Northern Ireland Troubles legacy Bill expected to become law in September

Northern Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said he was confident controversial legislation would receive royal assent in early autumn

Britain’s controversial legislation to deal with the legacy of the North’s Troubles is expected to become law early in September.

The UK government had aimed to pass the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill before the summer recess, which begins next week.

However, it was delayed by an amendment in the House of Lords which sought to remove the provision - criticised as an “amnesty” by opponents - which would give conditional immunity to perpetrators.

The Bill returned to the Commons earlier this week, where the controversial measure was reinstated by a majority of 292 votes to 200.

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Speaking to PA news agency on Friday, the Northern Secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, said the bill was due to return to the House of Lords on September 5th, and he did not expect any further delays.

“Should there be an amendment tabled in the Lords by somebody and that get passed, which is possible, but I’d say unlikely, then it would come back to the Commons on the sixth,” he said.

“The Lords passed amendments to remove elements of the Bill or change elements of the Bill, and they won the votes by 12 and 24.

“We overturned that by a very big vote of 92 in the House of Commons, bigger than the Government’s majority by quite some way.

“So, I am confident the Bill will receive royal assent at some point at the beginning of September,” Mr Heaton-Harris said.

The 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, independent body which has the power to offer conditional amnesties for perpetrators.

It is opposed 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.

Mr Heaton-Harris said he knew the legislation was “not the perfect solution but I don’t think there will ever be a perfect solution of trying to find the answers to the past in Northern Ireland of all the things that happened in the Troubles.

“But I do believe this will help some people find the answers they require,” he said, adding he was “genuinely trying to find a solution for the group of people for whom information might be enough.”

Separately, Mr Heaton-Harris said the first parts of the Windsor Framework would be implemented in October as planned, and has ruled out further changes.

The agreement reached between the EU and UK earlier this year aimed to break the deadlock over post-Brexit trading arrangements which left Northern Ireland without a functioning Assembly or Executive due to an ongoing DUP boycott.

Following a meeting with Mr Heaton-Harris earlier this week, the DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson – who is seeking further legislative assurances around Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market - said “the ball is in the [UK] government’s court” and there had been a “lack of meaningful action” from Westminster.

The Sinn Féin vice president and the North’s first minister designate, Michelle O’Neill, said the ongoing stalemate was “totally unsustainable” and there had to be “meaningful” engagement which would lead to the restoration of the Executive.

Speaking on Friday, Mr Heaton-Harris – who has repeatedly called for the restoration of the Stormont institutions - said he was “neither surprised nor disappointed” it had not happened more quickly.

“I kind of guessed it would take a reasonable period of time,” he said, “because there is a lack of trust, or had been a lack of trust that had built up over a number of years between unionism and the British government and that is quite a barrier to break down.” Additional reporting – PA.

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times