Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill: Second Reading Opening Speech

Text of the Second Reading Opening Speech for the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill, delivered by NI Secretary, Brandon Lewis MP

I beg to move, that the Bill now be read a Second time.

The Troubles represented a terrible period in Northern Ireland’s past and of these islands as a whole. It claimed the lives of some 3,500 people in Northern Ireland, across Great Britain and in Ireland. It left tens of thousands injured and impacted all aspects of our society. Many, across the whole of our country, still bear the scars - both visible and invisible - today.

That Northern Ireland in 2022 has come so far in so many ways is a testament to the spirit and strength of its people - and the vision, bravery and determination of those who forged the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. It is also testament to the sacrifice of those men and women who went out each morning to uphold democracy and  save lives - not take them.

Looking around today, I see many wonderful examples of a transformed, inclusive, peaceful Northern Ireland.

Yet, despite this exceptional progress the Troubles continues to cast a long shadow over all those impacted and wider society. Community tensions and divisive politics undermine stability. This legacy of the Troubles is an issue that successive governments have attempted but ultimately failed to resolve - bluntly, because it concerns one of the most complex, sensitive and difficult periods of our history.

What we can’t do is stand by, and do nothing. We cannot let the status quo continue. To do so would be a dereliction of our duty to the people of Northern Ireland, and to those who served their country during that dark period. It would be a dereliction of duty to families across the UK who still seek answers about what happened to their loved ones - in some cases over 50 years ago.

This Government recognises the huge challenges involved in seeking to address Northern Ireland’s past. But we have a responsibility to ensure that future generations do not suffer in the same way as those who have gone before them. Every year that goes by, the opportunity to obtain answers for those who lost loved ones in the Troubles diminishes.

We have a responsibility to ensure that children can grow up together, be educated together, and to understand all aspects of the past; a past that was bitter, difficult and inordinately painful for everyone involved.

The current system is broken; it is delivering neither justice nor information to the vast majority of families. The lengthy, adversarial and complex legal processes do not offer the most effective route to information recovery. Nor do they foster understanding, acknowledgement, and reconciliation.

Faith in the criminal justice model to deal with legacy cases has been undermined. The high standard of proof required to secure a successful prosecution, combined with the passage of time and difficulty in securing sufficient evidence, means that victims and their families very rarely, if ever, obtain the outcome they seek from that process.

We must be honest about the limitations of focusing on criminal justice as a means to secure truth and accountability in relation to what happened to those who were killed or injured. It is cruel to perpetuate false hope, while presenting no viable alternative to deliver the information that so many families and survivors seek.

That is why we have introduced legislation that seeks to address this most difficult and sensitive of issues.

Drawing its core principles from the important work of the Stormont House Agreement, this legislation is focused on effective and timely information recovery, providing answers and accountability to families and survivors and aiding reconciliation, to help society move forward.

And it will deliver on our manifesto commitment to the veterans of our armed forces, security services and the Royal Ulster Constabulary. It will provide the men and women who served in Northern Ireland, to protect life, with the certainty they deserve.

No longer will our veterans, the vast majority of whom served in Northern Ireland with distinction and honour, have to live in perpetual fear of getting a knock at the door for actions taken in protection of the rule of law many decades ago. With this Bill, our veterans can have the certainty they deserve - and we will fulfil our manifesto pledge to end the cycle of investigations that has plagued too many of them for too long.

Mr Speaker, I want to acknowledge the many Honourable and Right Honourable members across this House - in particular, the Honourable Members for Plymouth Moorview and Rayleigh and Wickford, and the Right Honourable Members for Chingford and Woodford Green and New Forest East - who have campaigned tirelessly on this issue. Indeed, I recognise that many victims and veterans groups across Northern Ireland and Great Britain have campaigned for a long time for better outcomes for victims and survivors.

We were clear when we published our Command Paper last July that we  would listen to feedback with an open mind. Over the last 10 months my team and I have done just that, hearing the pain and perspectives of people from all viewpoints and communities. During those conversations we have repeatedly had to confront the painful reality that, with more than two thirds of Troubles-related cases now over 40 years old, the prospect of successful prosecutions is vanishingly small. This legislation marks a definitive shift in focus to put information recovery for families at its core in recognition of that.

Regrettably, a distorted narrative of the past has also developed over time. This legislation will help ensure that more victims and survivors - some 90% of whom are victims of terrorist violence - are able to obtain answers about those who caused them harm.

My message to victims and survivors, many of whom have engaged with us since we published the Command Paper last year, is that we have listened carefully. We understand that no matter how small the prospects are of successful criminal justice outcomes, that possibility should not be removed entirely.

I know that, despite the changes we have made, this legislation will nonetheless remain challenging for some. I want to say directly to all those individuals and their families - I respect the personal tragedies that drive their determination to seek truth and accountability for the losses they have suffered, and I share that determination. The Government is not - and will never - ask them to forget what they have been through in the name of reconciliation. This is not about ‘drawing a line’, forgetting or forcing forgiveness. But we must find a way to obtain information and provide accountability more quickly and comprehensively than the current system - and in a way that aids reconciliation, both for you and for the whole of Northern Ireland.

I am immensely grateful to the many people who have engaged with us, sharing their deeply moving experiences and to helping us understand the sheer frustration and hurt that they feel over the loss of their loved ones. Each tragedy remains raw, with the pain of many as strong today as it was on the day it happened.

I shall now turn to the contents of the Bill.

The first part of the Bill provides that, for the purpose of this legislation, the period of the Troubles is defined as beginning on 1 January 1966 and ending with 10 April 1998, the date of the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

Part 2 of the Bill provides for the establishment of a new independent commission for information recovery, tasked with carrying out robust, effective and thorough investigations into deaths and serious injuries that occurred during the Troubles for the primary purpose of information recovery.

We recognise the importance of this new commission being able to deliver its functions with absolute independence and that this will be crucial to gaining the trust of families, survivors and individuals who decide to engage in the information recovery process. The UK Government will have absolutely no involvement in the commission’s decision-making processes.

The new commission will have all the necessary policing powers to conduct its own thorough investigations, including the ability to compel witnesses and to test forensics.

The body will be supported - for the first time - by a legal requirement of full disclosure from UK Government departments, security services and arms-length bodies, to make sure it can gather all the evidence it needs to establish what happened in each case.

The Government accepts that, as part of this process, there will be information released into the public domain that will be uncomfortable for everybody. It is important that we, as Government, acknowledge our shortcomings during that immensely challenging period. It is also important that others do the same.

Some families have told us that they do not want to revisit the past and we must also respect that. The new commission will therefore be demand-led, taking forward investigations if requested to do so by survivors of serious injury or the families of those who lost their lives. The Secretary of State will also be able to request a review, ensuring that the Government is able to fulfil its obligations with regards to the European Convention on Human Rights.

Written reports of the commission’s findings will be provided to the families or survivors who request an investigation. These reports will also be made publicly available, ensuring that wider society can access the commission’s findings and understand and acknowledge the events of the past.

Since publishing our Command Paper, many individuals and organisations told us that an unconditional statute of limitations for all Troubles-related offences was too painful to accept. They said we must not close the door on the possibility of prosecutions, however remote the chances of successful prosecution may be.

We have also heard those in our veterans community who were uncomfortable with any perceived moral equivalence between those who went out to protect life and uphold the rule of law, and terrorists intent on causing harm.

So we have adjusted our approach to a conditional immunity model.

To gain immunity, individuals must provide an account to the new commission of their involvement which is true to the best of their knowledge and belief, drawing parallels with aspects of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission implemented in South Africa. The commission will require individuals to acknowledge their involvement in serious Troubles-related incidents - and to reveal what they know.

These provisions will also apply to individuals who have previously been provided with so-called ‘On the Run’ letters. These letters, when issued, confirmed whether or not an individual was wanted by police based on evidence held at that time. However, I want to be crystal clear that these letters have absolutely no legal standing, and cannot be used to prevent prosecution under this new approach.

It is crucial that people with the right level of expertise take such important decisions. A judge-led panel will therefore make decisions about whether immunity should be awarded, aided by guidance that we will publish prior to any of these decisions being made.

Mr Speaker, the introduction of this legislation is firmly in the context of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, and the decisions taken as a result of that Agreement in the name of peace and reconciliation that fundamentally altered the criminal justice model in Northern Ireland for Troubles-related offences. This includes the early release of prisoners, the process of secretly decommissioning weapons, and of course an effective amnesty for those who provide information to the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains.

While the Government believes that the difficult decisions taken at the time were absolutely right for the peace process, the overall approach to addressing legacy issues has not since been adjusted to reflect them. We cannot simply pretend they didn’t happen or that these challenging compromises weren’t made. The context in which we are approaching these issues is fundamentally different to any other across the country.

This legislation will strike the right balance between a focus on information recovery through an investigative process compliant with international obligations, while ensuring that those who choose not to engage will remain liable to prosecution, should sufficient evidence exist. Mr Speaker, these provisions will apply to everyone equally, in the interests of promoting wider reconciliation in Northern Ireland and in line with the challenging compromises that have been necessary to the peace process.

Part 3 of the Bill details the impact of these proposals on ongoing and future proceedings within the current criminal, civil, inquest and police complaints systems.

From the date this Bill comes into force no other organisation within the UK apart from the new information recovery commission will be able to take forward a criminal investigation into a Troubles-related incident. Any existing cases where a decision has been taken to prosecute will be allowed to continue to their conclusion.

Future prosecutions will remain a possibility for those involved in offences connected to a death or serious injury if they do not actively come forward to seek immunity or do not cooperate sufficiently with the information recovery process.

We have also listened to the concerns expressed following publication of our Command Paper regarding active civil claims and inquests, and are no longer proposing to bring these to an immediate end.

Civil claims that had already been filed with the courts before this Bill was introduced will be allowed to continue, but new cases will be barred.

With regards to inquests, those that have reached an advanced stage by 1 May next year or by the date on which the commission becomes operational will continue. New and existing inquests which have not reached an advanced stage by that point, will not continue in the coronial system, but may be referred to the judge-led commission for investigation.

Mr Speaker, while addressing the legacy of the past rightly focuses on those most directly affected, it is a sad fact that the Troubles has touched the lives of everyone in Northern Ireland, and across the rest of these islands, in different ways - including many of those born after the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. It is therefore vital that we think of reconciliation and remembering in a societal as well as individual context.

That is why, under Part 4 of the Bill, an expert-led ‘memorialisation strategy’ will lay the groundwork for inclusive new structures and initiatives to commemorate the tragic events of the past - to help us all collectively remember those lost, and ensure that the lessons of the past are not forgotten.

A major new oral history initiative will also be launched. We want to make this one of the most ambitious and comprehensive approaches to oral history that has ever been attempted, drawing on international models, and concentrating on collating lived experiences and testimony, and setting them within their appropriate historical context.

The public, including academics and historians, will have access to more information than ever before. As well as opening up archives and a major digitisation project, rigorous new academic research commissions will allow for a fuller examination of the conflict than has ever been possible. This will be supported by a new Official History, led by independent historians with unprecedented access to the UK documentary record.

Consistent with the Stormont House Agreement, these provisions will create opportunities for people from all backgrounds - and in particular those who may not have been heard before - to share their experiences and perspectives relating to the Troubles, and to learn about those of others.

The legislation we have brought forward will implement a legally robust and effective information recovery process that will provide answers for families, uphold our commitments to those who served in Northern Ireland, and help society to look forward - while also, importantly, recognising that those who choose not to reveal what they know should remain indefinitely liable to the threat of prosecution.

We must recognise that, notwithstanding the important changes we have made to the proposals as set out in July last year, this legislation will still be very challenging for many. Trust and confidence in the new commission will need to be earned through its actions. As the commendable work of Jon Boutcher and Operation Kenova has proven, this can be done.

As the historic Belfast/Good Friday Agreement approaches its 25th anniversary, now is the moment to move forward in dealing with the terrible legacy left by the Troubles, to find answers for families who seek it, accountability for the wrongs done on all sides and ultimately to bring understanding to the next generation so they can move forward in peace, in a society that has reconciled itself with the horrors of its past.

This is a hugely significant step towards enabling true reconciliation. To enable society to look forward with confidence, letting the status-quo continue is not good enough. Compassion and commitment requires honesty about these painful realities and difficult compromises. The moment has come for us all to face these head on, for the sake of the next generation.

The Northern Ireland Office recently relocated to offices in the centre of Belfast - another sign of progress and something that would have perhaps seemed unthinkable 20 years ago. On the building opposite, a quote reads, ‘A nation that keeps one eye on the past is wise. A nation that keeps two eyes on the past is blind’. This is our challenge - to provide families and society with a way to remember and reconcile, but also enable all of us to look forward and focus on a better future for all.

I commend this Bill to the House.

Northern Ireland Office
The Rt Hon Brandon Lewis CBE MP