Troubles amnesty legislation ‘irredeemable’ - NI academics

Controversial UK legislation an attempt to ‘curtail’ inquiries into British military actions

Legislation passed by the House of Commons to grant an effective amnesty for Troubles-related crimes has been criticised as “irredeemable and unfixable” by two prominent Northern Ireland academics.

The Oireachtas committee on the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement held hearings on Thursday to discuss the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill.

The controversial legislation, which will now be considered by the UK House of Lords, would bar future inquests and civil cases by families seeking answers about the deaths of their loved ones.

The legislation would set up a new body to review deaths led by a judicial figure appointed by the UK government, who would be given the power to grant immunity from prosecution for those who co-operated with reviews.

The Oireachtas committee heard from Kieran McEvoy, professor of law at Queen’s University Belfast, and Daniel Holder, deputy director of the Committee on the Administration of Justice, a Belfast-based human rights organisation.

In an opening statement from the pair, the British legislation was criticised as a means to “curtail investigations into the UK military” and take back control of the narrative of the conflict.

The statement said the premise for the proposed law was built upon “deeply misleading and inaccurate assertions” about inquiries into deaths being “witch hunts” intended to target British Army veterans.

The Bill, which has been opposed by all parties in Northern Ireland, had been “dressed up in language about reconciliation,” the academics told the committee.

“Our comparative analysis identified the proposed amnesty as being broader in scope than that introduced by General Pinochet in Chile,” the statement said.

The proposed bar to be eligible for amnesty from prosecution was “so low that it is difficult to envisage any applicant not qualifying”, the statement said.

The new body set up to review Troubles-related killings would have “far more limited” powers than current mechanisms, it said.

The legislation had provisions to “thwart” the work of existing investigations into Troubles killings, “and replace independent judicial and investigative processes with mechanisms that are under direct UK Government control,” it said.

“We have concluded that the bill is unworkable, is in breach of the Good Friday Agreement, interferes with the devolved administration of justice in Northern Ireland, contravenes binding international law and that it will not deliver for victims and survivors, many of whom have waited for decades for truth and justice,” the statement said.

The academics said the legislation was “irredeemable and unfixable” but would likely pass through the UK parliament.

The statement said if the legislation became law the Government would have the option of taking a legal challenge to the European Court of Human Rights.

“An inter-state challenge would signal just how serious a threat to the Northern Ireland peace process and the international rule of law is represented by this Bill,” the pair said in their opening statement.

Addressing the committee, Prof McEvoy said the scope of the amnesty would likely “embolden” authoritarian regimes. The families of victims in Northern Ireland were “upset and angry” at the proposed law, he said.

“What you have is London reaching deep into the operation of our criminal justice system and deciding who or who isn’t getting prosecuted, that is a fundamental breach of the Good Friday Agreement,” he said.

The academic said it was “hard to know” whether the current political disruption in Westminster following the resignation of prime minister Boris Johnson would aid efforts to halt the legislation becoming law.

Prof McEvoy said he believed that if the Irish Government took a legal challenge against the law that there was a “strong chance” it would win.

Mr Holder said “relentless work by families and their representatives” had made major inroads in recent years advancing investigations into past killings, despite British attempts to “slow waltz” requests for official military records. The fact the proposed legislation would now pull up the “drawbridge” on those efforts was “profoundly concerning,” he said.

Jack Power

Jack Power

Jack Power is a reporter with The Irish Times