Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill Debate

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

My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Dodds of Duncairn. I remember well that I was with him on the night when the IRA attempted to assassinate him. He was visiting his sick son, who is no longer with us, in hospital. I think of that night, and I know that the whole House will join me in appreciating the full force of his analysis and the sentiments he just expressed.

I also express appreciation for the opening remarks of my noble friend Lord Caine, and for the longevity of his commitment to and interest in these matters. How appreciated it is that in these times, the Minister still uses the word “terrorist”, because it is not present throughout all the discourse on this subject in this era, including in the media, including the BBC. That goes to the heart of my remarks today.

In this context, I welcome that the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, also used the T-word—terrorists. Again, it seems important that we retain some moral boundaries, because they are not always visible in discussion of these matters, as we approach the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.

I support the principle of the Bill, not least because of the Conservative Party’s manifesto commitment in the last general election. I will particularly focus my remarks on Part 4, the section on “Memorialising the Troubles”. In May this year, when the Bill was introduced in the Commons under the then Secretary of State, he stated that it would launch

“A major new oral history initiative”.—[Official Report, Commons, 24/5/22; col. 185.]

It was hailed as one of the most “ambitious and comprehensive” approaches to oral history that has ever been attempted in such situations. It sought to draw on “international models” and concentrate on collating “lived experiences and testimony” and setting them within the appropriate historical context. Putting that into effect, Part 4, on “Memorialising the Troubles”, is designed to provide a pathway for societal healing and perhaps even, we hope, reconciliation. But, as we all know, in the context of Northern Ireland, the Troubles are being refought the whole time through the rewriting of history.

Commendable as the proposals for an oral history are—like many others, I welcome that this history will be guided by international best practice—it is possible that it will also be politicised and enrolled in an ongoing effort to retell the history of the Troubles from an anti-state perspective. I note that the Bill and Explanatory Notes state that one of the purposes here is to ensure that groups that have not had a sufficient voice in telling their history of the Troubles have a greater say. It is a great irony that the British state has been one of the most disfranchised groups. Perhaps it has disfranchised itself in this respect, in terms of an official history, but I will go on to say more about that later.

Thus, history is one of those battlegrounds that are often described as the fulcrum of culture wars and the politics of identity. This has of course been prominent in Northern Ireland for many decades, including during the Troubles, but it has come increasingly to the fore, as other noble Lords and noble Baronesses have noted. This may have been referred to in another place, but the notable recent poll by LucidTalk stated that 65% of those from the republican nationalist community now believe that

“violent resistance to British rule during the Troubles”

was the only option, with a mere 25% disagreeing. This is of course utterly at variance with where that nationalist community was for much of the Troubles, hence the fact that Sinn Féin did not become the majority party within the nationalist community until 2003. A precedent is the sad and unfortunate recent episode of the Irish women’s football team making pro-IRA chants.

All of these developments in historical narratives will make the task of restoring the institutions in Northern Ireland harder, as an ever more rancid grievance culture comes to the fore. As I say, the mistelling of history is damaging to communal relations, making reconciliation and the building of social solidarity harder. The promotion of these relentless historical grievances continues to embitter the communal mood and makes the restoration of those institutions harder.

In particular, I draw attention to Part 4, particularly the bits that have been criticised for being governed by the Secretary of State, for it gives a central role to the United Kingdom research and innovation councils, specifically the Economic and Social Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Research cited previously by Dr Cillian McGrattan of Ulster University demonstrates how funding from these councils has

“fostered and supported an effective monopoly in Northern Ireland as regards the policy area of dealing with the past for many years.”

The funding councils have financially supported and promoted the work of a small group of “transitional” academics at Queen’s University Belfast. A significant part of this group includes academics who are also directors of the Committee on the Administration of Justice—CAJ—a lobby group that is focused overwhelmingly on state-perpetrated violence and abuse. These academics have also come together with key CAJ staff to form what is known as the Model Bill Team to campaign against the Bill.

I wish to give now—this why the T-word seemed to me so important earlier—a taste of the CAJ’s position from the introduction to its annual report reflecting on its own origins at a conference in 1981. It describes 1981, perhaps one of the key years of the Troubles as

“one of the worst years of the Troubles, with 117 people dying, 10 of them on hunger strike and seven through being hit by plastic bullets. Many of the others were victims of armed groups of various kinds”;

in other words, there was no use of the T-word for terrorism; rather, a euphemistic reference to victims of armed groups of various kinds.

I mention this, of course, because the definitive work on the Troubles—Lost Lives, by David McKittrick, Brian Feeney and others—notes that 18 Protestants and 33 Catholic civilians were killed. Some of the latter were killed by republicans as suspected informers. Twenty-two RUC officers and RUC Reserve officers were killed, along with 24 Army and Ulster Defence Regiment soldiers. Six republican paramilitaries were killed and 10 died on hunger strike; three loyalist paramilitaries were killed and a further two others died. More than half the dead—64 people—were killed by republican paramilitaries, 14 by loyalist paramilitaries. The Army and the UDR killed 14 people and the Royal Ulster Constabulary three. This is hardly the picture presented by CAJ’s annual report. It demonstrates a failure to contextualise the relevant facts. Contextualising within the historical context is, however, one of the key aims that the then Secretary of State set out in the House of Commons in May.

The CAJ report goes on to say:

“Most shocking of all are the proposals for a total amnesty in regard to the Troubles, which are contained within the government’s Command Paper on legacy (published in July 2021). These would not only provide for an end to prosecutions, but also ban all recourse to law of any kind in relation to Troubles ‘incidents’. We have yet to see any draft legislation, but the Government’s clear intention is to provide for total impunity for state agents, completely contrary to the rule of law.”

This annual report by the CAJ effaces the crimes of loyalist and republican terrorists and their role in policing the ethno-religious divides and oppressing and terrorising entire communities, particularly working-class communities. The focus of the Committee on the Administration of Justice—and its central concern—is on anything it sees as state violence. What is alarming in the context of the Bill is that UK funding through the UK’s research and innovation councils has focused on a group of academics who form a large part of the executive of this organisation and who are working so closely with that organisation through their joint work on the Model Bill Team.

The funding councils are thus being given a major role in the funding of “Memorialising the Troubles”, the title of Part 4 of the Bill. This is problematic, given their role over the last 15 years in funding just one group of researchers with over £3.5 million of research funding, and creating what Dr Cillian McGrattan has called

“a monopolistic capture of legacy ideology and policy within Northern Ireland.”

Not only are non-violent unionist and nationalist voices and their collective memory downplayed but the voices of those who were oppressed and manipulated by the terrorist gangs in their own neighbourhoods are unlikely to be sought, although they are, of course, among the most affected of the communities here.

Given these problems, it seems to me that Part 4 of the Bill risks being placed and built on insecure foundations, and the devil is very much in the detail here. I note some of the attempts in the legislation before us to ensure balance, but it does need to be pointed out—given the contested nature of so much of this history and the issues associated with the current research programmes funded by the funding councils—that in this context, they are simply not good enough.

There is nothing to stop the entire exercise being divorced from the historical record and being used to rewrite history, to shape views and attitudes as a means to a political end, one that might well turn out to be far removed from the reconciliation that the Good Friday/Belfast agreement envisages. One of the problems here may be that the Economic and Social Research Council and the Humanities and Arts Research Council require research to make impacts beyond academia, including disseminating their findings through third parties and engaging with stakeholders. There is a danger that academic research engages through one ideological and community relationship alone, but can still point to high levels of engagement, dissemination and impact. That is unlikely to provide robust academic work, let alone to progress reconciliation.

With this ideologically driven monopoly already established in the field of legacy in Northern Ireland, this problem is now made all the greater. The relevant legislation here should ensure that those funders who helped to create and sustain that monopoly are also now required to exercise a degree of judgment that has, it seems, so far been singly missing and that they can properly be held to account now for doing so. The existing monopoly and ideology around remembrance needs to be robustly challenged in this House at this stage of the Bill and beyond. Experience to date suggests that this exercise may well not deliver what the Minister intends.

As I say, I support the Bill in principle, but I urge the Minister to look closely at strengthening Part 4 to ensure that government funding and UK taxpayers’ money goes into projects that will support reconciliation and not drive sectarianism and support extreme or politicised interpretations of Northern Ireland’s history. I am reminded of the exchange between Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in the White House on the night before the President resigned. Kissinger said to him, “What will be the verdict of history on us?” Nixon replied, “It all depends on who writes the history.” That is at the very heart of our deliberations today.