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Brandon Lewis: Troubles legacy is the hardest thing I've faced in government

9 min read

Brandon Lewis faces huge challenges in seeking to address Northern Ireland’s past. He tells Adam Payne the dilemma gives him sleepless nights, but can his new plan finally put the Troubles to rest? Photography by Paul Faith

"Somebody in a victims’ group looked at what we proposed in the command paper and asked me if I had a soul. That does stick with you.” Brandon Lewis is describing the sleepless nights he has suffered as the government worked out a plan to deal with the legacy of the Troubles – the 30-year conflict that scarred Northern Ireland until a shaky peace was arrived at 24 years ago.

When Boris Johnson appointed Lewis Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in early 2020, he handed his ally and Conservative MP for Great Yarmouth not just the latter’s most high-profile cabinet job so far, but one of the most complex and sensitive challenges faced by a United Kingdom minister in decades: dealing with unresolved killings committed during that unhappy period.

Nearly 3,600 people were killed in the Troubles, with numerous civilians caught up in atrocities committed by both republican and loyalist paramilitaries, and accusations of collusion and mistreatment by the British military and local police. The conflict started in the late 1960s and ended with the signing of the historic Good Friday peace deal in 1998, with hundreds upon hundreds of innocent people – men, women and children – among the lives lost to violence.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland still has a caseload of more than 1,000 unresolved killings from the period, with seven cases currently before the courts.

The British army was deployed to the region early in the Troubles to maintain order after an outbreak of sectarian riots, and ended up staying for nearly 40 years. Former soldiers, now elderly or dead, are among those accused of committing crimes during that time.

We’ve been trying to deal with something that has been 24 years in the making

When Johnson became Conservative leader and Prime Minister three years ago, he vowed to end what he described as “vexatious” legal cases against veterans accused of indiscriminate killings during the conflict.

The case of Dennis Hutchings, who died in October 2021, was among several to prompt outraged Tory back benchers including Mark Francois and Johnny Mercer to take up the cause.

In 2015, police raided Hutchings’ Cornwall home, removed the then-75-year-old grandfather from his bed, flew him to Belfast where he was interrogated in prison for four days while suffering from kidney disease, then charged him with the attempted murder of John Pat Cunningham, 27, in County Tyrone in 1974. Cunningham was fatally shot in the back. The former member of the Life Guards Regiment, who denied the allegation, died while awaiting trial.

The government vowed to come up with a new and improved way of handling cases such as Hutchings’, which they promised would also provide better outcomes for the relatives of those killed. Ministers say the current system – in which those accused are brought to court – results in a tiny number of successful prosecutions, with historic evidence becoming ever harder to come by.

“There is no shadow of a doubt this is the most difficult, complex thing I’ve dealt with in my entire time in government in terms of policy,” says Lewis now. “We’ve been trying to deal with something that has been 24 years in the making. Successive governments have not been able to do it for different reasons, and at different points, and that is understandable because it is so complex and sensitive. For lots of people, it’s painful.”

As Lewis speaks from his office in the Northern Ireland Office’s new headquarters in Erskine House, he looks out at a view of the palatial Belfast City Hall. The streets are very different today from the largely empty, dangerous city centre of three decades ago. The Northern Ireland Secretary says he doesn’t want to be “clichéd” when he describes the weight of responsibility he has felt while dealing with the legacy of the Troubles, given the ordeal everyone involved has been through. It is clear it is something he does not take lightly.

“You are very conscious of this,” he says. “You can’t not be when you’re talking to the family of a victim about what they’ve been through, what they expect, what they have experienced or not experienced over the last 20 or 30 or 50 years.

“You’re also dealing with veterans who went out to serve their country and, in their minds, did nothing wrong, finding themselves being dragged through processes for decades later. In Westminster there are lots of colleagues who want to see something happen on this, too.”

When Lewis unveiled the government’s initial proposals last summer in the form of a command paper, they were met with furious, near-unanimous opposition: all the major political parties in Northern Ireland opposed them, as did the Irish government, a large number of Conservative MPs, and victims’ groups in the region. The government had proposed ending all prosecutions and granting what was dubbed a “blanket amnesty” to those accused of crimes during the Troubles.

The chorus of rage was deafening – and forced the government to go back to the drawing board.

Under the revised model, published as legislation last month, those accused of Troubles killings can secure immunity from prosecution – but only if they comply with a new, independent reconciliation commission that will uncover information for the families of victims who want to learn the truth about the circumstances of their loved ones’ deaths. Those who refuse to comply with the commission will continue to face prosecution.

The new proposals, inspired by how South Africa dealt with crimes committed during the apartheid era, as well as similar schemes in Vietnam and elsewhere in the world, were welcomed by Mercer and other Conservative MPs.

Jonathan Powell, who as Tony Blair’s chief of staff played a key role in the brokering of the Good Friday Agreement, has also expressed support for the updated plan.

The government consulted several figures involved in brokering the 1998 peace deal throughout the process of designing the legacy legislation. The bill is expected to become law before the end of the year.

But Northern Ireland’s political parties and the government in Dublin are still against the legislation. The Labour Party, whose shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland is Peter Kyle, is also opposed.

We need to be honest about what is achievable, and how we achieve it

Adrian O’Neill, Ireland’s ambassador to the UK, this month wrote in The House that victims’ relatives were “dreadfully upset” by the legislation, and that dealing with the legacy of the Troubles would “only succeed if based on trust, confidence and a partnership approach”. The diplomat warned the plan may breach human rights law, and the government faces being taken to court over it.

Lewis claims that pleasing everyone involved was an impossible task and, after many years of failing to find consensus, the UK government had a responsibility to act.

“If we’re going to help people move forward and get information in a way they’re just not now, we need to own the reality of where we are and to be honest about what is achievable, and how we achieve it.

“Local politicians not having ever been able to deal with this means it’s one of those difficult decisions that does have to fall on the shoulders of central government.”

Of the other opposition, he adds: “The Irish government hasn’t come forward with any proposals… Peter Kyle has studied the South Africa model, which is why I was slightly surprised he wasn’t a bit more supportive of our policy. Opposition politics may have attracted him a bit too much.”

Lewis hopes the commission, which he has pledged to set up by May 2023, will be led by a “high-calibre” senior judge, who would not be out of place applying for the role of Metropolitan Police Commissioner or a chief constable. He’s also keen to recruit legal figures with international experience to serve on the commission, to ensure it is as equipped as possible to handle such sensitive investigations.

This new, truth-seeking body – known officially as the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR) – will have “unprecedented” access to material held by all parts of the British state, says Lewis.

It will be able to force government departments, security services and the police to hand over information that is germane to their investigations.

“The state being more transparent is a good thing,” says Lewis. “Putting that legal requirement in there will hopefully start to make the credible case to people that this is going to be something they’ve not seen before, and the state [is] going further than ever before.”

He acknowledges he cannot guarantee suspects will come forward in their droves to give information to the ICRIR, admitting it might just be “one or two”.

But even if a very small handful comply, that will mean “one or two more families getting the truth of a case they otherwise never would have got”.

Lewis believes the commission could speak to people who have never been contacted before, and there may be others who are “at an age” where they feel ready to participate in this sort of process.

The Northern Ireland Secretary describes his “very long, sleepless nights” as he and officials wrestled with the seemingly intractable question of legacy.

“You can’t sleep because you’re just going over and over it in your head.”

Lewis adds that the many hours he has spent meeting the families of victims, hearing their stories and their pain, will haunt him for the rest of his life.

“When people have explained exactly what happened to their family in quite graphic detail, you can’t help but [find]  that etched in your brain,” he says. “When you’re sitting with somebody in a room, looking face-to-face, and they’re explaining something that happened 20 to 30 years ago with the pain and the upset they still have today, you can’t help but remember that.”

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