Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Northern Ireland Office
Lord Eames Portrait Lord Eames (CB)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, it will not surprise the House, bearing in mind that Peers from Northern Ireland have lived through and experienced the events that have been referred to by virtually every speaker, that this is an extremely emotional occasion for me. The years of my adult life have almost totally been lived out in the years of the Troubles, and the jobs I tried to do all centred on people. They centred on the bereaved, the injured, the devastated, on those who committed terrible deeds and on those who were encouraged eventually to find a better route.

I have listened carefully to each speech tonight and have tried to put together the jigsaw of people referred to in my mind. Then I looked around the Chamber and saw many of my fellow Peers who do not live in Northern Ireland but who have taken the trouble to identify with our lives and experiences. I thank them for that. Then I looked across and saw the noble Lords, Lord Hain and Lord Murphy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. In each case, memories flooded back of working with those with responsibilities for the government of Northern Ireland, as they had, and I am grateful.

At this moment, however, I think most of the houses in which I have stood, the bedsides besides which I have knelt and the families, particularly the young people, whose futures were devastated by the Troubles. So I make no apology for being personal in what I will say. It will not take long, for virtually everything that I feel needs to be said about this Bill has been said, and by people of such expertise as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge—lawyers, people with human emotions, politicians from Northern Ireland and people who have endured some of the emotional stress of these past years.

When I heard the title the Government had chosen for this Bill, I was encouraged, as “reconciliation” has now found some structure in legislation. Then I read the proposed Bill and began to ask whether all the years of work and in seeking agreement were useless. Were all the tears shed and pains shared useless and unproductive? I could find nothing in the Bill that would increase the human expectation or realisation of true reconciliation; rather, it will add to the hurt and uncertainty, and to the dismal prospect of that hurt being endured for generation after generation.

My next reaction was to scrap the Bill totally, as it will not serve any useful purpose. I have sympathy with Members of the House who said, “Start from scratch. Start again”. But my memory goes back to Denis Bradley and me, and the Consultative Group on the Past, which made the first attempt to deal with legacy. We made many mistakes. We learned as we went along and society made its judgment, because we were at the wrong time. Society was not ready to look at its legacy. But, as I listen and read what has happened since, how many aspects of that report continue to surface? Put different labels on it, use different words, but the thoughts are there. There must have been something that was worth saying.

That led me to my second conclusion: we do not need to scrap the Bill totally but, as it goes through this House, must give it the sort of scrutiny that leaves no stone unturned so that we get to what is needed for the Northern Ireland of the future. That will mean questions about the work of the proposed commission, about its control and the control of it. It will raise questions about whether Westminster will be too involved and exercise too much control that could be exercised in Northern Ireland. It will ask questions of jurisprudence, which has not been mentioned tonight. My memory goes back to many years ago, when I tried to teach jurisprudence to reluctant law students. If there is one memory I have of those days, it is the knowledge that there is a sense in which the definition of justice is what must emerge at the end of any process dealing with legacy, wherever it is. I honestly believe that the Bill in its present form is totally guilty of running a horse—and, dare I say it, a hearse—through the nature of justice.

I believe that we must look at the Bill and not totally scrap it but take it to pieces and see which Lego bricks should remain. Many things have been said tonight about ways in which we can improve our approach. To conclude these brief remarks, I believe that the new legislation we seek must be centred on the victims, and on the suffering of the people who suffered most in our Troubles—above all recognising their claim to justice and to a better future—and on a generation of young people who deserve far more than my generation has been able to offer them. If we cannot do that, we need to move away from looking at the disaster on the decks of the “Titanic” and have a look at what caused the iceberg.

Finally, I say this to the Minister. I think we are getting a sense tonight of what he personally has gone through and is going through regarding this Bill. He deserves genuine tribute for his honesty in his introduction to this session. I say this to him: he knows Northern Ireland; he knows what we are like; and he knows where we have come from. I beg of him, in the face of his colleagues and those who wish this Bill to continue, to pause, and have the courage to say some of the things that he has heard said tonight, and realise that there is a future but it is a different sort of Bill.