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Legacy Issues

Volume 699: debated on Wednesday 21 July 2021

What plans he has to bring forward legislative proposals to address Northern Ireland legacy issues. [R] (902940)

Last week, in this Chamber, I set out proposals for addressing the legacy of the troubles, which will focus on reconciliation, delivering better outcomes for victims, and ending the cycle of investigations that is not working for anyone. These proposals will be considered as part of the ongoing talks process with the Northern Ireland parties, the Irish Government and representatives across Northern Ireland society, further to which we will bring forward legislation.

The Secretary of State denies that these proposals would create a moral equivalence between our veterans and the paramilitaries, but the reality would mean a legal equivalence. Does he accept that many who served during the troubles will feel a deep unease about a blanket amnesty? Can he outline how our veterans community will be consulted over the coming months?

As the hon. Gentleman rightly acknowledges, there is no moral equivalence here. Obviously there is a legal equivalence going back to the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, but there is a distinct legal difference between what he outlines and the statute of limitations that we are looking at. I assure him that not only have we been engaging with veterans groups but we will continue to do so across Northern Ireland and Great Britain, not least through the offices of the Veterans Commissioner, whom we appointed in Northern Ireland. That work will continue, as it already has been this week.

I am sure the Secretary of State was closely following yesterday’s debate on his proposals in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The motion that was passed specifically talks about the process set out in the Stormont House agreement. Could he set out for the House, in a little detail, why that process is not working either for veterans or for victims?

My right hon. Friend is right. I saw some of the comments made in yesterday’s debate and, as I said last week, we recognise the strength of feeling and the concerns that people have. There is, understandably, a range of views on legacy, as it is a complex and sensitive issue. We are committed to further discussions, as I have already said, and we remain committed to many of the key principles laid out in the Stormont House agreement.

To come to the core of my right hon. Friend’s question, the Stormont House agreement was in 2014. We are seven years on, and it has not been deliverable in its current format. Parts of it that were to be delivered by the Executive, such as an oral history by 2016, have not been delivered. We need to move on and get those things working.

We also need to acknowledge the reality that even the investigative body, the Historical Investigations Unit that was envisaged, would take, by a conservative estimate, between 10 and 20 years to complete its workload. On that timescale, many families would be timed out of any prospect of information or justice. We need to be honest about the reality of where we are today.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, in order for any legacy policy proposal to be sustainable and effective, victims must be at the heart of the process? Can he outline what engagement he has had with victims across the UK, including the families of the Birmingham pub bombing victims?

I agree with the hon. Lady that we want to make sure that the outcomes we come to on legacy are able to deliver for victims and the families of victims, particularly those families who want information and understanding, truth and accountability. We are working through that at the moment.

There is a wide range of engagement, both through my Department and through me personally, with a whole range of groups, not just the Northern Ireland parties but the victims’ groups, too. I am always happy to engage with and meet victims’ groups. We have been engaging with them this week, as we did last week and the week before, and we will continue to do so across the whole UK in the weeks ahead.

I am grateful for that answer, and I am grateful that the Secretary of State agrees that victims need to be at the heart of the process. Why have reports suggested that paramilitaries, the victim makers, were made aware of the Government’s plans for an amnesty before the victims were?

They were not. I outlined the proposals here in Parliament last week, and I have not had those kinds of conversations. I saw some reports of such conversations, but I am not sure where they have come from or what the hon. Lady is referring to.

Northern Ireland’s largest cross-community victims group, WAVE, wrote to the Prime Minister opposing any de facto amnesty. Does the Secretary of State recognise that reconciliation is something for individuals and communities to achieve, rather than for the Government to try to impose, and that whatever mechanisms the Secretary of State is successful in bringing forward to promote truth and reconciliation they cannot be allowed to impede the process of justice where there is sufficient evidence and a public interest in pursuing outstanding prosecutions?

WAVE is a strong body representing victims, although the hon. Gentleman’s comment about it being the largest might be challenged by some of the other victims groups. I think they all have an important voice to be heard, whether we are talking about SEFF—the South East Fermanagh Foundation—WAVE or the many others out there. However, I accept his point about reconciliation. We are very keen to work with people, and we will be doing so in the weeks ahead, across civic society, victims groups and veterans groups, and wider society in Northern Ireland to ensure that we are finding a pathway through to see the society of Northern Ireland being able to fully reconcile. There are too many areas where we have not seen that developed in the years that have gone past since the Good Friday/Belfast agreement.

I have said in this House before that I think this is one of the things that unites many of us: we need to see more in areas such as integrated education. It is simply not acceptable in the modern day that so many people in Northern Ireland do not meet a Protestant or a Catholic until they go to work or university. If we want to see an area and a society coming together, education is a key area to work on.

No one wants to move forward more than victims and survivors, but they cannot do that until killers allow them to by telling the truth. However, these proposals protect those vested interests and not victims’ interests.

Fresh forensic evidence has just been found in the investigation into the IRA murder of Tom Oliver, giving a lie to the claim that investigations cannot be advanced. For victims of state violence too, the experience is one of information suppressed and not shared, so I ask: what steps have been taken to ensure that relevant state papers are being prepared for release? Will multi-decade papers on sensitive events be released, if the Government’s aim really is to aid reconciliation through truth?

Actually, the hon. Lady in a way has highlighted the point I was making last week; I think there is a way to do information recovery to get to truth and accountability. Operation Kenova, which is behind the evidence that she outlined, has shown over the past five years that, despite not having prosecutions, for many victims and families it has been able to help them understand and get to the truth. This is another example of that; they have managed to get some evidence to be able to get to what may well be the truth.

But I would just caution the hon. Lady to look carefully at the statement from Operation Kenova about exactly what it has found; Operation Kenova has not yet had any prosecutions. But it is right that we continue to get information. We are clear that we want to make sure that we are getting information to people, and potentially in a way that we have not seen before, to really be able to get to the bottom of what happened and for people to have a true understanding of what happened at that time.

Michael Gallagher, who lost his son in the Omagh bombing, this week said, “Please don’t take away the only hope victims have of ever seeing justice.” I know that the Secretary of State will be struck by what has been said by the victims of terrorism—mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters who have lost loved ones through the troubles. Although I know it is not his wish to see any moral or legal equivalence between vexatious claims against our armed services and those who perpetrated terrorism in our society, he must accept that an unintended consequence of the proposals before the House now is that they will do exactly that: they will aid and abet criminals and allow many on-the-runs to continue to be free. So I ask the Secretary of State: how will he ensure that he will not extinguish the only light and hope that the victims have that they will one day see justice for their loved ones? How will he ensure that for people like Michael Gallagher that hope will not be extinguished?

The hon. Gentleman gives a powerful example of the sensitivity and complexity of this issue. I have met victims with similar scenarios and some very harrowing cases, where we can see why people want to be able to get to the truth and the accountability that comes with that.

We also need to recognise, as I outlined last week, the reality of where we are today, following the decisions, which I think were correct—I am not criticising them at all; they were absolutely the right decisions—to see peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland with the Good Friday/Belfast agreement and, in particular, the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, which came with it, let alone what then followed, particularly with decommissioning and, as we have seen recently, quite rightly, arguably in effect a statute of limitations on 40,000 crimes coming out of Stormont House. We need to understand where we are and be up front with people about the diminishing reality of the possibility of getting prosecutions and what impact that is having on the criminal justice system and the ability to get to truth and accountability. But that is exactly what we want to be working through with groups across Northern Ireland, including victims groups, having absolutely in our heart an understanding of the trauma that people can face in these situations.