What is the Northern Ireland Troubles legacy Bill?

Q&A: Victims and survivors’ groups, as well as all five of the North’s main political parties, oppose the Bill

The UK government’s controversial legacy Bill, aimed at “drawing a line” under the North’s Troubles, passed its final legal hurdle in the House of Commons on Wednesday. The Bill must still return to the House of Lords next week, but parliamentary convention means it is unlikely to be opposed and instead will proceed to receive royal assent and become law.

What is the legacy Bill?

The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill, to give it its full title, is a complete change in how the UK government deals with Troubles-era cases.

Current methods of addressing cases through the judicial system – criminal and civil investigations and inquests – will be stopped and replaced 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.


Rather than criminal proceedings, the commission’s focus will be on information recovery; it will carry out reviews of deaths and other “harmful conduct” caused by the Troubles and produce reports on its findings.

What is the reaction to it?

It is almost universally opposed. Those against include – unusually – all of the North’s five main political parties, as well as relatives of those bereaved by the Troubles and victims and survivors’ groups and human rights organisations.

Also against are the Irish Government and other parties in Ireland and Britain, and internationally it is opposed in the United States and Europe, and by the United Nations.

Those who oppose it say will block bereaved families from ever receiving either truth or justice and is in breach of the UK government’s international human rights obligations.

Particularly controversial is the provision on amnesties, which opponents feel hands the power to perpetrators rather than victims and is designed to protect former British soldiers.

The list of those who support it is much shorter – the Conservative-led UK government and British veterans’ groups.

If it is so controversial, why was it progressed?

In 2020, the UK government signalled it wanted to move away from the method for addressing the legacy of the North’s Troubles agreed between the UK and Irish governments at Stormont House in 2015.

Its aim in doing so, London said, was to “end to the cycle of reinvestigations that has failed victims and veterans for too long”.

Critics argue that the facts do not back this up – not least as there were no effective investigations in so many Troubles-era killings – and the motivation is instead the protection of British soldiers and intelligence secrets.

The UK government has consistently argued it is about providing better outcomes and more information for families; speaking in Oxford as recently as last weekend, the Northern Ireland Secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, said he was “acutely aware that the Bill contains difficult and finely-balanced choices and that frankly, others might have taken a different path”.

“The Bill is not perfect, no attempt to redress the legacy of the Troubles ever could be, but it does now present us with a real opportunity to deliver greater information, accountability and acknowledgment to victims and families,” he said.

What happens next?

The Bill becomes law. No new criminal investigations or civil cases can be initiated; instead, all responsibility passes to the new body. All legacy inquests must be completed by May 1st, 2024, but it is expected about 80 which have been ordered will not finish in time to make the cut-off date.

The next stage is expected to be legal challenges; it is understood a number are ready to go in Northern Ireland, and there are also likely to be cases brought to the European Court of Human Rights.

Following Wednesday’s vote, the Irish Government came under renewed calls to take an inter-state case against the UK government. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said he will make a decision within weeks.

In the UK, Labour has reiterated its pledge to scrap the legislation if it forms the next government, though this is likely to be more than a year away.

Bereaved relatives and victims and survivors groups have expressed their sadness at the decision and also their determination to fight on.

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times