UK legacy Bill breaches international law, Belfast Agreement – report

Lewis says legislation will help victims and families to discover truth about crimes

The UK government's proposed legislation for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles is "unworkable" and in breach of international human rights law and the Belfast Agreement, according to a report published on Tuesday.

The study, by a team at Queen's University Belfast's School of Law and Belfast-based human rights NGO the Committee on the Administration of Justice, also concluded it would "not deliver for victims and survivors, many of whom have waited for decades for truth and justice".

The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill will create a new truth recovery body – the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery – 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 veterans groups.

The Bill was introduced by the Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis last week, and received its second reading in parliament on Tuesday.

MPs from all parties criticised the proposals to offer immunity from prosecution for Troubles-related crimes in return for co-operation with an information commission.

Mr Lewis told the House of Commons the legislation would help victims and their families to discover the truth about the crimes. But MPs from all of Northern Ireland’s parties said the legislation would deny victims access to justice and the closure they sought.

“A principle that we have applied throughout the myriad decades of consideration about legacy has been one that keeps open the hope of justice, no matter how easily those who have spoken today have tried to detach us from it. It keeps open the pursuit of justice, of recognition by the state that what happened to people’s loved ones was wrong. It is the principle that natural justice and the rule of law in this country still matter, still count, and should still run through our system,” the DUP’s Gavin Robinson said.

In an emotional speech, former Conservative Northern Ireland secretary Julian Smith said the government was wrong to override the 2014 Stormont House agreement, which had the backing of most Northern parties and the British and Irish governments. He said victims and survivors were deeply concerned that not only will they have to deal with accepting amnesties, but they will have to accept less rigorous reviews of their cases, rather than robust, evidence-based judicial investigations.

“Many victims feel that they have been hit by a double whammy by the Bill – their route to justice cut off and, at the same time, their route to the truth restricted,” he said.

“On investigations and inquests, I therefore urge the Government to pause and to listen to the voices of our valued Irish partners in the GFA [Good Friday Agreement], to Northern Ireland parties and to the victims and survivors. I hope, too, that the Government will reflect on how they can reframe the Bill to gain the trust required to help deliver a resolution to this fragile and unique part of our country.”

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald, who was in Westminster for a series of meetings, including with Conservative MPs and peers, said the Bill amounted to the binning of the Stormont House Agreement.

“It’s outrageous. I mean, this is a despicable piece of legislation. It’s not designed to give comfort to any victim or survivor. It is very cynically designed to draw down the shutters on victims and survivors, and it would make a despot blush,” she said.

“It clearly cuts across any notion of working collectively. It certainly does not demonstrate the kind of impartiality and equality that’s at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement.”

Earlier in their report, the model Bill team from Queens concluded the proposed truth recovery body would not have the powers to conduct effective investigations and would be in breach of the UK’s international and domestic human rights obligations.

The Bill’s provisions on amnesty were “unlikely” to comply with the UK’s requirements under the European Convention on Human Rights, the report said.