Northern Ireland legacy legislation lacks support of the people it is supposed to serve
A partnership approach between the British and Irish governments was at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement. Since 1998, that partnership has delivered durable solutions on various challenges. In contrast, unilateralism has divided parties and polarised communities.
The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill, introduced to the House of Commons by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, had its second reading recently. Its content and the manner of its introduction represents another exercise in unilateralism by this UK government, effectively repudiating the painstakingly negotiated 2014 Stormont House Agreement (SHA).
That agreement, crafted to deal in a comprehensive and balanced way with Northern Ireland’s troubled past, had the support of most parties in Northern Ireland and both the Irish and UK governments, along with substantial buy-in from civil society. Some people assert the SHA failed; the truth is there was no serious attempt to implement it.
The processes outlined in this bill fall short of what was agreed in the SHA
There is no perfect solution to how we deal with the complex and sensitive legacy of the conflict in Northern Ireland. However, a broad measure of agreement was achieved in 2014. Any way forward now must meet a similar threshold and secure the support and confidence of the people it is supposed to serve. They – the victims, survivors, and their families – should be the primary concern of this legislation.
Many families, including those waiting for inquests or pursuing civil litigation, are dreadfully upset by the publication of this bill. They are deeply worried it will not deliver in any meaningful way, and that it will waste precious time. For many of them, the concept of immunity, conditional or otherwise, is about protecting perpetrators instead of pursuing justice. Those concerns should be heard and addressed.
The passage of time does not make families or survivors forget or move on. The wounds of conflict will not heal without the possibility of an effective investigation, a real opportunity to learn the truth, and – if the evidential basis permits – a prosecution.
This legislation raises a fundamental question of whether it is compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights and, by extension, the Good Friday Agreement – which commits to the full implementation of those rights into Northern Ireland law.
A system of investigation or information recovery cannot work without trust in its independence. The processes outlined in this bill fall short of what was agreed in the SHA where we sought to guarantee the genuine independence of the investigations and information recovery arrangements.
The legislation also appears to give wide powers to the UK government to subsequently change or end this process after only a few years of operation. At the same time, it ends legacy investigations and information recovery by any other route, including by the police service in Northern Ireland, inquests or new civil cases.
It is most likely the new system emanating from this bill will be taken to the courts and tested. If it fails there, it will have done nothing to resolve these legacy issues or progress reconciliation. It will only have added further years of limbo and heartache for families who have had far too much of both.
The peace process has come a long way since the terrible days of the Northern Ireland conflict, but the work of reconciliation remains. A process for dealing with the legacy of that conflict is a key part of that work, but it will only succeed if based on trust, confidence and a partnership approach. That is why the deep concerns about this bill – from families, the Northern Ireland parties, civil society and academia – should be listened to.
Adrian O’Neill is Ireland’s ambassador to the UK.
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