Controversial element of Troubles legacy Bill rejected in House of Lords

Oireachtas committee calls on UK government to drop legislation as it would remove ‘vital avenues to the truth’

Paul Wilson at an event in Stormont on Monday marking the 50th anniversary of the murder of his father, Paddy Wilson, by loyalist paramilitaries. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Members of the House of Lords have rejected a controversial provision in the UK government’s Troubles legislation which would give conditional immunity to perpetrators.

Peers voted by 197 votes to 185 on Monday in favour of an amendment which would remove the proposal – widely criticised as an “amnesty” by opponents – from the Bill.

The move was led by the former Northern secretary Paul Murphy, who said it was “the most contentious and controversial part of the Bill” and had been “almost universally condemned in Northern Ireland”.

The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill will now return to the House of Commons, where the provision could be reinserted by MPs.

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The Bill is expected to become law before next month’s summer recess, though this could be delayed if parliamentary “ping pong” develops between the Lords and the Commons.

The UK government’s proposed legislation aims to “draw a line” under the past by replacing current methods of criminal and civil investigations and inquests with inquiries carried out by a new body, the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR), which has the power to offer conditional amnesties for perpetrators.

It is opposed by Northern Ireland’s five main political parties, victims and human rights groups, the Irish Government, other Irish and British parties, and international bodies. It is supported by veterans’ groups.

Majority in UK oppose legacy bill, with 9 in 10 saying perpetrators of serious crimes should still be prosecutedOpens in new window ]

Speaking at an event at Stormont to mark the 50th anniversary of the murder of SDLP senator Paddy Wilson and his friend Irene Andrews by the UDA/UFF, Mr Wilson’s son Paul told the BBC the Bill was “wrong and unfair” and families needed closure.

“If you’re guilty of a crime during the Troubles, you stand and face the court,” he said.

In a fresh demonstration of Irish opposition to the legislation, an Oireachtas committee also called on the UK government to drop the Bill, saying it would remove “vital avenues to the truth” for “countless” families bereaved by the Troubles.

Fergus O’Dowd, chair of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, said the legislation “flies in the face of the spirit” of the peace agreement and, if it becomes law, the committee would ask the Government to take an interstate case against Britain at the European Court of Human Rights.

During the debate on the Bill in the House of Lords on Monday, peers also voted by a majority of 24 for an amendment which would ensure a minimum standard of case reviews by the ICRIR.

This would require investigations to be conducted to criminal standards in a manner similar to Operation Kenova, an independent investigation headed by former Bedfordshire chief constable Jon Boutcher, which is examining more than 200 murders, kidnappings and torture incidents during the Troubles.

Amendments relating to the bringing of public prosecutions and the bar on inquests, investigations and inquiries into killings were defeated.

UK government accused of ignoring ‘repeated warnings’ over Troubles legacy BillOpens in new window ]

During the debate the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) minister Lord Caine confirmed he would bring forward an amendment at the third reading of the Bill next week which would close a legal loophole and prevent further compensation claims following a court ruling in favour of the former Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams.

Mr Adams won a Supreme Court appeal in 2020 over historical convictions for two attempted prison breakouts when he was interned without trial in 1973. He was subsequently denied a payout for the wrongful convictions when he applied for compensation, but this decision was ruled unlawful by a High Court judge in Belfast.

Lord Caine told the House of Lords that the UK government was “aware of around 300 to 400 civil claims being brought on a similar basis to the Adams case” and it was therefore likely that a number of these would be allowed to continue.

Separately on Monday, Northern Ireland’s Attorney General Brenda King said she would reconsider a fresh inquest into the murder of independent nationalist councillor Patsy Kelly in Co Fermanagh in 1974. Mr Kelly’s family took a judicial review of her decision last month not to grant an inquest despite a damning report by the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland which found serious failings by police investigating the case.

She told Belfast’s High Court on Monday she would review the case and make a further determination on Friday.

– Additional reporting: PA

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times