3 September 2022
British government demonstrates no regard for victims and survivors with Legacy Bill
Legacy, victims and dealing with the past has been a defining political issue from the Good Friday Agreement (1998). However, it wasn’t until the negotiations at Stormont House (2014) that a comprehensive approach, and architecture, was broadly agreed to deal with the legacy of the past.
The Stormont House Agreement (2014) provided the broad political architecture on devising key legacy mechanisms that included the creation of:
- A Historical Investigation Unit (HIU) an independent unit which would conduct Article 2 compliant investigations;
- An Independent Commission on Information Recovery (ICIR) an independent international body established by treaty by the Irish and British Governments. This body would allow victims and survivors of the conflict to seek and privately receive information about the circumstances surrounding the death of their loved ones;
- An Implementation and Reconciliation Group (IRG) a body to oversee themes and patterns of the conflict while promoting reconciliation and,
- An Oral History Archive (OHA) designed to provide a central place where citizens from all backgrounds could share their experiences and narratives of the conflict
This Agreement was endorsed by both Governments and the main parties in the North. The British Government had responsibility for overseeing and drafting legislation to give legislative effect to the Agreement. The drafting of this Bill involved both Governments and all the main parties with every line being painstaking negotiated.
In October 2018, the draft Bill was put out to the public for consultation. Two key themes emerged from the consultation. Firstly, there was public endorsement for the broad architecture of the Stormont House Agreement (SHA) legacy mechanisms. Secondly, there was universal opposition to any attempt to introduce a statute of limitations or amnesty for conflict related offences. Even with political and public endorsement of the Stormont House Agreement legacy mechanisms the British Government delayed the introduction of the agreed draft Bill.
Sinn Féin’s consistent focus in the negotiations was to ensure that the needs of all victims would be respected and that all options, investigative, information recovery and story-telling, remained open for Families. We were clear during the negotiations that all victims should be treated with equality, dignity and respect. And that acknowledging the human impact of all pain and loss was core to creating the necessary environment to progress the legacy mechanisms and to begin to deal with the legacy of the past.
In our Party response to the Legacy Consultation in 2018, we cautioned that the opportunity presented by the Stormont House Agreement to deal with the past must not be squandered or compromised during the legislative process, be subject to a British national security veto or the demands of the British military lobby.
Yet here we are in that very position; a position where despite broad public endorsement for the architecture of the Stormont House Agreement and a clear rejection of any amnesty, the British government, in the most calculated and cynical manner has gone solo on legacy as they are now progressing their own Legacy Bill through Westminster.
The British government have long departed from the broad consensus that existed around the Stormont House Agreement. It is clear they have much to conceal and cover-up from their dirty war in Ireland.
The reason why they have taken this course of action is simple. Those in the political echelons know what is coming down the line and which will further expose the role of the British State in Ireland. There are those in Downing Street who know the extent of collusion and State murder because it was they, and their predecessors, who planned it. And that is why they are resisting any form of independent scrutiny of their conflict role. It has been victims’ families, with their advocates and legal advisors who have been driving the process of independent accountability.
At its core the British government Bill will provide an amnesty for British state forces and deny families their basic legal rights to an inquest, an independent investigation and to pursue civil actions. The political choice that they have made is to place the demands of the British military lobby above the needs and rights of victims. The common view of many families is that the Bill has been designed with the sole focus of protecting British personnel from independent investigations and prosecutions. And in so doing it will place a statutory bar on the PSNI and Police Ombudsman from conducting historical investigations.
The unilateral actions by the British government will undermine the key human rights commitments and architecture of the Good Friday Agreement. This is political interference of the worst kind in basic legal process which will have far reaching implications for confidence levels in the rule of law and the administration of justice.
These legacy proposals are not only opposed by Sinn Féin but also the Irish government, all political parties across Ireland, the Executive Justice Minister Naomi Long, victims’ groups, Families and the Churches.
Much of the critique of the British Legacy Bill is that it is unworkable, it will not deliver for victims and survivors, it is in breach of the Good Friday Agreement, and that it is incompatible with Article 2 obligations. The Legacy Bill has been also heavily criticised internationally by the UN, senior US political figures and the Council of Europe on human rights grounds.
Just this week Dunja Mijatović, Human Rights commissioner for the Council of Europe said the Bill runs a very significant risk of being ruled unlawful by courts and that it would deprive families of their access to convention rights.
For Sinn Féin, any approach to legacy matters must be human rights compliant, must uphold the rights of victims and must uphold the rule of law. The rights of victims are not there to be cherry picked or traded by a government who was a protagonist in the conflict.
The Bill has caused great anger among Families. Halting and denying access to basic legal process is another slap in the face to the many victims and families and it is the price for delivering a Tory manifesto commitment that prioritises the demands of the British military over the legal rights of victims. Many feel that this Bill will quite literally pull the shutters down on their Family campaigns for truth and justice.
The incoming British Prime Minister must now listen to the voices of victims and families and bin this flawed legislation without further delay.
That is why Families have again been taking to the streets to demonstrate their anger and to stand up against the British government.
And that is why Sinn Féin will be supporting Families at the Time for Truth Rally in Belfast on Sunday 11 September.
The meeting points for onward rally to Belfast City Hall on Sunday 11 September at 12:00 noon will be at Divis Tower, Falls Road, the McGurks Memorial, North Queen Street and Cromac Square in Belfast City Centre.