The UK’s Legacy Act is significant not just for Northern Ireland, but for people everywhere in the world

The British government acted with impunity throughout the Troubles, and the Legacy Act could become a template for authoritarian regimes

For all we know about the conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles, there is so much we do not know.

The report published on Monday by an international expert panel of academics, convened by the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights at the University of Oslo – at the request of the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) and the Pat Finucane Centre (PFC) – outlines just some of this “bitter legacy.”

Over its 200 pages, largely based on official documents and declassified files, the report summarises what is known about the conduct of the security forces during the Troubles in three specific areas – state killings, torture and ill-treatment, and collusion – and examines whether the UK government has met its international human rights obligations in these three areas.

At times, the facts are almost incredible. An examination of declassified files shows that between 1971 and 1976, 4,537 complaints of assault were lodged against police officers by member of the public; there were 37 prosecutions and 11 convictions.


Torture “proliferated” in army barracks, police stations, internment centres and the off-grid interrogation centre in Ballykelly; the report describes waterboarding, the use of electric shock treatment, sexual violence against men and women, death threats and mock executions, and more.

Women were sexually assaulted while in detention, threatened with rape, and repeatedly strip-searched. One former prisoner, one of two women on remand in a male prison, described “13 months of daily sexual abuse. We were strip-searched every day, this soon escalated up to six times a day.”

Collusion was “often a deep-seated feature of the practice of state agencies throughout the entire conflict”, the report found. “It cannot be relegated to the actions of a few rotten apples.”

These lines are particularly chilling: “Surviving paper trails suggest there was enough evidence in many cases to bring charges against perpetrators involved in collusion at the time.

“An unknown number of lives would have been saved if correct processes had been followed during the conflict.”

Much of this will come as no surprise; one of the characteristics of the long tail of the Troubles is that it can take decades to confirm what families have known all along.

Yet, as the report makes clear, a key part of this culture of impunity was and is the lack of effective investigations, which not only allowed those responsible to get away with it, but also facilitated further abuses.

The report’s timing is deliberate; its publication comes two days before the UK government’s Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act 2023 – which will end all Troubles-era criminal and civil cases and inquests – comes into effect.

“Much is still unknown or unacknowledged,” the panel writes, “and there has been little progress towards achieving overall accountability and the truth.” Instead, the Legacy Act “seems designed to curtail such efforts”.

Investigations will pass to a new body, the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR). The panel “doubts” the Legacy Act will deliver investigations which are compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights; the matter is now with the domestic and international courts.

Monday’s report is another, valuable voice amid the cacophony calling for the Act’s repeal; they will not be heeded – or, at least, not by this UK government.

It seems there is much we will never know about what happened during the Troubles and, as the report emphasises, this is significant not just for Northern Ireland. What is currently being played out, over the contested past of this one small place, matters for people in all places.

Because the UK acted – and acts – with impunity in Northern Ireland, it is easier for other states to do the same; the “apparent lack of respect for human rights” demonstrated by the Legacy Act will have a global impact, the report said, not least by “giving succour to authoritarian regimes around the world”.

For a state to speak with moral authority about human rights, the rule of law or democracy on the international stage, “you have to have legitimacy, and you cannot base that on hypocrisy”, Gisle Kvanvig, the director of multilateral co-operation in the international department at the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights, told The Irish Times. “Legitimacy is built at home. How can the UK speak with moral authority abroad when it’s hiding all these things, both in the colonial past and in the Northern Ireland conflict?”

His assessment is that the Legacy Act will have “unintended consequences”, not least in terms of the “precedent it sets globally”.

“This Legacy Act will be the perfect template for numerous countries in terms of how they treated parts of their population. That’s the dangerous part of it.”

This is why what we do not know about the Troubles matters. This is not just about finding out about Northern Ireland’s past. It is also a warning, and one which could affect our global future.