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Northern Ireland: Commission for Victims and Survivors

Volume 806: debated on Thursday 22 October 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the Commission for Victims and Survivors for Northern Ireland regarding proposals to address the legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

My Lords, the Government will bring forward legislation addressing the legacy of the Troubles to focus on reconciliation and deliver for victims. The Government engaged with the Commission for Victims and Survivors at both ministerial and official level, including the victims’ commissioner and the Victims and Survivors Forum. We remain committed to making progress on this as soon as possible and will continue to engage with a range of stakeholders as part of this process.

My Lords, we need a victim-centred approach to the legacy investigations that delivers for families who have had to wait a long time for truth, that is balanced and transparent and that operates locally to rebuild trust. All these could be obtained under the Stormont House agreement and not through the Government’s Statement of 18 March. Can the Minister assure me that the forthcoming legislation will provide for that victim-centred approach?

Indeed, the noble Baroness is right. She will know that legacy is one of the most complex, sensitive and profoundly important issues for the people of Northern Ireland, so it is important that the Government get it right. While progress on this has, like other priorities, been affected by the challenging wider circumstances of the past few months, I can assure the noble Baroness that the Government are moving as quickly as they can.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that, for the families of victims, closure is a fundamental right, and waiting and waiting is just not acceptable. Can he say a little more about the proposed legislation to give effect to the Stormont House agreement? When will it be forthcoming? Does he realise that it is urgent, and that people are waiting anxiously for progress?

I can understand the noble Lord’s interest and frustration. I am unable to give him a timetable, but I give further reassurance that we are committed to bringing forward legislation that focuses on reconciliation, delivers for victims and ends the cycle of reinvestigations into the Troubles in Northern Ireland. This is on the back of the consultation that he will know about.

My Lords, when the commissioner, Judith Thompson, retired at the end of August, she said that legislation needs to be passed that has

“the full support of Victims and Survivors and is not a Westminster solution to a Northern Ireland problem.”

Does the Minister accept that sound advice and recognise that, as she has not yet been replaced, a continuing role for a commission is needed? Do the Government support that, and will the Minister use his office to ensure that a commissioner is appointed and that the commission is properly supported?

The noble Lord echoes the wise words of the previous commissioner. Though he will know that the appointment of a new commissioner is a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive, I understand that the First and Deputy First Ministers are currently considering the options for the post of the Commissioner for Victims and Survivors.

My Lords, in dealing with legacy issues in Northern Ireland, will the Government always be mindful of the tremendous sacrifice of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and our Armed Forces, who are the real unsung heroes of the peace process? Furthermore, will they continue robustly to challenge those who seek to rewrite history to justify acts of terrorism, as, to his credit, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland did recently in response to an appalling tweet by a serving member of the Northern Ireland Policing Board eulogising the Maze prison escape, in which one man died and another was shot in the head?

My noble friend is right to draw attention to the brief comments made by the Secretary of State. He, with many others, is working hard to help all communities in Northern Ireland move away from the past and look to the future, including giving hope to future generations.

My Lords, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, like similar inter-religious disputes in other parts of the world, resulted from a misplaced emphasis on supposed irreconcilable religious differences. Does the Minister agree that the healing can result only from an urgent focus on far greater areas of commonality and shared self-interest in looking to a much better future for present and future generations?

The noble Lord makes an important point about reconciliation and, as I referred to earlier, looking forward rather than looking back. He is right: there needs to be a degree of urgency, despite the fact that Northern Ireland is dealing with huge issues at the moment due to Covid. However, focusing on information, recovery and reconciliation is the right way forward.

My Lords, I quite understand that the national emergency is causing a huge problem in dealing with issues such as this one but it is disappointing that we have no date for the legacy legislation; I hope that it will come soon. Does the Minister accept that any such legislation will be fruitless unless the Government recognise the importance of extensive and meaningful consultation with victims’ groups, communities and stakeholders on these difficult issues? I know that he is in touch with many groups in Northern Ireland but this really has to be extremely extensive—including, of course, the Executive in Belfast.

The noble Lord, with all his experience of Northern Ireland, is right. I assure him that, since March, Ministers and officials have engaged with a range of stakeholders, including victim support groups, religious leaders and groups across academia and civic society. He is right that it is important to build on the huge work that was undertaken as a result of the consultation and move forward, bringing communities with us.

My Lords, while legal responsibility can be devolved, moral responsibility for past events cannot. For most of the years when people became victims in Northern Ireland, the Government and Parliament in London were directly responsible. Given how quickly the Prime Minister overruled the mayor of Greater Manchester for the sake of its population, can the Minister understand how victims in Northern Ireland feel rather abandoned by the delays in Her Majesty’s Government after so many years in ensuring that their various needs are properly addressed—when necessary, obviating obstruction or intransigence in Belfast?

Yes. Again, I can hear the frustration in the comments made by the noble Lord. However, I assure him that, as he will expect me to say—it is true—this is a priority. There are other priorities but this is a priority, and I know that the various parties want to move ahead to address the long-spoken-about legacy issues.

Does the Minister agree that innocent victims have been traumatised enough through a long and vicious terrorist campaign? They do not need a rewriting of the history of the past to excuse IRA terrorism but require proper justice, a recognition of their suffering and a hastening of the payment of pensions and compensation where appropriate.

I understand that the general theme from the noble Lord is focused on justice but we must be clear that, with the passage of time—he will know this—the number of convictions flowing from any investigative process is likely to be low. That is why, on the back of the consultation, we think that it is right to move forward, focusing on information recovery and reconciliation, which is a vital part of it.

My Lords, these comments from other Members are what one would want to hear, in many respects, but we must remember that we are dealing here with the republican movement. I use that term to underline the extent to which and way in which it tries to present itself as something innocuous, wanting to rewrite the past—or, if it cannot do that, pretend or create a situation in which blame can be put on the security forces that have worked so hard over the years. We need to move forward on that carefully and understand the full nature of what we are dealing with.

That allows me to say, in response to my noble friend’s question, that the focus is on looking ahead, not back, and on information recovery and reconciliation. Those two things should be at the heart of the revised legacy system, not looking back.

Can my noble friend tell the House whether he or his colleagues have had discussions with the newly appointed Northern Ireland veterans’ commissioner? Furthermore, is it now government policy that the historical inquiries unit proposed in the Stormont House agreement will not be established?

To follow on from my noble friend’s question, we welcome the appointment of Danny Kinahan, the veterans’ commissioner. It is good that he will act as a voice and advocate for veterans in Northern Ireland as they make the transition to civilian life. However, first and foremost, to answer the noble Lord’s question, Mr Kinahan is already making himself accessible to veterans: he is listening to their needs and he is getting around the various parties to bring himself up to date with their interests, needs and wishes.