We must protect Northern Ireland veterans and support victims and survivors
Addressing the legacy of the Northern Ireland Troubles is one of the most complex and sensitive policy issues the government has faced.
Conservatives are determined to deliver on our manifesto commitment to protect our veterans and ensure better outcomes for victims and survivors. So I am proud to support the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill, which will do just that.
Many of our colleagues have campaigned long and hard on this issue, and the solution was never going to be simple. But the government could not stand by and do nothing – it would be a dereliction of duty.
We cannot let the current system continue to fail those seeking answers and accountability about what happened to them and their loved ones. Nor can we standby as campaigning law firms continue to peddle false promises to families desperate for answers in the name of lining their pockets.
The sores of the past continue to seep into wider politics and society in Northern Ireland
It is a tragic reality that victims and their families in Northern Ireland continue to search for the truth, as elderly veterans are in limbo, living in fear of a knock at the door, waiting to see if they will be hauled in for questioning over events of decades ago.
The sores of the past continue to seep into wider politics and society in Northern Ireland. This Conservative government stands firmly on the side of victims and survivors of the Troubles and our brave veterans who served. We should be proud of their service and not shy away from acknowledging their sacrifice. There will never be any moral equivalence between those who served, the vast majority of whom did so with distinction and honour, and those who went out to commit barbaric acts of terrorism.
The bill establishes a new independent commission for information recovery, with all the policing powers necessary to conduct robust, effective and thorough investigations into Troubles-related deaths and serious injuries. The powers will be supported by – for the first time – a legal requirement of full disclosure from government departments, security services and agencies. If uncomfortable truths come out as part of that process, we must not shy away from them.
But we must also halt the rewriting of history advanced by those with a vested interest in presenting the British state as the aggressor. That is why the oral history and memorialisation initiatives in the bill are so important – for people to share their stories and for the truth of the Troubles to be properly understood.
This legislation will help ensure more victims and survivors of terrorist violence, who have waited far too long already, are able to obtain answers about those who caused them lasting harm and trauma. In exchange for a truthful account given to the best of their knowledge and belief, of their involvement in a Troubles-related death or serious injury, the commission will grant individuals immunity from prosecution.
Immunity will not be available for those guilty of any offences, including sexual offences, which are not Troubles-related. If terrorists do not comply – and many former members of the IRA and other paramilitary organisations feel bound by a so-called “code of honour” not to do so – then we will go after them. There will be nowhere to hide, no “letter of comfort” to hide behind.
This will not give anyone a carte blanche to make up wild stories about their part in a Troubles-related death or serious injury. In assessing someone’s testimony, the commission must take into account any relevant information it holds or obtains. We had to find a way forward, and with this legislation we can be confident it has been found. It is a challenging compromise, in the face of a difficult reality, but one that finally delivers for victims and veterans alike.
Jonathan Gullis is the Conservative MP for Stoke-on-Trent North and Northern Ireland minister.
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