campaign organisation, Ulster Human Rights Watch (UHRW), claimed Mr Heaton-Harris “failed to specifically address the request”.
UHRW advocacy manager, Axel Schmidt, slammed the response as “hugely disrespectful and disappointing”.
“The fact that this response came from Mr Chris Heaton-Harris and not the Prime Minister is indicative of the way the Government regards innocent victims of terrorism.
“Mr Harris talks about the measures in the proposed legislation, but nowhere is there a willingness to delay the introduction of this legacy Bill that is opposed by our organisation, which represents victims of terrorism, and by political parties in Northern Ireland.
“This letter is hugely disrespectful and disappointing. How can this government continue with the pretence that it is interested in justice for innocent victims of barbarous terrorists when it slams the door in their face?
“Mr Sunak and the Secretary of State have failed to grasp the depth of the determined opposition to their legislation. If the Bill becomes law, the legal route will be closed to the Elliott family and that would be a travesty of monumental proportions.
“Families like the Elliotts must not be cast adrift in the headlong rush to draw a line in the sand. The families of many former UDR soldiers who countered terrorism and paid the ultimate price for doing what they knew was right, will be left indignant and distraught by this letter from Mr Heaton-Harris.
“It’s still not too late to do what is right for the Elliott family and others in a similar position. We have again written to Mr Sunak asking him to state clearly and unequivocally whether his government will accede to what is a perfectly reasonable request.”
A UK Government spokesman said: “The UK Government is determined to deliver better outcomes for those most affected by the Troubles, while helping society to look forward.
“The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy & Reconciliation) Bill will establish an Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR) to conduct reviews into Troubles-related deaths and serious injury, with the primary objective of providing information to families, and victims and survivors. It will have all the necessary powers to conduct criminal investigations as part of any review and will be able to make findings in a manner similar to an inquest.
“The Government tabled a number of amendments during committee stage in the House of Lords that seek to address a number of key issues and we will continue to engage constructively with all interested parties.”