Legacy Act: This judgment is not the end, but it could be the beginning of it

‘My husband is entitled to truth and justice, and that is the last and only thing I can give him,’ says Martina Dillon

In court they had to remain silent; outside, they were defiant.

“The fight still goes on until we get justice for everybody involved here,” said John McEvoy, who survived a gun attack on a bar in Co Down in 1992.

“No government and no court is going to put me down,” said Martina Dillon, whose husband, Seamus, was shot dead by loyalists in 1997. “I think my husband is entitled to truth and justice, and that is the last and only thing I can give him.”

Both she and Mr McEvoy were among the lead applicants who sought a judicial review of the UK government’s controversial Legacy Act; as the first time a court had ruled on the legality of the legislation, the judgment delivered by Mr Justice Colton in the High Court in Belfast on Wednesday was always going to be highly significant.


In the event, the judge backed what the families and their many supporters, including victims, human rights groups and political parties, had consistently said – that the Legacy Act was incompatible with international human rights law.

Several provisions, including the most controversial of all, the immunity from prosecution for perpetrators, were deemed by the court to be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and should be disapplied, Mr Justice Colton said.

Though the Northern Secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, put on a brave face in the Commons, it was an embarrassing defeat for the UK government, which has consistently defended the legality of the legislation, even calling the Irish Government “misguided” for taking an interstate case against the Act on the same human rights grounds which have now been vindicated by the Belfast court.

Wednesday’s judgment has sparked calls to suspend or repeal the legislation, but it seems Mr Heaton-Harris has already ruled this out. Asked by the shadow Northern Secretary, the Labour MP Hilary Benn, what he intended to do now one of the “central powers” of the Legacy Act had just been struck down, Mr Heaton-Harris said he would consider the 200-page judgment carefully, but the UK government “remain committed to implementing the Legacy Act”.

He will have found some succour in another of the judge’s conclusions, that a new investigative body set up under the Act, the ICRIR, is “capable” of carrying out ECHR-compliant investigations into Troubles-related deaths and offences.

Yet as Mr Benn pointed out, the very principle behind the ICRIR – that perpetrators will come forward and tell what they know in return for protection from prosecution – has been undermined; as Prof Kieran McEvoy from Queen’s University Belfast, put it, it has been “holed below the water line.”

The UK government “are the ones who made the argument that the amnesty was central to the efficacy of this [Act], so from that perspective they are hoist by their own petard”, he said.

In practice, this means further legal battles. Nobody involved expected anything other than that this case would go all the way to the UK Supreme Court, and cases have also been lodged – including that by the Government – in Europe.

Given how slowly the wheels of justice turn, it is likely these processes will be overtaken by the UK general election, due by January 2025; it is expected the current Conservative government will be replaced by a Labour one which has pledged to repeal the legislation – and which has been given further political cover by Wednesday’s decision.

This judgment is not the end, but it could be the beginning of it. As Ms Dillon put it outside the court on Wednesday, “I thought today I would have won my full case; I got half my case, but I have not given up the fight.”

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