Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill
Published date : 24 May, 2022
Could I begin by thanking the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns), in particular for the time he took to brief me on the contents of the Bill? Allow me to say that I very much appreciate what has been attempted here and the sentiment behind it. We certainly look to the memory of all those who lost their lives during the troubles, to the tens of thousands of those who were injured and to the families, relatives and friends to make sure that we approach this in the right way to get the right outcomes.
On 14 July 2021, the Secretary of State addressed the House on the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past, and the view that he then expressed clearly was that the current system for dealing with the legacy of the troubles was “not working”. The paper that was published that day achieved something quite unique, I think, in Northern Irish politics in that it united every single spectrum of opinion in opposition to what was being proposed. We have yet to hear the substantive contributions of the Members who are elected to this place from constituencies in Northern Ireland who take their seats, but I suspect, notwithstanding the changes that have been made in approaches by the Government since then, that the Government may be about to achieve the same feat once again.
I thank the right hon. Member for his intervention. He is certainly correct that this is a very difficult and intractable set of issues that need to be navigated through, but if he really imagines that by introducing this Bill the Government are in some way cutting the Gordian knot, he is very sadly mistaken. I do not think that that kind of approach is the one that could yield the greatest amount of fruit. I do not believe that it needed to be the case that this was the outcome.
Stormont House was not agreed by everybody, but nevertheless it did provide a platform for a potential route forward. By failing to try to establish and build on what consensus there was in that, we are highly unlikely to reveal truth satisfactorily and we are certainly not creating the conditions whereby reconciliation might be achieved.
It is fair to say—certainly from the representations that I have received, particularly over the last 48 to 72 hours, from groups in civil society in Northern Ireland and from those who take an interest in the law and its application—that confidence in this process and this legislation is low. It is not being helped by the fact that we are here to discuss the Bill on Second Reading just days after it was announced formally in the Queen’s Speech. To only have two days in Committee here is, I think, thoroughly inadequate for the parliamentary scrutiny that a Bill of this kind deserves. It certainly does not pay the respect that I believe is due to victims groups and those with a stake in the outcomes here, in and across the island of Ireland and in veterans communities, to try to get us to a place of closer consensus.
In responding to the statement on 14 July, I was clear that I felt Ministers needed to think again about introducing any statutes of limitations or effective amnesties. I was also clear that, whatever proposals were eventually brought to the House, where independent prosecutors considered that there was sufficiency of evidence, a likelihood of a successful conviction and, most important of all, it was in the public interest to do so, they would still be able to bring those prosecutions. It is not simply about achieving truth and perhaps closure, and it is not necessarily about a prosecution resulting in a conviction; that investigative process and that testing of facts in a court of law, but even just simply the investigative process undertaken by the authorities, can in and of itself help to provide some of the closure that is required by the families.
I thank the hon. Member for that intervention. No, I do not agree with that and I will go on to explain in a bit more detail why.
As I have said, the Bill would clearly make that kind of continuation of the judicial process and the process of investigation impossible. So the question that I have been left wrestling with is whether the approach in the Bill can work and, if it can, whether the potential benefits of doing that outweigh the very negative and real consequences of bypassing the normal processes of the rule of law. I have to say that I have reached the conclusion, and my group has reached the conclusion, that they do not.
We have very deep concerns about the manner in which somebody might be granted immunity. There is a real danger that the process set out in the Bill as it
stands actually puts more power in the hands of the perpetrators of past crimes or atrocities than it does in the victims’. The bar, as has been set out by the Labour shadow Secretary of State, is extraordinarily low in this respect. Simply to say that to give somebody immunity they have to request it but that what they then say has to be true to the best of their knowledge is not the sort of standard we should be hoping for in a completely open and accountable process of reconciliation and truth telling, because it means that there is absolutely no compulsion in there to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Even if we did wish to remove the process from a purely judicial setting, surely the very least we should expect from somebody seeking amnesty for their crimes is to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth before such a panel or tribunal.
I will be interested to hear what the Minister of State has to say, when he sums up, about the exemptions that are to be granted on the grounds of national security and what the independent commission should or should not do. Clearly, we would not want the commission to do anything that would imperil national security, but we can all see the potential conflict between revealing information that is held on file and the use of the national security clause to draw a veil over it. The process of reconciliation will require some hard truths, not just from the UK Government but, I suspect, from the records of the Government of the Irish Republic. Having that prohibition in the Bill potentially represents a further tilting of the balance away from revealing the truth and delivering justice.
One of the most pernicious aspects of the Bill is the way in which it seeks almost to bring down the shutters on families who have already engaged in inquiries or in the process preparatory to inquiries. To remove the rights of individuals to pursue a criminal or civil remedy appears to me to be in clear breach of article 2 of the European convention on human rights, and therefore aspects of the Good Friday agreement, as the convention is hardwired into it.
My reasons for opposing the Bill are ones of principle, articulated by those with a care for the legal and constitutional implications of what is before us, as well as the many strong and clear voices of those who have been affected by the troubles. In the light of those real concerns, I remain unpersuaded that the goal of truth and reconciliation will be more likely to be achieved by this process, or that it justifies setting aside the norms of the rule of law and the fundamental rights of the individual to seek recourse or to uphold their rights through the law.
I am also bound to observe the dismay of the Irish Government at the proposals. At a time when open dialogue and good will are in greater demand than they perhaps have ever been as far as the present UK Government are concerned, it is a missed opportunity to go about this process as they have, rather than try to find a way in which both Governments’ sets of records could be made available and open up a process applicable to all victims on both sides of the border.
Operation Kenova shows what can be done when police investigations into historical inquiries are allowed to take place. It is not good enough to point to the backlog in the PSNI historical inquiry unit as a reason for introducing the processes in the Bill. That backlog is
an argument for adequately resourcing the PSNI so that the historical inquiry unit can complete the work it was tasked to do.
I do not think that reconciliation is something that can ever be imposed. It is something that has to be achieved. The legislation is being imposed, to the great distress of many, and that is unnecessary. The Bill in its current form is not one that my party can support.
Back to All Parliament