Troubles legacy Bill causes ‘distress and anxiety’ among victims and families

Council of Europe official warns of ‘deep scepticism’ about London’s motivation for law due next year

A top European human rights official has called on the UK government to consider withdrawing controversial legislation to deal with the legacy of the Northern Ireland Troubles.

A report by the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatović, said the approach taken in the Bill “had caused distress and anxiety among victims, family members and survivors”. She said there was “deep scepticism about the UK government’s motivation for the Bill” and it would lead to “the closure, by and large, of existing avenues for seeking truth and justice”.

There were “serious concerns about its compliance with international human rights standards” including with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and it ran a “very significant risk of eventually being found, by domestic courts or the European Court of Human Rights, not to be compliant” with the convention, the report said.

The commissioner urged the UK government to return to the principles previously agreed in the Stormont House Agreement in 2015 and said “any further steps on legacy must place the rights and needs of victims at its heart”.


The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill was introduced at Westminster earlier this year and is expected to become law next year.

Immunity from prosecution

It will create a truth recovery body – the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR) – which will offer immunity from prosecution to perpetrators who co-operate with its inquiries. It will take over responsibility for all Troubles inquiries, and most avenues of criminal and civil investigation and inquests will be closed down.

The plans have been widely condemned, including by the North’s five main political parties, victims and human rights groups, and by the Irish Government and internationally. It is supported by veterans’ groups.

Amendments introduced last month as the Bill had its second reading in the House of Lords were a reflection, the northern secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, said, of the “significant engagement that has taken place on the Bill” and sought to “address concerns that have been raised by many stakeholders”. These changes have not been regarded as sufficient by those who oppose the Bill, who continue to call for it to be scrapped.

The European report said that while the amendments were “welcome”, the commissioner’s concerns “relate to fundamental elements of the Bill, and that reconsidering the Bill in its entirety may provide more space for adopting a fully human-rights-compliant and widely supported approach”.

The Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers also expressed its concerns over the Bill on Friday and called on the UK government to ensure any approach to legacy was compliant with its human rights obligations.

Daniel Holder, of Belfast-based NGO the Committee on the Administration of Justice, said the report “adds to the chorus of international concern about the legacy Bill”.

Gráinne Teggart, deputy director for Northern Ireland at Amnesty International UK, said these were “welcome and important calls which the UK government must not ignore” and “victims’ rights must be prioritised and the Bill scrapped”.

‘Better outcomes’

In a statement, the Northern Ireland Office said the UK government was “determined to deliver better outcomes for those most impacted by the Troubles while helping society to look forward”.

“The legislation will not introduce an amnesty, and will not remove the prospect of criminal prosecutions,” it said. “Conditional immunity will only be granted to individuals who co-operate fully and truthfully with the commission. Individuals who do not will remain liable to prosecution and will be referred to prosecutors should sufficient evidence exist.”

The statement added that “we also recognise that a perfect solution to legacy issues is not attainable, and will continue to work towards the best practical solution”.

The report by Ms Mijatović followed a visit to the UK in June and reflected the “anxiety about the direction of human rights protection in the UK that I encountered during my visit,” she said.

“This anxiety is fed by what appears to be an increasingly antagonistic attitude towards human rights by the UK government, and especially by recent and proposed changes to laws and policies.”

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times