Secretary of State outlines next steps in NI Legacy Bill

Today sees the return of the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill to the House of Commons

It was introduced in May 2022, and has spent the past 12 months in the House of Lords. This has provided time for in-depth engagement with those affected by the Troubles and scrutiny of the Bill. Since becoming Secretary of State I have heard first hand about how so many people have been affected by the Troubles. Only yesterday I read on the front pages of The Belfast Telegraph of a daughter who wants answers about what happened to her father and the Newsletter’s report on the lengthy re-investigation of an ex-officer that ended with no action taken. For those that want answers and an end to protracted processes that deliver outcomes for very few, this legislation is vital.

It’s well over 50 years since the Troubles began and 25 years since the people of Northern Ireland voted for peace through the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. That’s decades where very many families, victims and survivors have been left without justice or information. This Bill will finally provide answers.

In the House of Lords, the Government brought forward a package of significant amendments, many of which are a direct result of the extensive engagement myself and Lord Caine have undertaken. These amendments enhance the independence of the new Independent Commission for Information Recovery and Reconciliation (ICRIR), provide a greater focus on the interests of victims and families, strengthen provisions related to the process for granting immunity from prosecution to those who engage meaningfully with the ICRIR - while keeping open the possibility of prosecution for those who fail to do so, and provide greater assurance regarding compliance with our international obligations.

In the Lords the Government was narrowly defeated on just two amendments. Peers voted to remove the immunity clauses from the Bill, and voted for each review to be carried out to a criminal justice standard.

We are grateful to those who suggested ways to strengthen the conditional immunity process, and - after listening carefully - we have tabled several amendments which do that. However,  we cannot agree to an amendment which would altogether remove the conditional immunity clauses from the Bill.

This Government believes that the conditional immunity provisions will be key in helping to generate the greatest volume of information, in the quickest possible time, to pass on to families and victims who have been waiting for so long. I know that this approach is challenging for many, but we must address the legacy of the past in a different way if we are to achieve better outcomes for many who have waited for decades.

We are sympathetic to the motivation behind the amendment requiring each review to include a criminal justice standard investigation, but it is just not practicable. Firstly, the Bill is clear that an ICRIR ‘review’ can, where required, encompass a full, police-equivalent criminal investigation.

It is, however, right that the ICRIR also has the flexibility it needs to determine how it can best provide information to victims and families in each specific case. Some families might not want a full investigation, and we must respect that.

The Lords’ amendment would remove this crucial flexibility, limiting the ICRIR’s ability to be able to carry out reviews effectively, and significantly increase the time to complete many reviews, further delaying the families getting answers. Unlike some have suggested, it would also not ensure compliance with our international obligations, which often requires a more broad focus not limited simply to establishing whether a criminal offence has been committed.

Instead we are tabling two amendments which I believe will provide further reassurance on this key issue. These amendments will clarify that each review - whether it includes a criminal investigation or not - must look into all circumstances of a death or serious injury, and the ICRIR must - where possible - answer any specific questions posed by families during a request for a review.

I hope these two amendments - combined with other amendments the Government brought forward in the House of Lords to strengthen the review process - demonstrate that we are giving the ICRIR robust powers that will facilitate the information recovery process, meet our international obligations, and allow the ICRIR - under the leadership of the former Lord Chief Justice for Northern Ireland, Sir Declan Morgan KC as Chief Commissioner - to work as flexibly as it possibly can.

It is over a quarter of a century since the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, and significantly longer that many people have been left without answers to what happened during the Troubles. As a Government it is our responsibility to establish the best practical way to deliver better outcomes for many more people affected by the Troubles than the current system does.

The challenge before us is immensely difficult, but it is also clear. To provide greater information, accountability and acknowledgement to victims and families of the Troubles, we must do things differently. The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill will do just that.

Northern Ireland Office
The Rt Hon Chris Heaton-Harris MP