Victims campaigners have strongly criticised amendments to the UK government’s controversial legislation to deal with the legacy of the Northern Ireland Troubles.
The Northern Secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, announced a number of changes to the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill - which is expected to become law shortly - late on Thursday.
Mr Heaton-Harris said the UK government has “consistently stated” it would “continue constructive dialogue in order to alleviate concerns and strengthen the Bill” and therefore has published “a number of significant amendments that directly address a number of key concerns raised by interested parties”.
However, the amendments were criticised by Daniel Holder of the Belfast-based human rights NGO the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), who said they were “largely just more smoke and mirrors from the NIO and do nothing to address the identified areas where the Bill is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights” and some provisions “would make the Bill worse.”
Relatives for Justice said the amendments to the “Bill of Shame only makes the situation worse” and the “rights of victims and survivors will be permanently shut down, especially those engaged in inquests.”
The victims campaigner Raymond McCord said the UK government was just “tinkering around the edges” and the victims were “battling and fighting” to stop the legislation.
The Bill 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.
The Bill has been widely condemned, including by the North’s five main political parties, victims and human rights groups, the Irish government, other parties in Ireland and in Britain, and internationally. It is supported by veterans’ groups.
Thursday’s changes include extending the cut-off point for the publication of final reports or statements about criminal investigations until May 2024, when the ICRIR is expected to take over legacy cases.
The deadline for inquests has also been extended until May 2024, though in practice this could close down more inquests than under the previous proposals, as only inquests which are complete will be permitted to issue a verdict after that date.
The amendments include a requirement for the ICRIR to offer victims and their families the opportunity to submit personal impact statements and to take “reasonable steps” to assess the truth of the account of perpetrators applying for immunity.
Immunity will be revoked if a perpetrator is subsequently convicted of terrorism offences, and the Commissioner for Investigations must comply with the Human Rights Act 1998.
Earlier on Thursday the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers adopted an interim resolution in which it again expressed serious concerns about the Bill’s compatibility with human rights requirements and “strongly reiterated” its call for the UK government to reconsider its proposal to grant conditional immunity to perpetrators.
The Council’s commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatović, has previously called on the UK government to consider withdrawing the legislation and said there were “serious concerns about its compliance with international human rights standards.”
Responding following the publication of the amendments on Thursday night, Mr Holder said it “has to be asked if the NIO were too embarrassed to publish these amendments before the Committee of Ministers meeting on the Bill.”
He said the “provision on inquests might be presented as an extension of time but in practice is likely to lead to even more scheduled legacy inquests being closed down as it removes the exemption for those that have already commenced by the deadline.”
The Council of Europe’s resolution was welcomed by the Tánaiste, Micheál Martin, who said it was a “matter of regret to my government that the Legacy Bill continues its legislative progress without the support of political parties in Northern Ireland, and without support from families, victims’ groups or civil society.
“I believe that, by providing for amnesties for crimes amounting to gross human rights violations, the Bill, if enacted, would undermine rather than assist reconciliation.”
Following the publication of the amendments Mr Heaton-Harris said the UK government remained “absolutely committed to making legislative progress so that the ICRIR can be established and begin delivering better outcomes for those most affected by the Troubles as swiftly as possible.”
Additional reporting - PA