Troubles Amnesty Expected to Become Law Next Month

Troubles Amnesty Expected to Become Law Next Month
Minister for Veterans' Affairs Johnny Mercer speaks at commemoration event for nuclear test veterans at the National Memorial Arboretum in Alrewas, Staffordshire, on Nov. 21, 2022. (PA)
Patricia Devlin

Controversial legislation that will create a prosecution amnesty for those who committed conflict-related crimes in Northern Ireland, is expected to become law next month.

Cabinet Office minister Johnny Mercer told MPs Thursday that the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill will have cleared all stages by the summer recess, despite fierce opposition.

Earlier this week, Ireland premier Leo Varadkar said Ireland will consider taking an interstate case against the UK if the immunity proposals are passed.

Peers are also set to vote on amendments to have the “most severely disliked” measures completely ditched.

The proposed law would provide immunity for people accused of crimes during the Troubles, as long as they cooperate with a new truth recovery body, known as the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery.

The bill, currently going through the House of Lords, would also halt future civil cases and inquests linked to killings during the conflict.

It will continue its report stage in the Lords on Monday where peers consider further possible amendments.

The House of Commons will stop for the summer at the end of business on July 20, with the House of Lords rising on July 26. Both Houses must come to an agreement on its wording before it can receive royal assent.

Victims groups, human rights experts, Amnesty International and all political parties in Northern Ireland are opposed to the bill.

Truth and Justice

Speaking at Cabinet Office questions on Thursday, Conservative MP Philip Hollobone asked, “What steps is the Cabinet Office taking to honour the Conservative Party’s manifesto commitment to protect Northern Ireland veterans from vexatious litigation?”

Mercer replied: “We’re nearly at the summit of this mountain. The bill is continuing to go through the Lords, it will report back to this House and then it will become law by the summer recess.

“We will have delivered on a manifesto commitment to make sure that we protect those who served us in Northern Ireland, who we are deeply proud of, from the vexatious nature of investigations and litigation whilst providing a better opportunity for all victims of that conflict to find out what happened and focus on reconciliation and the future.”

The bill was raised in Ireland’s Parliament on Wednesday by Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald.

She told politicians said that if it passed the Lords’s stage, it would “definitively shut the door on families’ efforts to achieve truth and justice through the courts, and it will of course give an amnesty to those responsible for their deaths.”

Asked what action Ireland intended to take, Varadkar responded: “The bill has not yet been enacted, and certainly if it is enacted, if it does become law, we will then at that point give consideration to whether an interstate case is appropriate, so we certainly don’t rule that out.

“But I would encourage everyone to play their part when it comes to legacy issues, we all have a role to play.”

He told members of Parliament: “I just want to reiterate and restate the government’s opposition to this legacy bill.

“We think it’s entirely the wrong approach to give former army servicemen, former IRA and paramilitary terrorists immunity from prosecution.

“We owe it to the victims to make sure that we all do everything we can to make sure that any information that can be given to the police is given to the police and that those people are prosecuted if at all possible.”

Varadkar said he has “made it very clear” to the prime minister that Ireland is “very much against” the legacy legislation.

Sinn Fein's President Mary Lou McDonald speaks to the media outside the Communications Workers Union headquarters in Dublin on May 14, 2022. (Sam Boal/PA Media)
Sinn Fein's President Mary Lou McDonald speaks to the media outside the Communications Workers Union headquarters in Dublin on May 14, 2022. (Sam Boal/PA Media)

‘Dagger Through Victims’

On Wednesday, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson wrote to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak urging him to scrap the bill.

Donaldson said that an “amnesty for terrorists is not only an affront to justice but a gateway to further attempts to rewrite and airbrush the past.”

In the Lords, former Northern Ireland Secretary Lord Murphy of Torfaen proposed an amendment to scrap the immunity provision.

While comparisons had been made between the immunity measure and the early release of prisoners under the 1998 peace deal, Labour’s Murphy said the “big difference” was the latter move had the backing of a referendum at the time.

He said the upper chamber should “send back a message” to MPs.

“To send a signal to them that this house recognises the significance of the opposition to the bill in Northern Ireland would be a very powerful one,” he said.

“No-one in Northern Ireland is voting in favour of this. There is no consensus in its favour.

“The minister knows you simply cannot impose things on Northern Ireland. Imposition is entirely improper.”

Denying it was a so-called wrecking amendment Murphy said: “It takes the part of the bill out which is most severely disliked.

“Why on earth is the government persisting in something that shouldn’t be imposed upon the people of Northern Ireland against their will?”

Referring to the matter of “amnesty and immunity,” former leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick said: “This issue goes to the heart of the legislation, but it also drives a dagger through victims in Northern Ireland—people who have endured immeasurable suffering because of the loss of their loved ones in unexplained circumstances, because many of them have not been told how or why that loss happened, or the nature of the wounds inflicted on them.”

Independent crossbencher Baroness O’Loan, who was the first police ombudsman in Northern Ireland, said, “Nobody in Northern Ireland wants these provisions.”

PA Media contributed to this report.
Patricia is an award winning journalist based in Ireland. She specializes in investigations and giving victims of crime, abuse, and corruption a voice.
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