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Troubles: Legacy and Reconciliation

Volume 746: debated on Wednesday 28 February 2024

1. What his Department’s planned timetable is for when the Independent Commission on Reconciliation and Information Recovery will be operational. (901645)

7. What progress his Department has made on implementing the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act 2023. (901651)

I start by welcoming the return of the devolved institutions to Northern Ireland, following the publication of the “Safeguarding the Union” Command Paper earlier this month and the Windsor framework, which was agreed exactly a year ago yesterday. Let me also take this opportunity to mention that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland will celebrate their 25th anniversaries on Friday.

The Government are doing all that we can to support the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery in delivering effectively for victims and families. Significant progress has been made since the ICRIR was established in December last year, and I expect the commission’s doors to open on 1 May.

In the light of this morning’s High Court ruling, does the Secretary of State still think that after 1 May the citizens of Northern Ireland should be the only people in the UK denied the right to seek justice for crimes committed during the troubles, through civil cases and inquests?

Mr Justice Colton handed down his judgment at 10.15 this morning. It is a very complex case. I am told that the judgment runs to over 200 pages, and I am yet to see it. It will take some time to consider, but we will consider Mr Justice Colton’s findings very carefully. We remain committed to implementing the legacy Act.

It is deeply concerning that the Government’s own imposed 1 May deadline means that inquests will be unable to conclude as they otherwise would. We have heard reports that there was only one specialist in the Ministry of Defence dealing with these inquiries, and that possibly MOD delays in providing material have caused additional hold-ups. We really need to understand what the Government are doing to ensure that inquests can conclude by the Government’s self-imposed deadline.

I humbly remind the hon. Lady that the original deadline, before we tabled amendments to the Act, then a Bill, in the House of Lords, was 1 May 2023, so there has been an extra year. The Government continue to assist the Northern Ireland courts in good faith on legacy matters. There is no question of the Government deliberately seeking to frustrate inquests. The Act allows a coroner to request a review of a death by the independent commission, led by chief commissioner Sir Declan Morgan, if the inquest has not been concluded via the coronial process by 1 May 2024.

The Government’s legacy Act is opposed by victims groups, all the political parties in Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and others. This morning, the Belfast High Court found that the Act’s immunity provisions are not compliant with articles 2 and 3 of the European convention on human rights. Given that immunity has always been presented as the central foundation of the legacy Act, what do Ministers intend to do about the judgment, and how can the commission become operational when one of its central powers has just been struck down?

As I say, this is a very complex case. The judgment runs to over 200 pages, which were first being reported on less than 90 minutes ago, so it will take some time to consider, but we remain committed to implementing the legacy Act, including delivering the ICRIR.

Recognising that the issues raised in today’s judgment will take some time to be conclusively determined by the higher courts—assuming that the Government appeal—does the Secretary of State agree that it would be quite wrong to close the door on inquests and civil cases from 1 May? That will deny citizens in Northern Ireland rights that citizens in the rest of the UK take for granted. Will he therefore extend the deadline, not least to ensure that inquests that would otherwise be stopped on 1 May can continue, so that a decision can be reached?

The right hon. Gentleman is quite right that this is a complex case that is likely to head to further action in the higher courts, but I want to consider the judgment carefully, look at all 200 pages, and take the legal advice that he would expect me to take in such circumstances. We remain committed to implementing the legacy Act, including delivering the ICRIR.