The Troubles Legacy Bill Is Delayed Again And May Not Become Law Until Summer
Exclusive: A contentious bill which deals with Troubles legacy cases faces not being put into law until the summer, as the government is still ironing out the final details of the legislation.
Ministers had planned to bring the legislation forward before Christmas, with the aim of completing its passage through parliament before the Northern Ireland Assembly elections on 5 May.
However, a government source told PoliticsHome that they needed more time to "get it right" and that the legislation might not make it onto the statute books until late spring or early summer.
They stressed that the government would rather take more time carefully finalising the legislation than rush it onto the floor of parliament, given the highly sensitive nature of the issue.
MPs are set to raise the issue in an adjournment debate on Thursday, initiated by Conservative MP and ex-minister Johnny Mercer, who is an outspoken critic of the government's approach to Legacy issues.
Mercer accused Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis of having missed eight "of his own deadlines" for publishing the legislation, the first being summer 2020 and the latest being before Christmas.
The question of how to deal with crimes committed during the 30-year sectarian conflict has been in the government's in-tray for several years, with Boris Johnson promising a solution in his 2019 general election manifesto.
In July, the government announced a divisive plan to end all prosecutions of ex-paramilitaries on both sides of the conflict, as well as former British soldiers, who are accused of crimes during The Troubles. The plan is set to form the basis of the legislation being worked on.
As well as closing down prosecutions, the government wants to set up a new information recovery process, designed to uncover the truth for the families of those killed during the conflict.
Lewis at the time said he knew the proposals would be "difficult for some to accept" and that the government did not reach the decision "lightly".
However, the Cabinet minister said the plan would help Northern Ireland move forward from the conflict, and the government maintains that it has not yet heard a better alternative. The Prime Minister last summer said the government was "finally bringing a solution to this problem".
Mercer told PoliticsHome Lewis was "arrogant" to claim that there are no alternatives to the proposals set out by the government last year.
"Even a cursory glance would show you there are many alternatives to his approach, many actors trying to influence his thinking," the MP for Plymouth Moor View said.
"He may choose not to listen – that is his prerogative, but that’s a different thing from saying there are no alternatives."
The proposals are opposed by all political parties in the province, as well as the government in the Republic of Ireland.
A spokesperson for the latter said: "The Irish Government shares the deep concerns expressed by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, who has been clear that the proposals appear indistinguishable from a broad-based and unconditional amnesty for those not yet convicted.
"We share her analysis that 'this proposed amnesty which... creates impunity, is being justified on problematic assumptions, and fails to meet victims’ needs, would be incompatible with the United Kingdom’s international obligations',".
They added: "Unilateral action on the basis of the proposals set out by the UK government cannot form the basis of progress on these deeply important issues, and we urge a recommitment to efforts to find a collective way forward with the needs of victims and survivors at its heart."
Simon Coveney, Ireland's foreign minister, in July warned that they would breach the UK's international obligations and end up being challenged in court.
The proposals also prompted a backlash from relatives of victims. Kathleen Gillespie, whose husband was murdered by the IRA in 1990, said she felt "robbed" by the measures. "The people who murdered my husband are still walking free. I could be walking past them up the town any day and not know who it was," she said.
The government argues prosecutions relating to The Troubles are increasingly difficult due to the passage of time and that in the vast majority of cases they will never be successful.
A UK government spokesperson said the Legacy legislation would be introduced "as soon as possible."
"The government is absolutely committed to addressing legacy issues comprehensively and fairly," they told PoliticsHome.
"This will include measures that focus on information recovery, so that families can know what happened to their loved ones, and which promote reconciliation, so all communities in Northern Ireland can move forward."
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