Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill Debate

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Department: Northern Ireland Office
Lord McInnes of Kilwinning Portrait Lord McInnes of Kilwinning (Con)
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My Lords, I do not stand before your Lordships as someone from Northern Ireland and I have never been a victim of terrorism, but I care very much about Northern Ireland’s place and people. I am very concerned about the way in which Northern Ireland is too often treated as somehow outside the mainstream of UK politics, as if only people from Northern Ireland may speak about the situation in the Province.

Secondly, there may be a little cynicism in my remarks about the Bill, but they in no way reflect my opinion of my noble friend the Minister and his commitment and expertise. Already today we have heard his commitment to listen to noble Lords and the people of Northern Ireland, and to try his very best to improve the Bill.

James Hughes wrote a chapter entitled “Reconstruction Without Reconciliation: Is Northern Ireland a ‘Model’?” in the 2015 academic book After Civil War. While we may have a model reconstruction and end of violence, I am afraid that on reconciliation we are on less sure territory. After almost 25 years of trying to grapple with this issue, we are now faced with a Bill that, at first sight, seems far from creating the consensus that Northern Ireland requires around such sensitive issues.

However, despite its flaws the Bill can be worked on. It would have been far more satisfactory if it had evolved as part of the long process, as we have already heard this evening, going back to prisoner release in 1998; the work by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, on the Consultative Group on the Past in 2009; the Stormont agreement; and even the New Decade, New Approach agreement of 2019. One starts to wonder whether, when such good work was being done by Ministers who are now Members of this place and the other place and people on the ground in Northern Ireland, there was—I think my noble friend Lord Cormack obliquely referred to this—a feeling within Whitehall generally that this problem would go away through time and that legislation to address it was not necessary.

However, we have had to respect and recognise the significant change that has taken place since 2019, first of all in the response to the Command Paper in 2021. The slow burn of codified and state-sanctioned reconciliation that should have been the natural path from the Belfast/Good Friday agreement was a necessary symptom of that agreement. It is unfortunate—but the reality—that the fundamental political structures of Northern Ireland were more easily addressed in 1997 and 1998 than the reconciliation necessary to deal with ongoing legacy issues. That is not in any way to criticise the way in which an end to the Troubles was sought or the bravery shown by all those involved, but it did leave a need for further structure, thought and work.

The kind of instrumental reconciliation that was carried out in Northern Ireland, bringing both sides of the political elite together, was the necessary step before the socio-emotional reconciliation of finding peace that then needed to follow. It is not a reflection on those who have sought to do so that it has taken 20 years for us to get here.

It has been extremely disappointing, and has contributed greatly to the negative press the Bill has suffered, that all too often it has been seen as a Bill driven by a debate outwith Northern Ireland—a debate about veterans and the internals of the Conservative Party over the last two years, rather than what was best for the people of Northern Ireland and the veterans who served there. As the noble Lord, Lord Hain, said, this is not to say that the rights of veterans of our armed services should not be protected and respected, but it seems to me that it will be the judgment of many in Northern Ireland that the Bill has come about only because of a media debate in Great Britain that had nothing to do with Northern Ireland.

The Government had the opportunity to build far more upon the foundations of the previous attempts in 2009, 2015 and 2019, to which I have alluded. In each of their arguments, they created a degree of consensus around certain elements and went some way, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, just said, to there being different elements that can be pulled together.

However, given that this Bill is now the vehicle, it is incumbent upon us to ensure we have a Bill that gives more confidence to the victims of the Troubles and, for those who wish it, a means to get to the truth. There are now opportunities to do that, but significant changes to the Bill will be required. I am slightly more optimistic than the noble Lord, Lord Hain, that we will be able to achieve these.

I recognise that the answer to some of these suggested changes may well be that the independent commission, or whatever the name ends up being, requires more resource, but to deliver what it says on the tin, we will need to be willing to meet the challenges of victims, or else the Bill will be a meaningless act. In fact, as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, said, it could be counterproductive.

I would be grateful if my noble friend the Minister responded to and further reflected on the following reasonable demands from victims’ groups, beyond those he mentioned in his opening remarks. First, in Clause 1 there should be a broader definition of harm to allow a greater range of victims to come forward to make use of the independent commission, and to reflect the experience of Northern Ireland society as widely as possible. This new definition would reflect the UK Parliament order and definition of victims as of 2006, including those who have suffered psychological as well as physical harm.

Secondly, victims must feel part of the process, and I support calls for them to be able to respond to draft reports from the commission before actions are taken. I welcome my noble friend’s commitment to looking at stronger penalties for those who choose not to co-operate or to lie to the commission, and I look forward to those coming forward in Committee.

Victims must not have equivalence with perpetrators in this process but should be the dominant voice as we move towards reconciliation. When it has completed its progress, the Bill must clearly differentiate between victim and perpetrator; I fear that it does not at the moment. I will leave it to noble, and indeed learned, Lords to opine on the Bill’s compatibility with the European Convention on Human Rights. Again, I hear my noble friend the Minister’s commitment to look at the robustness of the process to ensure that concerns over rights to life and remedy are properly addressed.

We must also be realistic about the concerns and lack of co-operation with and community support for both the Historical Enquiries Team and subsequent PSNI initiatives. If this new independent commission is to be effective and to have public confidence, we need every single assurance over its membership and the independence of its members. If it is to have a lifespan of five years, what assurances will my noble friend give that it will be properly resourced to ensure that victims’ requests for investigation are not timed out?

I welcome the change in the Bill from the original Command Paper, making immunity at least conditional. I recognise that many in this Chamber and the other place are concerned about any immunity evading justice. I see the earned immunity as important in ensuring that there is a process through which all can be judged and have an opportunity to make a choice. Yes, the reality is that from the early release scheme onwards, and its further extension through this Bill, we have probably come to the end of the road for imprisonment for pre-1998 offences. This is very difficult for many of us to accept, but it is a clear evolution of previous positions and it is probably correct that it be incorporated in the Bill.

It is clear from all that has come before that there is still a desire in Northern Ireland for a formal process of reconciliation. The Bill may not have come about for the correct reasons or been a natural successor to the other attempts that have taken place, but it is the Bill we have. This process must not become the traditional zero-sum game of any one side feeling dominance over a process or being able to be portrayed as such.

If the Bill is about legacy and reconciliation, it is important that its clauses reflect a well-resourced plan to bring about reconciliation and deal with the painful legacy of the Troubles. To do so successfully, it must have at its heart a victim-focused and Northern Ireland-focused process intent on truth.