A conference on the UK government’s controversial legacy legislation has been postponed following significant opposition from victims of the Troubles.
The Law Society of Northern Ireland’s annual conference, which was due to take place in Belfast on Friday, was to focus on the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act.
The chief commissioner to the new legacy body, Declan Morgan – who is Northern Ireland’s former Lord Chief Justice – was scheduled to give the keynote address.
Victims’ groups had voiced their serious concerns about the conference and were due to protest outside it.
It is understood that a number of speakers had already withdrawn, including academic Prof Phil Scraton and solicitor Kevin Winters.
In a statement on Tuesday, the Law Society said it decided to cancel the conference in light of requests by some victims’ groups and the protest due to be held outside it.
The society said it has been a “vocal opponent” of the legislation, which it views as “incompatible with the UK’s international human rights obligations”, and it had convened the conference to “help inform the legal profession’s approach to the new structures”.
Society president Brian Archer said the body was “committed to upholding the rule of law and had been at the forefront of challenging this legislation during its passage through parliament”.
A number of legal challenges to the Legacy Act are due before the High Court in Belfast later this week.
“Solicitors play a vital role supporting victims and survivors of The Troubles seeking answers and accountability and I believe it is appropriate for the Law Society to hold events such as this to inform and educate our members,” Mr Archer said. “Freedom of expression and debate is an intrinsic and important aspect of the Rule of Law.”
However, he said the society recognised “the strength of feeling in opposition to this Act” and that “with a significant number of legal challenges now before the courts, the implementation of the new legacy structures remains uncertain, and it is right to postpone the event until such time as the legality of the new legacy arrangements has been tested in the courts”.
The controversial legislation, which became law earlier this month, replaced current methods of criminal and civil investigations and inquests with inquiries carried out by a new investigative body, the ICRIR, which has the power to offer conditional amnesties for perpetrators.
The Bill is opposed by Northern Ireland’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.
‘Power of victims’
In a statement, the Pat Finucane Centre and Justice for the Forgotten “warmly welcomed” the decision to postpone the conference, which it said “clearly signifies the power of victims and survivors speaking in unity and demanding ownership of this issue”.
“Whilst acknowledging the need to engage constructively on the difficult issue of dealing with the past, we echoed the concern and anger voiced by many victims and survivors opposed to platforming those responsible for this shameful legacy legislation, and those at the centre of establishing the totally discredited Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR)”, they said.
“We could not and would not leave victims and survivors standing outside in the cold while decision-makers inside discuss a law that directly affects them and removes their recourse to justice for their loved ones.”
The groups said they “also applaud those lawyers and activists who also made the decision to stand in solidarity with victims and survivors” and “acknowledge and welcome the Law Society’s continued public opposition to the Legacy Act”.
Relatives for Justice also welcomed the society’s decision, saying “victims have spoken with one voice. That unity of purpose has been heard loud and clear. Families have spoken truth to power.
“We thank those lawyers and academics who took a moral position and decided not to attend and participate in the planned conference,” it added.
“No amount of spin or talking will change the fact that this new law will systematically deny basic investigations, legal redress, truth, justice and accountability to victims. The only place for discussing this law is in the courts, especially the European Court.”