Ministers are actively examining the possibility of introducing a South African-style truth and reconciliation commission for Northern Ireland whereby witnesses would get immunity from prosecution in an attempt to deal with the legacy of the Troubles.

The idea was raised at the defence select committee and is partly aimed at reducing the number of criminal proceedings that British army soldiers are involved in that relate to the 30-year period of violence and disorder in which 3,600 people died.

At the hearing, the chairman, Julian Lewis, asked whether the government was considering adopting the “truth recovery process that was used so brilliantly by Nelson Mandela in South Africa” in Northern Ireland.

The Conservative backbench MP argued that was “the best way of getting at the truth and giving families some closure, whilst protecting people from prosecution for many years after the event”.

In reply, Lt Gen Richard Nugee, the chief of defence people, responsible for personnel issues in the military, said “that is exactly what we are looking at” and added discussions were taking place between government departments.

The initiative comes at a time when Conservative backbenchers are demanding that ministers take action to halt historical prosecutions of former soldiers who served in Northern Ireland, unless compelling new evidence emerges.

There are also complaints that army veterans do not receive enough support when they are asked to give evidence at inquests relating to deaths in Northern Ireland. More than 70 are currently in train, Nugee added.

Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, said he wanted “to deal with the whole gamut, not just the criminal but the inquests” in order to try to resolve the controversial issue.

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There have been repeated complaints from both republican and unionist communities that a string of violent episodes have not been properly reviewed. Inquests and criminal processes are running decades behind.

In March, a man known only as “Soldier F” was prosecuted for two murders and five attempted murders in relation to the Bloody Sunday massacre, when paratroopers fired on civil rights protesters in Derry in 1972. A total of 13 people were killed.

Tory backbenchers had hoped Boris Johnson would announce a bill in this month’s Queen’s speech to introduce a statutory presumption against prosecution for soldiers who served both in Northern Ireland and abroad, covering Afghanistan and Iraq.

Such a bill did not appear, prompting another member of the committee, the Conservative Mark Francois, to complain that Wallace had allowed a “Sinn Féin/IRA veto” over the scheme.

Wallace said that the process was complicated and had to be dealt with under Northern Ireland’s devolved arrangements, and rejected any suggestion that Sinn Féin had a veto over his plans. “I do not need a lecture on who I should deal with,” the minister said to Lewis.

The minister also indicated that the government hoped to legislate on a soldiers’ amnesty covering service overseas. A consultation on the topic had only concluded 10 days ago, and had received 4,200 responses.



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