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Troubles bill puts perpetrators before victims, say politicians and bereaved

The families of victims on both sides of the debate have slammed the government’s plan to end criminal investigations

Tom Griffin
2 December 2022, 4.10pm

Members of Relatives for Justice, whose loved ones were killed during the Troubles, protest the government's Troubles bill

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PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Justice for those killed in the Troubles in Northern Ireland could be drastically curtailed under legislation currently passing through Parliament – despite widespread opposition from politicians and victims’ families.

The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill is an attempt to deal with almost 1,000 unsolved killings – offering alleged perpetrators immunity from prosecution in return for their testimony.

Many fear the bill – which would end all criminal cases, civil cases and inquests related to the Troubles, replacing them with a review process – will reduce scrutiny of the conflict.

In Britain, the debate has largely focused on the interests of veterans accused of crimes, with less attention given to victims and their families in both Britain and Ireland, who are broadly against the proposed legislation.

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The bill is also opposed by all political parties in Northern Ireland and all opposition parties at Westminster. Opening its second reading in the Lords for the government last week, Lord Caine acknowledged that he personally “found this legislation extremely challenging”.

At the reading, the former Policing Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, Baroness O’Loan, argued “the language of this bill will make the work of information retrieval from the state much more difficult”, worsening challenges faced by investigations such as Operation Kenova.

Operation Kenova is examining the activities of ‘Stakeknife’, an alleged British state agent who is said to have infiltrated the IRA, to see if there is evidence that the agent was implicated in murders and other criminal offfences attributed to the IRA. The team is also looking into whether there is evidence of crimes having been committed by members of the British Army, security services or other government personnel.

The bill isn’t victim-centred, isn’t human rights compliant and no tinkering at the edges will make it acceptable

With Kenova’s report on Stakeknife due in the new year, Alan Brecknell of the Pat Finucane Centre, which campaigns on human rights issues related to the conflict, told openDemocracy he is hopeful that the investigation would finish before the bill becomes law.

But other inquiries by the same team could be affected, including one into a series of murders by the so-called ‘Glenanne Gang’ of Ulster loyalists, which carried out shooting and bombing attacks against Catholics and nationalists in the 1970s and 1980s. British police officers and soldiers were allegedly among the gang’s members.

Brecknell’s own father, Trevor, was shot dead in a 1975 attack linked to the Glenanne Gang. Speaking to openDemocracy, he dismissed the government’s claims that the bill is necessary because victims and their families are unlikely to see ever convictions, due in part to the historic nature of the alleged crimes.

“The notion that justice cannot be achieved given the passage of time was turned on its head last Friday,” Brecknell pointed out, referring to last week’s conviction of former British soldier David Holden.

Holden was found guilty of the the 1988 manslaughter of Aidan McAnespie, a Catholic who was shot in the back after crossing through a border security checkpoint. He is the first veteran to be convicted of a historical offence since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

‘Not victim-centred’

At the second reading in the Lords last week, the government made a surprise offer of amendments to the bill, to “underpin its compliance” with the European Convention on Human Rights.

But this has been dismissed by both victims’ families and opposition politicians. Labour’s leader in the Lords, Baroness Smith, warned that “just saying that the bill is compliant does not make it compliant”.

Brecknell told openDemocracy he did not expect any significant improvements from the government’s promised amendments.

He said: “The bill isn’t victim-centred, isn’t human rights compliant and no tinkering at the edges will make this an acceptable bill.”

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Brecknell’s sentiments were echoed by the brother of 12-year-old Majella O’Hare, who was shot dead by a British soldier as she crossed a checkpoint in County Armagh in 1976.

Majella’s killer was acquitted of manslaughter in a 1977 trial, having claimed he opened fire after spotting an IRA gunman. In 2010, an investigation by the Police Service of Northern Ireland's Historical Enquiries Team found there was no evidence an IRA gunman had been in the area at the time of Majella’s death.

Micheal O’Hare told openDemocracy: “In respect of serious reconciliation, a good outcome would be for the Legacy Bill to be abandoned completely, and the rule of law applied across the board to all outstanding cases.”

Last week, Majella’s family joined forces with the relatives of British solder Private Tony Harrison to urge prime minister Rishi Sunak to scrap the legislation.

Private Harrison was shot dead by the IRA in Belfast in 1991. A Royal Ulster Constabulary informant who admitted to driving the getaway car, allegedly after having tipped off his handlers, was never charged with any offence.

The Telegraph, which claimed to have seen the co-signed letter, reported that the families acknowledged that “many might think we would be on opposite sides of this debate” but that they are united in their “grave concern about the bill and to call upon you to scrap it”.

‘The worst outcome’

Supporters of the bill have characterised state-focused investigations as ‘lawfare’, pointing out that the authoritative ‘Lost Lives’ study, carried out by four journalists and published in 1999, attributes most Troubles killings to paramilitaries and almost half to republicans.

While such figures record a stark reality there is more to the story. “Our history is very complex,” Baroness O’Loan said in the Lords. “Somehow, a situation evolved in which the police, the Army and MI5, having successfully infiltrated terrorist organisations, lost their way.”

O’Loan added: “There grew a time when many of the agents of the state currently under investigation were allowed to carry on their involvement in terrorism to preserve them as agents. People died because of this, and it should not have happened.”

Baroness Ritchie, a former leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, an Irish nationalist party in Northern Ireland, suggested that the bill was rooted in this situation.

Ritchie said: “We are faced with the worst of outcomes – an outcome that benefits and best serves state and paramilitary-vested interests, whatever the claims to the contrary. They have a shared interest and common agenda. This has been a fundamental fault line in legacy discussions over the years.”

Rather than drawing a line under the Troubles, the Legacy Bill seems set to create a new source of division.

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