By Kylie MacLellan
LONDON (Reuters) - An amnesty should be offered to all those involved in 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland, a former British government minister said, ahead of a state visit by the Irish president that will highlight improved ties between London and Dublin.
More than 3,600 people were killed in the Northern Irish "troubles" from the 1960s onward before a 1998 peace deal largely ended the conflict between Catholic groups wanting the province to become part of the Irish Republic and Protestant groups determined to keep it within the United Kingdom.
Peter Hain, a former Northern Ireland Secretary and a member of Britain's opposition Labour Party, told the Times an amnesty should be offered to those responsible for killing, bombing and maiming during three decades of conflict in the province.
"There should be an end to all conflict-related prosecutions," Hain said in the interview published on Monday.
The amnesty should apply to all cases pre-dating the 1998 peace deal and soldiers should be treated in the same way as former loyalists or republican paramilitaries responsible for atrocities, he said.
Victims and survivors of the conflict may respond angrily to the proposal but it is vital if Northern Ireland is to stop being "stalked" by its past, Hain added.
"You can keep going back all the time and you can keep looking over your shoulder ... but what that does is take you away from addressing the issues of now and the issues of the future," he said.
CAMERON OPPOSES AMNESTY
Some commentators have suggested the work of the Historical Enquiries Team, set up by the police to investigate paramilitary atrocities during the conflict, helped to fuel an upsurge in street violence in Northern Ireland last year.
Hain, who served as Northern Ireland secretary in 2005-07, also called last month for a halt to a criminal investigation into 'Bloody Sunday', the killing by British soldiers of 13 Roman Catholic civil rights marchers in one of the most notorious episodes of the conflict.
A spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron said on Monday he did not support the idea of an amnesty.
In February Cameron ordered an independent inquiry into letters sent to IRA suspects after an angry response to the freeing of an Irishman accused of a 1982 bombing that killed four soldiers in London.
Cameron is expected to discuss Northern Ireland on Wednesday
with President Michael Higgins, the first Irish head of state to pay an official visit to Britain. Higgins, whose four-day trip starts on Tuesday, will be joined at many events by former Irish Republican Army guerrilla chief Martin McGuinness.
Higgins' trip follows a historic visit by Queen Elizabeth to the Republic of Ireland in 2011, the first by a British monarch since its independence from London in 1921.
During that visit, members of the Sinn Fein political party including McGuinness, now the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, rejected invitations to attend events.
Sinn Fein said McGuiness, who shook the queen's hand in Belfast in 2012 in a milestone which helped draw a line under the conflict, would attend events during Higgins' state visit.
That will include a state banquet at Windsor Castle, hosted by the queen, whose cousin was killed in a 1979 IRA attack, as well as a Northern Ireland-themed reception.
Higgins, whose office is largely ceremonial, will also address both houses of Britain's parliament, a privilege only extended to a few foreign leaders including Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama.
(Additional reporting by Padraic Halpin and Conor Humphries in Dublin and William James in London; Editing by Gareth Jones)