Victims’ campaigners have fiercely opposed new British government legislation introduced to deal with the legacy of the Troubles, warning it will “close down paths to justice” and “shield perpetrators”.
The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill was introduced on Tuesday and will lead to the creation of a new truth recovery body offering immunity from prosecution to perpetrators who co-operate with its inquiries.
Known as the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR), the body will be headed by a judicial figure appointed by the UK government which “will conduct investigations, consistent with our international obligations”. It would be operational for five years.
According to the draft Bill – which runs to almost 100 pages – the ICRIR chief will be assisted by a commissioner for investigations, and “one, two or three other commissioners”.
Among its key functions are: to carry out reviews of deaths that “were caused by conduct forming part of the Troubles”; to carry out reviews of “other harmful conduct forming part of the Troubles”; to “determine whether to grant persons immunity from prosecution for serious or connected Troubles-related offences” and to “refer deaths that were caused by conduct forming part of the Troubles” to prosecutors.
The document states immunity must be granted if an individual gives an account judged to be “true to the best of [their] knowledge and belief”. Once granted, it cannot be revoked.
If individuals are not deemed to have earned their immunity, the route of prosecution will be left open.
The body will also be responsible for producing an “historical record” of every death which occurred during the Troubles. Bereaved families can request investigations, as can the government and others.
The publication of the blueprint Bill comes after the UK government unveiled proposals last year which sparked widespread outrage after offering what many viewed as effective amnesty ending all criminal prosecutions.
Its July 2021 command paper outlined proposals blocking all investigations, prosecutions and other legal or civil actions over Troubles-related crimes alleged to have been committed either by British security forces or paramilitary groups. It also proposed a bar on legacy inquests and civil cases.
The legislation outlined on Tuesday states that inquests that have reached “the stage of substantive hearing by the date 12 months after the date of introduction or the date by which the ICRIR is operational will be allowed to continue”. Civil claims that already existed on or before the day of the Bill’s introduction will also continue, but all new cases will be barred from this date.
The new law is based on similar models of truth recovery implemented in other post-conflict zones, including the South African model.
But a human rights group on Tuesday night condemned the Bill, saying it represented a “disturbing interference in the justice system” and that victims’ rights had been dismissed in favour of protecting perpetrators.
“Despite thinly veiled attempts to dress this up as something new, there is no real departure from the government’s intention to legislate for a de facto amnesty,” Grainne Teggart, campaigns manager for Amnesty International UK in Northern Ireland, said.
Relatives for Justice chief executive Mark Thompson branded the legislation a “blanket amnesty” which was “anti-victim” while the human rights group the Committee on the Administration of Justice called for the Bill to be scrapped in favour of the prior proposals in the 2014 Stormont House Agreement, which deals with legacy issues.
Speaking in the Dáil, Taoiseach Micheál Martin criticised the “unilateral departure” by the UK government from the Stormont House Agreement. Mr Martin said he did not believe any “serious effort” had been made to implement the agreement “at all”.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said the British government’s plan was “an outrage” and “outside of international law”.
On Tuesday, Mr Martin attended an event at Talbot Street to mark the Dublin and Monaghan on May 17th, 1974. The Taoiseach said the Government remained committed to seeking out the truth of what happened on the day of the bombings and their aftermath.