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Northern Ireland: Operation Kenova

Volume 823: debated on Thursday 14 July 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment Ministers have made of the Operation Kenova investigation into past paramilitary criminal offences in Northern Ireland.

My Lords, before I answer the noble Lord’s Question directly, I am conscious that between now and the end of this month we will see the 40th anniversary of the Hyde Park bombings, the 50th anniversary of Bloody Friday and the Claudy bombings and 32 years since the murder of Ian Gow, a friend of many of us in this House. All were heinous, wicked terrorist atrocities which were totally unjustified. Our thoughts, as always, are with the survivors and victims.

Operation Kenova has conducted much commendable work since its establishment in 2016, particularly through its ability to build trust and confidence with those engaging with its investigations. The Government very much hope that the best practices established by it will be carried through into the new legacy bodies once they are established.

I thank the Minister for his reply, particularly his reminder to the House about past atrocities, which we should never forget. Before the Northern Ireland legacy Bill, to which he referred, comes to this House, will Ministers agree to an amendment that I will table to adopt the Operation Kenova investigations model? Lamentably, the Government’s current amnesty provisions—that is what they are—favour perpetrators of atrocities over the needs of victims. Kenova uncovers crucial information because it is carrying out investigations to criminal justice ECHR Article 2-compliant standards, with 32 of its cases referred to the Public Prosecution Service, and so offers potential justice to victims and upholds the rule of law in a way the Bill does not. As currently drafted, the Bill does neither and is opposed by all victims’ groups and Stormont parties. Surely, Ministers should think again.

The former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland makes a number of important points. As I said at the outset, Operation Kenova has conducted much commendable work and I pay tribute to the way in which Jon Boutcher has set about his task. The noble Lord probably asks me to go a bit too far in agreeing to amendments before we have even considered Second Reading of the Bill in your Lordships’ House. As he is aware from my record in taking other legislation through this House, I am always prepared to look at any amendment on its merits and give it due consideration. I am very happy to sit down with the noble Lord and any other noble Lords across the House prior to Second Reading to discuss the contents of the Bill.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there can never be any moral equivalence between those who were sent by this Parliament to defend the rule of law—they sometimes made mistakes but they were under a huge amount of pressure—and those who went illegally, with weapons, to murder and cause mayhem?

My noble friend will not be in the least surprised to hear that I agree with his comments entirely. He makes very important and powerful points. There is no moral equivalence between those who set out to uphold the rule of law and defend democracy and those who sought to destroy both. His question gives me the opportunity to place on record once again the enormous debt of gratitude we all owe to the members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, George Cross, and the members of our Armed Forces for their work in Northern Ireland. Of course mistakes were made but, overall, it is a record of which they and we can be very proud.

I very much agree with my noble friend Lord Hain, about learning from the processes of Operation Kenova. Since, as the Minister knows, every victims’ group in Northern Ireland, the Irish Government and every single political party in Northern Ireland disagrees with the Bill, is it not time to go back to the new Secretary of State, rethink the Bill, or preferably abandon it altogether?

I appreciate the spirit in which the noble Lord, another distinguished former Secretary of State, makes his point. As he will know from his time in office, finding consensus around legacy and the past is incredibly difficult and has eluded successive Governments. I was intimately involved in the Stormont House negotiations in 2014, when we thought we had reached some kind of agreement. That subsequently unravelled in the following years. These are very difficult matters but, as I said in response to a previous question, I am very happy to meet victims’ groups, political parties, the Irish Government and Members of your Lordships’ House to see if there are ways in which the Bill can be improved.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the international steering group for Operation Kenova, on which I have served for six years. Is the Minister aware that Operation Kenova has been investigating some 200 murders over a span of 25 years, including the murders of three police officers in 1982 at the Kinnego embankment, and that Kenova has submitted some 33 investigations to the DPP since 2019, but that no prosecutorial decision has issued in respect of the murders and abductions, apparently because of a lack of resources? How does the Minister view the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill, now before your Lordships’ House, which will prevent anybody whose loved one died as a result of the Troubles terrorism, whether in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, being able to have an inquest or bring any civil action for damages, and even from having a proper investigation which will lead to a prosecution? Can the Minister explain how this is consistent with the operation of the rule of law, of which we are so proud in the United Kingdom?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question and acknowledge her work on Kenova, and as a former Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. She makes a large number of points, which are probably worthy of a debate rather than Question Time. She highlighted the point that over 30 case files are currently with the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland. Funding for the DPP and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland is a devolved matter for the Assembly, not for Her Majesty’s Government. It highlights the fact that the cases where criminal justice outcomes have been sought take a huge amount of time. The Government are trying to focus on moving towards a more information recovery-based approach to legacy cases, which will, we hope, allow victims to access more information more quickly than would be the case with long, drawn-out prosecutions.

My Lords, as the Minister said, he knows how important it is to build consensus on this matter in Norther Ireland. However, it is clear—I hope he will acknowledge this—that there is no consensus for the legacy Bill. I am pleased the Minister has agreed to meet the victims’ groups and the political parties in Stormont over the summer, but will he commit to listening to what they say and bringing forward a different Bill or, preferably, to scrapping the Bill as it stands?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. As I think I have outlined in my response to previous questions, I am very happy to do that. I think she will know, from experience of dealing with me, that I am always prepared to listen.

My Lords, was not my noble friend right to remind us of the anniversaries of terrible terrorist atrocities in order to keep proper perspective on these matters? I speak as one who was not far from the Oxford Street bus station in Belfast just after 3 pm on 21 July, 50 years ago, when an IRA car bomb killed six people and injured nearly 40. Is it not one of the objectives of terrorists and their sympathisers to try to rewrite history, to draw attention away from their evil deeds? Is it not the duty of all of us to ensure that they do not succeed?

I agree entirely with my noble friend. It is worth remembering that, on the day in question, some 20 bombs were exploded in the space of about 80 minutes in the centre of Belfast, killing nine people and injuring 130—it was utterly horrific. My noble friend is correct to highlight the attempt by some to rewrite history. We have seen over recent years, I am afraid, a pernicious counternarrative of the Troubles, which tries to place the state at the heart of every atrocity, denigrates the contribution of the police and our Armed Forces, and seeks to legitimise terrorism. We should strongly resist that.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, referred to Kenova and its lack of resources. Would the Minister and colleagues talk immediately to the Justice Minister to ensure that both financial and staff resources are provided to a legacy investigation unit within the Public Prosecution Service, so that it can carry out the prosecutions that will flow from the Kenova inquiry, rather than pursuing this legacy Bill, which has been rejected by everybody in Northern Ireland?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. As I made clear in my response to the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, funding for the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland is a devolved matter for the Department of Justice.