Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill Debate

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Department: Northern Ireland Office
Lord Hain Portrait Lord Hain (Lab)
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My Lords, it is always a pleasure and a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, whose care and concern for Northern Ireland has always been exemplary. I thank and commend the Minister for the last part of his speech, which I hope signifies a complete rewrite of this Bill, not just tinkering amendments. To his great credit, he was pretty transparent that it would not have been his Bill; obviously, it was drawn up by others higher up the government ladder. It needs rewriting completely if it is to pass this House.

I ask the Minister when he replies to answer this question on the record. Did I understand him correctly in saying that the only way immunity can be revoked under this Bill is if the perpetrator lied, not if evidence is uncovered showing that the perpetrator was guilty of, let us say, murder? I would be grateful if he could clarify that.

The word “Reconciliation” appears in the title of this Bill, and there is a cruel irony in that, because it is not about reconciliation and, if enacted, would not aid reconciliation. In essence, it is saying to victims and survivors of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, “What happened to you and your loved ones no longer matters”, and to the perpetrators of some of the most horrific crimes imaginable, “What you did no longer matters”.

What is set out in this Bill is utterly shameful, and I cannot support it. I will give your Lordships a worked example. On 10 August 1996, John Molloy had nearly reached his home in north Belfast when he was confronted by a group of young men and women. He was repeatedly stabbed in a frenzied attack and was left to bleed to death on the pavement. He was just 18 years old. Can the Minister explain to the House and, more importantly, to John’s still grieving parents, Linda and Pat, what precisely the difference is between the sectarian murder of John in Belfast and a racist murder in Leeds?

My right honourable friend the shadow Secretary of State raised this case in the other place but got no direct response. I hope that the Minister, who cares deeply about Northern Ireland, will respond tonight. Saying that Northern Ireland is a place apart just will not wash. It seems that with the protocol, Northern Ireland must be as British as Finchley, but when it comes to the life of a young man in Belfast, the Government’s legacy proposals in this Bill put Northern Ireland closer to Pinochet’s Chile.

This Bill, if passed in its current form, would offer the thug who murdered John the chance to seek a kind of legal absolution—indeed, it would encourage it. All that is required under this Bill as it stands is for the perpetrator to tell the story of that night to the best of their “knowledge and belief”. “I murdered him because he was a Catholic”—and that will be it. The perpetrator will be free to walk up to Linda and Pat Molloy and laugh in their faces. Perpetrators can boast about it to their friends and the world at large if they so wish, because Clause 18(14) of this Bill says that once granted, immunity cannot be revoked except, possibly, if a lie is discovered, no matter what they do subsequently. Are the Government seriously asking this House to sign up to that? Will we really sink so low, just because the Commons did so when the Government rammed it through, in the name of so-called reconciliation?

When the noble Lord responds to the debate, perhaps he could also explain to the House what comfort he thinks this process will bring to the Molloy family, or to the families of those murdered because they were Protestant while singing hymns in the Darkley Pentecostal Church in 1983; or to Jean Caldwell, whose husband Cecil was blown up by the IRA along with seven workmates at Teebane in January 1992. The Bill puts the interests of the perpetrators over the needs of victims and survivors at every turn. Perpetrators are given choices denied to victims and survivors. If any come forward, they will control the narrative: it will be their version of events, “to the best of” their “knowledge and belief”, as the Bill specifies.

The Bill is sold as protecting veterans and other servants of the state from investigation and potential prosecution where their actions have resulted in deaths which are contested. I should like to make some observations on that. The first concerns the number of references from the Government Back Benches in the other place to “vexatious prosecutions”. I am not a lawyer but I am not aware of that as a legal concept. Perhaps they mean “malicious prosecutions”. In any event, I have yet to hear anyone from the Government Front Bench take issue with it. In which case, when the Minister responds, will he tell the House which part of the Northern Ireland criminal justice system the Government hold responsible for these “vexatious prosecutions”? Is it the PSNI, the Public Prosecution Service, the judiciary or a combination of all three? Perhaps he could tell the House how many vexatious prosecutions there have been in Northern Ireland since 2010.

My second observation is on the line of attack—again, particularly from some elements on the Government Back Benches in the other place and expressed at Second Reading—that anyone opposed to this legislation is therefore hostile to those who have served and those who continue to serve in the Armed Forces. That is specious nonsense—indeed, worse: a vile calumny. Those of us who had the privilege to serve as Ministers in Northern Ireland, as my noble friends Lord Murphy and Lady Smith did, had the privilege of doing so under the close protection of the RUC, then the PSNI and the Metropolitan Police. We were always aware that those officers would be prepared to put their lives in danger to protect ours. We worked with successive chief constables and we fully recognise and salute the role of the police, who, often in the direst of circumstances, served to uphold the rule of law and protect the people of Northern Ireland.

Equally, former Secretaries of State for Defence and distinguished noble and gallant Lords who served at the highest level in the Armed Forces know first-hand of the professionalism and bravery of those we put on the front line in Northern Ireland. That is not to say, however, that they could do no wrong. The unqualified Bloody Sunday apology made by then Prime Minister David Cameron, for the behaviour of soldiers that terrible day, underlined that. The Minister explained his role in drafting it. If the authors of the Bill have their way, Lord Widgery’s cover-up inquiry—for that is what it was—would have been the final word on Bloody Sunday. Those killed in Ballymurphy, including a priest and a mother of eight children, would have remained a gunman and a gunwoman. The truth that emerged through that inquest would have remained hidden and the reputations of innocents been trashed forever.

Those who argue the veterans’ case also stress two other points. First, they do not want equivalence with those who brought murder and mayhem to the streets of Northern Ireland, to our cities here and beyond. The Bill does not differentiate because, as much as the Government might want to, they know it cannot.

Secondly, they say that if someone in uniform has broken the law, they must be held to account. Who can argue against that? It is what those who serve with honour want and deserve, but the Bill does not deliver that. It is specifically designed to close down all routes to justice and accountability, including civil proceedings and inquests. As the Bill stands, there will be no proper criminal justice investigations, merely reviews into the balance of probabilities standard. We must presume that a Bill coming before us has been drafted with great care. We must presume that the words used express precisely what the Government intend to be enacted —and we all know the difference between investigation and review.

To say that this could lead to the prosecution of anyone who refuses to take advantage of the immunity process—in effect, an amnesty—is disingenuous at best. A Director of Public Prosecutions could not put a case before the court on the basis of a balance of probabilities review. The effect of this legislation will be to make some of the most heinous crimes simply disappear. It is an insult to victims and survivors and an affront to the rule of law, which, as parliamentarians, we are all committed to uphold. Among other things, it will create the bizarre and absurd situation whereby someone applying for a job with an unspent conviction for shoplifting would be required to tell his or her potential employer but a self-confessed mass murderer would not. As the Bill stands, once the low-bar immunity is granted, it cannot be revoked, even if it subsequently transpires that the perpetrator has misled the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery, or indeed has re-engaged with a proscribed organisation.

There are so many fundamental flaws in this legislation that it may be that, as the Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, Alyson Kilpatrick, told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, it is not capable of being amended. As she told the committee in a devastating critique of the Bill:

“It is clearly in breach of the Human Rights Act”

and it is

“not going to be possible to remedy this Bill, certainly not without very significant redrafting such that it would change the whole nature of the Bill.”

I am flatly opposed to the Bill and, given the opportunity, will vote to kill it. Meanwhile, any amendments proposed must fundamentally address the perpetrator, victim and survivor imbalance in this legislation currently before us.

I have heard it said that throughout the peace process, compromises on the rule of law were made and that this is simply another one. The Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill of 2005-06, which I introduced as Secretary of State, has been cited as one example. There is no doubt that it was difficult and controversial legislation, but it came nowhere near to granting the amnesty that this current legacy Bill explicitly does. Anyone who went through the offences Bill process would have had to appear in a special court. They would have emerged with a criminal record. They would have been required to submit fingerprints and DNA samples to the police and, crucially, any benefits they gained could have been revoked if they committed further crimes.

The last Labour Government worked towards the goal of inclusive power-sharing in Northern Ireland, including the devolution of policing and justice powers. We achieved the first part in 2007, when I was Secretary of State, and completed the process in 2010 under my successor. This legislation attacks that settlement to reassert the primacy of the Secretary of State—something else wrong with it. The chief constable will be instructed by the Secretary of State which cases can and cannot be investigated. The courts will be told which cases they can and cannot try. The Northern Ireland Justice Minister, the Northern Ireland judicial system and the Northern Ireland Policing Board, all central to the devolution settlement, will be overridden by the Secretary of State. Whether this is an intended or unintended consequence, it is a massively retrograde step by any measure. Indeed, the powers of the Secretary of State to control the whole legacy process run right through the Bill and that is deeply concerning.

My thinking on legacy matters has evolved over the last number of years. Those of us who have grappled with them know that these are difficult matters. The Minister has tried to grapple with them honestly as best he could over many years. In 2018, I and other noble Lords with a close interest in Northern Ireland, including the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, who signed the letter, wrote to the then Secretary of State about pre-Good Friday agreement prosecutions. I believed then, as I do now, that there was little to be gained by devoting precious police resources to cases where there was little prospect of a successful prosecution.

The Historical Enquiries Team completed work on 1,615 cases involving more than 2,000 deaths, yet only three resulted in prosecutions and convictions for murder. I still believe that the PSNI should be focused on keeping the population of Northern Ireland safe in the here and now and into the future, rather than precious police resources being diverted to legacy cases. I have put these points to the Minister in terms of the amendments that I, with cross-party support, intend to table tomorrow.

A key point is that there is now an alternative to the less than satisfactory arrangements we have been criticising. Operation Kenova, headed by former Chief Constable Boutcher, is a working model of the way to deal with legacy that provides the information that many victims and survivors desperately want, and at the same time leaves open the route to justice where the evidence reaches the necessary threshold. For the last two years, more than 30 files referred by Kenova have been sitting with the under-resourced Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, and he was quite right to do so.

It is quite wrong, however, for Secretaries of State to criticise Kenova for failing to deliver any prosecutions when they knew full well that none had been put before the courts by the PPS, because it is under-resourced. Kenova, under the leadership of former Bedfordshire Chief Constable Jon Boutcher, has widespread support from the families who work with it. It is a model that can be upscaled and at a lower cost than current strategies, and it would release the PSNI from the burden of legacy cases. As I said, I will be tabling amendments to try to introduce this into the Bill. I hope the Minister will accept them, because I think they will create a consensus around the Bill that is palpably lacking.

Lord Hogan-Howe Portrait Lord Hogan-Howe (CB)
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I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hain, for the opportunity to intervene. It was merely on his point about Operation Kenova which, as he said, has gained widespread support. It included four investigations and one review. The noble Lord, Lord Dodds, mentioned Operation Denton, which I believe is reviewing 93 incidents and 127 murders. Whatever happens with this Bill, it seems important that that review continues and is not interrupted by what the Bill delivers. The prospect of that being stopped would be a terrible thing for all the families who believe that progress is being made because of Chief Constable Jon Boutcher’s good work.

Lord Hain Portrait Lord Hain (Lab)
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I am grateful for the intervention, particularly as the noble Lord has long experience of policing, and he makes telling points. In short, Kenova is the way in which we can get consensus in this House to proceed with the Bill, heavily amended. I have suggested some amendments that have cross-party support. The Minister has seen them privately and, if the issues are only technical, I am willing to discuss them with him to try to reach agreement.

In conclusion, we frequently refer in this House to the need to develop consensus in Northern Ireland on a range of issues, not least on dealing with the legacy of violence. With this Bill, the Government have contrived to create a consensus: it is opposed by every political party in Northern Ireland and by all victims groups. When the 2006 offences Bill faced that kind of opposition, I withdrew it. The Government should follow that example with this ill-conceived Bill. They must think again before they do irreparable damage to victims and survivors who have suffered so much already.