Primates of All Ireland say legacy bill will ‘deepen divisions’ in Northern Ireland

Archbishops Eamon Martin and John McDowell, in a joint article in the Financial Times, say the bar for immunity from prosecution in the bill is ‘pitiably low’

The leaders of both main churches in Ireland have attacked Britain’s plans to deal with the legacy of the Troubles, warning it will “deepen divisions” in the North.

The Catholic and Church of Ireland Primates of All Ireland, Eamon Martin and John McDowell, accused London of setting up its Northern Secretary as a “commissar” to adjudicate over countless murders and crimes.

The Archbishops also say they are baffled by the “liberal scattering like fairy dust” of the word “reconciliation” in the legislation, which is due to make its way through the House of Lords in Westminster this week.

“On the contrary, it will deepen division and further demoralise all but a tiny minority of those it purports to help. It seems almost as though it has been designed to fail,” they said.


In a joint article, published in the Financial Times, the two church leaders say the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill – expected to become law next year – is “so heavily weighted in favour of the perpetrators of violence” that it suggests the British Government has ignored the overwhelming response to the legislation.

“The individual at the heart of this bill is not the victim – rather, they are a strange hybrid of the perpetrator and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland for the time being,” they said.

“The latter is given powers to appoint personnel, make regulations regarding its work, issue ‘guidance’ on the immunity process, initiate reviews, direct a response to historical findings, appoint those responsible for the historiographic work and control the overall budget.

“In other words, it grants the secretary of state the powers of a commissar rather than a minister of the Crown.”

The proposed laws, introduced last year by then prime minister Boris Johnson, will create a new truth recovery body – the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR) – which will offer immunity from prosecution to perpetrators who co-operate with its inquiries.

It will take over responsibility for all Troubles inquiries and other avenues of criminal and civil investigation and inquests will be closed down.

The plans have been widely condemned, including by the North’s five main political parties, victims and human rights groups, the Irish Government and other parties in Ireland and in Britain. It is supported by British military veterans’ groups.

The legislation’s “promoters” have “effectively set aside the toil and goodwill of those who have been journeying with victims for decades,” the archbishops said.

“They may say that they are ‘listening’ but the fact that they have produced a bill so heavily weighted in favour of the perpetrators of violence suggests otherwise.

“The bill contains provisions that set the bar for immunity from prosecution pitiably low (effectively granting an amnesty), and will not, in all likelihood, provide relatives with the quality of information for which they have yearned for so long.”

“Virtually all independent legal opinion” also “casts serious doubt on whether the draft laws will comply with the European Convention on Human Rights “which require access to a proper investigation of loss of life”, they said.

The church leaders say “anyone with a basic understanding” of paramilitaries in the North would not be expecting them – as allowed for under the legislation – to come forward to disclose their role in the conflict.

“From an ethical point of view (and not just a Christian one), the inclusion of the word ‘reconciliation’ in the title of the bill – and its liberal scattering like fairy dust throughout the provisions – remains a mystery,” they say.

“Reconciliation in both the religious and civil senses involves the restoration of relationships; it requires patience, the slow building of trust leading to courageous truth telling, and immense forbearance.

“Nothing in this bill goes anywhere near providing the environment for that to take place. Perhaps the very opposite.”

Brian Hutton

Brian Hutton is a freelance journalist and Irish Times contributor