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Northern Ireland: Legacy of the Troubles

Volume 838: debated on Tuesday 7 May 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the government of Ireland about their approach to addressing the legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland since April 1998.

My Lords, at the last two British-Irish Intergovernmental Conferences, the Secretary of State and I pressed the Irish Government to co-operate fully with both the Omagh inquiry and the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery to provide information for victims and families who desire it. The Secretary of State also wrote to the Tánaiste in January, challenging the Irish Government’s own approach to addressing legacy issues, including the number of Troubles-related prosecutions brought in Ireland since April 1998.

My Lords, are we not entitled to expect that the Irish Republic, which we have always sought to treat in a spirit of good neighbourliness, should take some steps to acknowledge that many terrorist atrocities during the Troubles in Ulster were assisted by the planning that took place in its territory and the refuge it provided to some involved in the most dreadful crimes? How vividly I remember the despair at the constant refusal of extradition requests brought to Airey Neave, as Conservative spokesman on Northern Ireland, long ago when I worked for him. Are we not also entitled to take strong exception to the Irish Government’s decision to bring a case against us in the European Court of Human Rights? Granted that the independent commission to deal with issues arising from the legacy of the Troubles became fully operational on 1 May, under the chairmanship of a most distinguished retired judge, does my noble friend agree that the Irish Government should drop their interstate case and focus on co-operating fully with the new legacy body, setting aside the controversies that surrounded its origins?

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend, who has vast experience of Northern Ireland matters. He makes a number of extremely important points regarding the role of successive Irish Governments during the Troubles. On the interstate case, the Government profoundly regret the decision of the Irish Government to bring this unnecessary and unhelpful case against the UK, particularly when these matters are likely to be dealt with by the domestic courts long before the case ever reaches Strasbourg. For many families, effective information recovery will require the co-operation of the Irish authorities, and the Government therefore encourage the Irish Government to co-operate fully with the new commission to help provide information to families who want it.

My Lords, does the Minister agree about the importance of adherence to the rule of law, and that the legacy Act is considered by many to violate the principle of the rule of law? In view of the various legacy cases, judgments and pending cases, what action will the Government take to ensure that victims and survivors are protected through the repeal of this legislation, in particular the immunity provisions, which have caused immense consternation throughout the wider community in Northern Ireland?

My Lords, while I completely respect the views of the noble Baroness, I do not share her characterisation of the legislation. She will be aware that the High Court in Belfast, in its recent judgment, found that the new legacy body, the independent commission, would be able to operate independently of government, and would be able to carry out fully effective Article 2-compliant investigations. It also found that the disclosure obligations on the state meant that the new body is likely to be more effective than the current mechanisms in providing information and answers to victims and survivors.

My Lords, the Omagh bomb was the single biggest terrorist attack in the Troubles, costing 29 people their lives, including a woman pregnant with twins. It was also a cross-border incursion, with terrorists coming from the Irish Republic, where they returned after the bombing. I simply ask the Minister why he believes the Irish Government are still refusing to hold their own inquiry into the bombing. What can they possibly be hiding?

My Lords, I am grateful to my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, for his question. We all remember vividly where we were when we heard the news of that awful atrocity in August 1998, and I pay tribute to Michael Gallagher and the other Omagh families who have pursued their case with great dignity and tenacity. As I said in my opening Answer, I raised this directly with the Irish Foreign Minister and Tánaiste at the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference last Monday, and I am pleased that he committed to full Irish Government co-operation with the Omagh bombing inquiry. The Government’s focus is on ensuring that the inquiry has every chance of success, and the Irish Government’s role in that is crucial.

My Lords, it is not just the Irish Government who were opposed to the very controversial legacy legislation. Every single Northern Ireland political party opposed it. The Minister knows that you can move in Northern Ireland, eventually, only by consensus. It seems to me that there has to be more discussion with the Irish Government, who are a joint guarantor of the Good Friday agreement after all. Now that the Assembly is up and running, surely it is time to engage every party in that Assembly to have a consensus on the way forward on what is very vexed legislation.

My Lords, what is really important, now that the independent commission is operational as of last Wednesday, is that we give it the time and space to carry out investigations and do its work in delivering answers for victims and survivors. I must point out that I read the interview with the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the Irish News last week, and what was clear, once I managed to decipher the complete muddle in that interview, was that the party opposite has no coherent plan for dealing with legacy matters whatever, other than taking us back to square one.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that one of the legacies of the Troubles is the high level of trauma and PTSD suffered by victims? The answers to the questions on the legacy Act did not include the Minister informing the House that major provisions of that Act have now been held by the High Court in Belfast to be in breach of national and international law. In those circumstances, can the Minister tell the House what proposals the Government have to provide support to those who have been further traumatised by the passing of this Act and the consequential termination of normal processes, such as inquests, many of which could not proceed because of the refusal of the Northern Ireland Office and MI5 to grant disclosure of materials, even in the form of gists prepared by the PSNI? What support will be available to families who have attended up to 40 hearings trying to get that information and whose inquests are now closed?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. As I said in an earlier answer, the High Court in Belfast found that the legislation is compatible with human rights law in respect of independence and the ability to carry out effective investigations. To take her point about disclosure, the disclosure provisions offer the prospect of better outcomes than current mechanisms.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the ongoing uncertainty caused by the Government’s appeal against the High Court ruling on immunity is merely prolonging the pain and uncertainty for victims and their families who have already waited so long for justice?

The noble Baroness will not be surprised to hear that I do not agree. The commission, as she knows, became fully operational last week and is now proceeding with its work under the distinguished leadership of Sir Declan Morgan, the former Lord Chief Justice, and Peter Sheridan, a former senior police officer.

My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister reflect on the remarks of Michael McDowell TD, a former Irish Attorney-General and Minister for Justice between 1999 and 2007, as quoted in the Irish Times last November, when he reminded us that the Republic’s approach to legacy has always been based on the indemnities presently being condemned by some noble Lords in this House? Will he also add something: that the approach of the Belfast agreement was to honour and care for innocent victims and to support their right to remember as well as to move on and contribute to a changed society? Does my noble friend the Minister therefore agree that the UK’s current policy is consistent with the Belfast agreement in all its aspects?

I agree with my noble friend that the legislation is absolutely consistent with the Belfast agreement, to which we remain resolutely committed as a Government. It is worth recalling that both the UK and Irish Governments have previously decided to make compromises on established criminal justice processes in the hope of moving the process forward, including decommissioning, prisoner releases and the search for the location of victims’ remains. As my noble friend made clear, the Irish Government’s position is hard to reconcile in relation to the positions they have adopted on these matters in the past and, indeed, their own record of dealing with Troubles-related cases within their own jurisdiction, where, to the best of my knowledge, there has not been a single prosecution since April 1998.