Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Northern Ireland Office
Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Portrait Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, I was 11 in 1969, when the Troubles started. I lived in an area of Downpatrick in County Down which was largely unscathed by terrorist violence. However, that changed in 1994, just before the ceasefires, when six of my neighbours were brutally murdered by loyalist paramilitaries. None of those people was ever involved in any political act, apart from voting, and none ever espoused violence. Whenever I visited those families, one little boy said to his granda and his mum after the murder of his father and his uncle that night, “Am I now daddy?” I found those words terribly evocative, but to me they bring back what this is all about: the violence, the terrorism and the dirty war, which I totally reject, had an enormous impact on ordinary families throughout the island of Ireland and also here in Britain, and we must never forget. We must never go back to those days.

The Minister referred to the violence of the last six or seven days in Strabane and Derry. Those acts of violence are also wrong and those people should be getting off all our backs and leaving us to live in peace and harmony. For those reasons, we need the restoration of political institutions, but this legacy Bill is not fit for purpose and should be scrapped. There was an alternative, and I have heard the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, refer to that. Yes, there was an alternative. I was part of that alternative in terms of democratic Irish nationalism and as a member of the SDLP, and very proud to be so, because we espoused non-violence and respect for political difference and we rejected all forms of violence. We wanted to see the three sets of relationships addressed in the Good Friday agreement.

The Bill is not supported by victims, international organisations representing victims’ groups, political parties in Northern Ireland or wider society and it is contrary to the provisions in the Stormont House agreement, in which the Minister was deeply involved.

Closing off criminal investigations and reviews such as Kenova, civil cases, inquests and police complaints relating to the Troubles will deny justice to victims and families. I have only just learned today that the police review of the Loughinisland case, to which I referred earlier, cannot continue because there is insufficient money in the legacy branch of the PSNI to do that work. The noble Lord, Lord Dodds, referred to the need to fund the PPS, and that is critical to allow the Kenova cases to come forward, because they deal with investigation and review. The replacement proposed in the Bill, the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery, is entirely inadequate and will be too closely controlled by Westminster. The provisions granting immunity from prosecution for Troubles-related incidents will see people who have committed the worst acts imaginable granted irrevocable immunity in return for partial and self-serving testimony that may already be entirely in the public domain.

The Bill stands to breach the UK’s obligations under Article 2, the right to life, and Article 3, freedom from torture, of the ECHR, and threatens the Good Friday agreement’s requirement for complete incorporation of the European Commission. Undoubtedly, addressing the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past demands great care and sensitivity, but it is not served by the Bill, which is unworkable, undemocratic and in breach of our international obligations. Victims and families right across the community, some of whom I know and some of whom we have all met—I am thinking of Mr Raymond McCord’s video, shown in 1 Parliament Street some weeks ago—deserve truth and justice, but the Bill will not provide for that. I believe there is a deliberate attempt to cut down truth and justice for other means and ideas.

I have talked to various people and we are faced with the worst of outcomes—an outcome that benefits and best serves state and paramilitary-vested interests, whatever the claims to the contrary. They have a shared interest and common agenda. This has been a fundamental fault line in legacy discussions over the years, as the Minister will be aware, having been involved in many of those discussions. State and paramilitary elites, both republican and loyalist, do not seriously wish to comprehensively address the past, or would do so on self-serving terms, and do not intend to offer forthright answers to searching questions. That is what motivates this obscene legislation and I believe it should be totally cancelled.

It is contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights. A recent joint report by Houses of this Parliament decried this legislation and recent developments at the Council of Europe support these concerns. The Council of Europe has the responsibility to support and safeguard implementation of the ECHR. In a decision of September 2022, the Council of Ministers expressed its ongoing risk concerns regarding the UK’s departure from the Stormont House agreement to the present Bill, and stated that any legislation must be in full compliance with investigative duties under the ECHR. I ask the Minister: how will that issue be addressed? The Council of Ministers also expressed serious concern about the lack of formal public consultation on the Bill, ECHR compatibility and the “minimal support” for, and public confidence in, the Bill in Northern Ireland. The Swiss Government state that the UK should ensure that the Northern Ireland Troubles Bill is in line with the Stormont House agreement and the necessary means are provided to carry out independent and impartial investigations.

Reference has already been made to the Committee on the Administration of Justice, which has been working in this area in Northern Ireland for many decades, and the Model Bill Team, which is based between the CAJ and Queen’s University Belfast. One of those working on it is a neighbour of mine and I know her very well; I think she is a person who will believe in truth and justice. Amnesty International and the international rights and solidarity committee, formerly known as British Irish Rights Watch, have indicated that the Bill is unacceptable.

In abandoning the Stormont House agreement, the Government are in breach of commitments in the UK-Ireland New Decade, New Approach agreement that restored power-sharing in 2020. As far as I know, the Irish Government were never consulted about the Command Paper and the Secretary of State’s Statement of 18 March 2020. What about the co-guarantors of the Good Friday agreement, the British and Irish Governments? Surely, in very sensitive matters such as legacy and victims, they should have been involved.

New Decade, New Approach committed to legislating for the Stormont House agreement within 100 days. It is now three years later. The Bill also conflicts with the Good Friday agreement over both the duties to ensure incorporation of the ECHR in Northern Ireland law, with direct access to the courts and remedies for breaches, and the framework for the devolution of justice. I cannot stress clearly enough that victims need access to truth and justice. The PPS in Northern Ireland needs to be adequately resourced. The legacy branch of the PSNI needs to be adequately resourced to carry out the outstanding inquiries required. We need issues to do with state collusion and the use of agents, which led to so many deaths of innocent people, to be fully investigated. I am aware of many reports from the Police Ombudsman’s office, not least that into Loughinisland, which show levels of state collusion. There is consensus within the human rights community that the legacy Bill is not fit and, in some instances, they say it is unamendable. It is definitely not compatible with international human rights standards.

I take no great delight in saying that I honestly feel that the Bill should be scrapped and scrapped now. We should revert to the Stormont House agreement and involve all parties in discussions to deal with these very vexatious issues to do with legacy and victims. In my mind, violence and terrorism were never, ever justified. The killing and maiming of people and the destruction of property, in the name of a cause, were never, ever justified. I say to the Government that what they are trying to do—to grant immunity from prosecution to certain groups, such as veterans who may or may not have committed illegalities and serious crimes—is wrong. In that vein, the Bill should be abandoned and scrapped.