Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill Debate

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Department: Northern Ireland Office
Baroness Hoey Portrait Baroness Hoey (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, there are many parts of this Bill that I find not just problematic but actually quite dangerous. There are also some parts of it that I agree with, and I am very pleased indeed that the Minister made it clear that he was prepared to look at a number of amendments. There is probably no other Minister with his knowledge and background that could actually succeed in making something out of this Bill, if that is what your Lordships’ House decides.

It is important to look at how we got here. The Stormont House agreement of 2014 has been mentioned before, but let us not forget that not every party in Northern Ireland supported that agreement and it is not an international agreement, despite what some nationalists have been trying to claim. The Stormont House agreement’s 200-page document—which included the new non-crime crime of historic police misconduct, to be directed at retired George Cross RUC officers—is a draft that is now nearly a decade old. I am pleased that it has been dropped and superseded by this Bill, even with all its problems.

The second thing in this history was the 2019 Conservative Party manifesto commitment, as has been mentioned, which read:

“we will introduce new legislation to tackle the vexatious legal claims that undermine our Armed Forces and further incorporate the Armed Forces Covenant into law.”

We saw that legislation enacted in the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Act 2021, but crucially it omitted Operation Banner veterans who served in Northern Ireland. The result has been the continuing prosecutions of soldiers for alleged crimes committed in the 1970s, some 50 years ago. More are possible, following the papers submitted by Operation Kenova to the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland. So we see that lawfare, in its many forms, has continued unabated.

It is worth reminding your Lordships that, as some have already made mention of, some 300,000 Army and police served in Northern Ireland during those years, 1,000 of whom were murdered. Their ECHR Article 2 right to life, which we hear so much about, was colossally violated.

I proposed an amendment in April 2021 that the overseas Bill’s effect should depend on a report being made on

“progress made towards equal treatment of veterans of operations in Northern Ireland since 1969”.

In reply, the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, said only that Northern Ireland was “a different issue”, while adding

“we will not allow our brave service personnel who served in Northern Ireland to be forgotten.”—[Official Report, 13/4/21; col. 1187]

The noble Baroness said very little else on that, but let us be clear that the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Act was not an amnesty. It introduced several new evidential hurdles before a prosecution could be mounted when there had been a previous investigation and if no compelling new evidence was available. It insisted that the public interest in finality was paramount.

That Act was a far better vehicle than this Bill, which has had unworkable—or more precisely, never likely to be worked—immunity arrangements tacked on. They corrupt the law and need to be improved. We all need to be honest: the law has already been corrupted by the many amnesties and mini-amnesties deemed politically necessary in the 25 years since the Belfast agreement.

The question of compelling and credible new evidence is one where this Bill fails badly, and strong amendment is needed to Clause 11, titled “Requests for reviews: general provision”. Unless narrowed to include a phrase such as “compelling new evidence”, it means that the new investigation body, the ICRIR, simply becomes a one-stop shop for nationalist and other lawyers, who have now given themselves the grand title of legacy practitioners. It will replace, and perhaps even streamline, the current options of fresh inquests, civil suits and compensation claims—1,000 of which are now in the Belfast courts, as I heard in an answer to a Question—plus PSNI and Police Ombudsman reinvestigations.

The third way that we have got here is, of course, the understandable desire of bereaved families for access to the details of their relative’s death, the documentation available and memorialisation. Crucially, they also want justice, which is, I am afraid, in terms of convictions of terrorists, no longer deemed likely. This was even stated by police investigators, such as Jon Boutcher of Operation Kenova.

People also talk about truth. We know that prosecutions, other than those of soldiers, will not happen after such a passage of time. Terrorists in particular cannot be brought to court because evidence sufficient to convict is not there. The IRA kept no paper records, and recently harvested DNA alone will not suffice. Millions of pages of state documents are promised and that is welcome, but they are only part of the truth and will need assessment by lawyers and historians. Here I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Godson. We hope these will not just be the monopoly group of Queen’s University academics, currently funded by UK research councils to the tune of £4 million, who seem to concentrate entirely on anti-state issues rather than real victims of terrorism.

The Government should be much more up front about the fact that human rights law—the ECHR and the Human Rights Act—will necessitate the removal of large portions of text, especially from MI5 files that refer to individuals, both good and bad. Unconvicted killers cannot be named, nor must informants be, so amendments will need to be tabled, which I hope the Government can accept, to strengthen the Bill’s human rights dimensions in terms of the neglected safeguards in the ECHR—those on the right to a fair trial and the right to a reputation. Too many people think the phrase “Article 2 compliance” covers the whole convention, but there are 18 articles that we need to comply with, especially Articles 6, 8, 10 and 17. I know that the Minister said that he wanted to put Article 2 into law. We should look at the other articles as well.

To look at one county in Northern Ireland, Fermanagh, which the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, knows very well, 115 people were killed during the Troubles, over 90% of whose deaths were caused by the IRA. Sixty-five of the dead were members of the security forces and 40 were civilians. There were only five killings by loyalists and two murders by rogue soldiers; in other words, our security forces, at colossal cost to themselves, protected both sections of the community. I fear that not many legacy practitioners will draw attention to that noble achievement or the contrast in numbers.

Another group that upheld justice was our judges and magistrates, who took a terrible toll in death and injuries as a result. We rarely hear their names: Martin McBirney, Judge Rory Conaghan, Lord Justice Gibson and his wife Cecily, Tom Travers and his daughter Mary, Judge William Doyle, William Staunton, and Judge Eoin Higgins, who was targeted, with Robin and Maureen Hanna, and their six year-old son David, instead being murdered. Their Article 2 right to life was drastically breached.

I will say another few words about amnesty, because there has been some slight hypocrisy about that in this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Dodds of Duncairn, mentioned a few of the amnesty agreements, but in the Belfast agreement and since a series of amnesties were put into legislation or operated administratively. Most happened under the premiership of Tony Blair and three Labour Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland: the noble Lords, Lord Mandelson and Lord Reid, and most notably the noble Lord, Lord Hain, who I am sorry is not in his place at the moment. As he mentioned, he tried to put through the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill 2005. That never made it into law because it was scuppered by Sinn Féin, which decided that it would not support it because it would give amnesty to soldiers as well as terrorists.

Just for the record, these part-amnesties were all agreed with the Irish Government, who are now making great play about this Bill: the Belfast agreement and the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, with its early release of hundreds of terrorist prisoners after two years served in jail; immunity from prosecution, called an amnesty in law, for evidence discovered on the decommissioning of terrorist weapons; the request in 1999 by Bertie Ahern for the UK to discontinue current and future extradition proceedings, acceded to by Tony Blair and the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson; royal prerogative of mercy grants, issued silently in hundreds of cases and whose paperwork, I discovered, when I asked questions, had oddly gone missing; immunities regarding the Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday, and the Hamill, Nelson, Wright, and Breen/Buchanan inquiries; immunities regarding evidence recovered from the bodies of the disappeared; and the so called on-the-runs, which have been mentioned already, a secret administrative scheme only for IRA members supposedly hiding in the Irish Republic, which operated contrary to the advice of the Attorney-General. At least 187 IRA men were granted OTR letters of comfort promising no prosecution, John Downey being the most famous one. I hope none of those are now in the mandatory coalition Government that the people in Northern Ireland were forced to endure.

Above all, we have to push back against the rewriting of history through the development of this moral equivalence between those who died defending our country, who saved lives in border areas out in the dark in the middle of the night, protecting people at the expense of their own lives, and those who set out deliberately to murder. The Government should change the definition of a victim. It is absolutely disgraceful that, in Northern Ireland, the definition of a victim, unlike in Great Britain, treats the bomber, if he injured himself, as a victim. How can we have such a moral compass to support amnesty for murder?

I will just mention Aileen Quinton, a very brave woman whose mother was murdered by terrorists, blown up at the war memorial on Remembrance Sunday 1987. She is now a volunteer with SEFF, one of the excellent victims’ groups. She wrote to tell me:

“Of course it is wrong that veterans who have been guilty of nothing but brave service are hounded but that is no excuse for putting them into the same bracket as the very few who have disgraced the uniform. No one should be subjected to unfair persecution and hounding but that is an argument for protecting the innocent and not letting off the guilty. Some innocent men get accused of rape and that is dreadful but that is no excuse for a blanket amnesty for rape.”

She mentions the Graham family, who have already been mentioned: three brothers and one sister, picked off one by one. After each murder, the others continued to serve in the Ulster Defence Regiment, standing by the law until they were slaughtered by the IRA. The sister was killed in a hit and run at a checkpoint when she was on duty as a UDR Greenfinch. If the forces of law and order could not save them from terrorists, the least they should expect is that they would seek proper lawful justice for their deaths.

I have one final thought for all your Lordships from Aileen:

“I did not become a terrorist when my mother was murdered. Now my government is more or less telling me that I should have. Far from leaving no stone unturned to bring her murderers to justice, my government is cementing those stones down unturned.”

If we are really going to move on, we need to accept that there is opposition across the board to this Bill in Northern Ireland but that it comes from very different angles. The idea that everyone is against it for the same reason is just not true. The difficulty that we have in your Lordships’ House is in recognising and separating what is genuine opposition and what is opposition for opposition’s sake to continue the sort of lawfare that many people in Northern Ireland seem to want, just to attack the state forces. I am very keen to see that amendments strengthen the Bill to ensure that we do not allow the innocent victim to be ignored at the expense of those people who just want to attack our state forces.