Before I call the Secretary of State, I wish to make a short statement about the sub judice resolution. I have been advised that there are active legal proceedings on the legality of the Northern Ireland protocol and active legal proceedings and open inquests in relation to historic troubles-related deaths. I am exercising the discretion given to the Chair in respect of the resolution on matters of sub judice to allow full reference to the challenge to the Northern Ireland protocol as it concerns issues of national importance. Further, I am exercising that discretion to allow limited reference to active legal proceedings and open inquests in relation to the historic troubles-related deaths. However, references to these cases should be limited to the context and to the events which led to the cases but not to the detail of cases themselves, nor the names of those involved in them. All hon. Members should, however, be mindful of the matters that may be the subject of future legal proceedings and should exercise caution in making reference to individual cases.
I also wish to say something further about the actions yesterday of Colum Eastwood in naming somebody apparently subject to an anonymity order. As Members of this House, we enjoy freedom of speech. “Erskine May” states that
“a Member may state whatever they think fit in debate” and that
“the Member is protected by parliamentary privilege from any action for defamation, as well as from any other question or molestation. This freedom extends to statements which, if made out of Parliament, would breach injunctions, although this has been deprecated by the Speaker.”
Freedom of speech must, however, be used responsibly. It is a grave step to use privilege to breach a court order. As the Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions made clear:
“privilege places a significant responsibility on parliamentarians to exercise it in the public interest. The presumption should be that court orders are respected in Parliament and that when a Member does not comply with one he or she can demonstrate that it is in the public interest.”
It is for others to judge whether the action of the hon. Member for Foyle was indeed in the public interest. However, the hon. Member broke no rules of order, as his comments were made while the House was considering the Armed Forces Bill and the sub judice rule does not apply when legislation is in question.
Finally, before I call the Secretary of State, I have to deprecate the fact that, once again, a statement appears to have been extensively briefed to the media before being made to the House. That is not acceptable. That is not the way that we want to do business. I have to say that I have had a number of texts and emails on this from Members who take a very keen interest in this and who are very supportive of this issue. They are, quite rightly, disappointed that it seems more important that newspapers are the ones to carry this, not this House.
Once again, let me say—and I say it to all Secretaries of State and all Departments—that this House must hear that statement first. It should not be briefed to the newspaper 24 hours before, so, please, look and listen. If not, it will be much more difficult, as we will grant urgent questions every day to bring that Department to this Dispatch Box. Please, let us work together and let us respect Members of this House, who are, quite rightly, very concerned and want to make sure that they are involved in the statement first. I now call the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. My apologies to you and to the House. I accept the comments that you have made. I just say in my defence and in that of colleagues who have been working on this issue for the past 18 months or so that we have been having wide engagement on a range of issues that inform the statement that I am going to make. This is the first time anybody will hear or have seen this statement, apart from the advance copies that we gave to colleagues earlier as per the normal protocol, as it has always been done, not to the press. It has been important in the past few weeks and months, and will be important in the weeks ahead, to have that wide engagement with people around the issues that we are talking about, because of the complexity and sensitivity of the matter.
I would like to make a statement now about the way forward in addressing the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past.
The troubles saw a terrible, extensive period of violence that claimed the lives of some 3,500 people, left up to 40,000 people injured, and caused untold damage to all aspects of society in Northern Ireland. The Belfast/Good Friday agreement in 1998 sought to move Northern Ireland forward, setting a bold and visionary path that would guide all the people of Northern Ireland towards a shared, stable, peaceful and prosperous future.
It is wonderful to mark, in this centenary year, just how far Northern Ireland has come. While Northern Ireland is undoubtedly today a fantastic place in which to live, work and visit, the unresolved legacy of the troubles remains. It continues to impact and permeate society in Northern Ireland. The past is a constant shadow over those who directly experienced the horrors of those times, and also over those who did not but who now live with the trauma of previous generations.
It is clear that the current system for dealing with the legacy of the troubles is not working. It is now a difficult and painful truth that the focus on criminal investigations is increasingly unlikely to deliver successful criminal justice outcomes, but all the while it continues to divide communities and it fails to obtain answers for a majority of victims and families. That is borne out in the figure. The Police Service of Northern Ireland are currently considering almost 1,200 cases, which represents just a fraction of the 3,500 deaths and wider cases. These would take over 20 years to investigate. More than two thirds of troubles-related deaths occurred over 40 years ago, and it is increasingly difficult for the courts to provide families with the answers they are seeking. If we fail to act now to address, acknowledge and account for the legacy of the troubles properly, we will be condemning current and future generations to yet further division, preventing reconciliation at both the individual and societal level.
That is why I am today laying before the House, and publishing, a paper that proposes a series of measures to address the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland. These proposals are being considered as part of an ongoing and an important engagement process, which I announced alongside the Irish Government at the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference last month. As set out in the framework, which we published at the same time, that engagement process is committed to involving not just the UK and Irish Governments and the Northern Ireland parties, but those directly affected by the troubles, and experts and Members and Committees of this House and the other place. The objective of this engagement is to deal with legacy issues in a way that supports information recovery and reconciliation, complies fully with international human rights obligations and responds to the needs of individual victims and survivors, as well as society as a whole.
This is a hugely difficult and complex issue, and many have strongly held and divergent views on how to move forward, but I hope we can all agree that this is an issue that is of the utmost importance to the people of Northern Ireland and beyond. It is critical that all involved continue to engage in a spirit of collaboration in order to deliver practical solutions on this most sensitive of issues. This Government reaffirm their commitment to intensive engagement in that spirit, and we are committed to introducing legislation by the end of the autumn.
The measures set out in the paper will include three key proposals. First, a new independent body, that will focus on the recovery and provision of information about troubles-related deaths and most serious injuries. That body will be focused on helping families to find out the truth of what has happened to their loved ones. When families do not want the past raked over again, they would be able to make that clear. For those families that want to get answers, the body will have the full powers to seek access to information and find out what happened.
Secondly, a package of measures will also include a major oral history initiative, consistent with what was included in the Stormont House agreement. That initiative would create opportunities for people from all backgrounds to share their experiences and perspectives related to the troubles and, crucially, to learn about those of others. Balance and sensitivity would be of central importance and a concerted effort would be made to engage with those whose voices may not have been heard previously.
Thirdly there will be a statute of limitations, to apply equally to all troubles-related incidents. We know that the prospect of the end of criminal prosecutions will be difficult for some to accept, and this is not a position that we take lightly, but we have come to the view that it is the best and only way to facilitate an effective information retrieval and provision process, and the best way to help Northern Ireland move further along the road to reconciliation. It is a painful recognition of the very reality of where we are.
As I say, these issues are complex and they are sensitive. That is why they remain unresolved, 23 years after the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We also understand the importance of the Stormont House agreement, and remain committed to its key principles, which this paper will outline and cover. In particular, we acknowledge that any proposal that moves away from criminal justice outcomes would be a very significant step that will be extremely difficult for some families to accept.
The Belfast/Good Friday agreement was a bold step—one to address the past—and there have been other bold steps, such as the decommissioning of weapons and the limiting of sentences, all those years ago, to two years. However, it is increasingly clear to us that the ongoing retributive criminal justice processes are far from helping, and are in fact impeding the successful delivery of information recovery, mediation and reconciliation that could provide a sense of restorative justice for many more families than is currently the case.
The Government are committed to doing all in their power to ensure that families from across the United Kingdom do not continue to be let down by a process that leads only to pain, suffering and disappointment for the vast majority. As part of that, we will deliver on our commitment to veterans who served in Northern Ireland. We will provide certainty for former members of the security forces, many of whom remained fearful of the prospect of being the subject of ongoing investigations that will hang over them for years to come, even though the vast majority acted in accordance with the law, and often at great personal risk.
We are also unequivocal in our commitment to delivering for victims and survivors. Time is crucial, and as it moves on we risk the very real possibility that we will lose any chance to get the vital information that families want and need. They have waited long enough and a focus on information would offer the best chance of giving more families some sense of justice through acknowledgment, accountability and restorative means. We need to progress our understanding of the complexity of the troubles and in doing so seek to reconcile society with the past as we go on to look forward together.
This Government are determined to address all aspects of Northern Ireland’s troubled past. We know from our recent history, particularly with the implementation of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, that we can achieve more when we are bold and move forward together. I want us all to continue to engage on the shape and the detail of the proposals as we work to address this issue, which is of the utmost importance to the people of Northern Ireland and beyond.
Finally, I draw the attention of the House to a quote from Margaret Fairless Barber. I came across it when reading the report by Lord Eames and Denis Bradley into Northern Ireland’s past and I think it is worth repeating today in the House:
“To look backwards for a while is to refresh the eye, to restore it, and to render it more fit for its prime function of looking forward.”
I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement, but share your frustration, Mr Speaker, that the Government have repeatedly chosen to brief newspapers rather than to respect this House, and more importantly the victims whom these proposals concern.
In debates about Northern Ireland’s past here in Great Britain, it is all too easy to forget the victims of the conflict—people such as Brian Service, who was just 35 years old when he was shot in the head by loyalist paramilitaries in a random sectarian attack just weeks before the Good Friday agreement. After his death, his mother said she felt:
“It was as if he never really existed as a person and that his life and death did not matter.”
The deep pain of that conflict was the proximity of the violence and the absence of justice. More than 3,000 people lost their lives and tens of thousands were injured—in a place of fewer than 2 million people. Society and the peace process in general remain so fragile precisely because the pain runs so deep. It is why any proposal to deal with legacy must have victims and the communities of Northern Ireland at its heart, and that requires real care from the Secretary of State. It is therefore deeply regrettable that his approach has already seen trust among victims reach rock bottom.
Victims have been treated appallingly over the last 18 months: promises made torn up; gaslighted by the Secretary of State at this Dispatch Box. It is little wonder that many have greeted today’s proposals with deep scepticism and question whether this is more an exercise in shoring up narrow party support than in delivering the reconciliation that the communities in Northern Ireland crave.
We must not forget that this Government gave victims their word. Just 18 months ago, they promised to legislate on the Stormont House agreement in New Decade, New Approach. These proposals are a seismic departure from that promise. If the goal is reconciliation, why would the Secretary of State begin by taking a sledge- hammer to promises made by his own Government? I am afraid that to dress this up as truth and reconciliation is deeply disingenuous. As they stand, these proposals will deliver neither.
We cannot impose reconciliation and the truth will never out with an amnesty in place—because at the heart of these proposals is an amnesty in all but name, which is profoundly offensive to many. No wonder the five main political parties in Northern Ireland have objected to the proposals, as have victims’ groups right across the spectrum, including South East Fermanagh Foundation, WAVE and Relatives for Justice. Crimes committed in the United Kingdom, the vast majority of which relate to republican and loyalist murder, closed for good; no justice for the Bloody Sunday families whose cases remain live; no justice for the 21 innocent people murdered by IRA bombs on a November night in Birmingham in 1974—the deadliest act of terror in Britain until 7/7. Their families have said today that such an amnesty would be abhorrent.
As veterans of the Ulster Defence Regiment I met in Cookstown told me, “We have nothing to hide. We were there to protect the rule of law. If we broke it, use it against us. If we didn’t, defend us with it.” Ministers today appear to have concluded that the rule of law no longer applies—an amnesty for the republican and loyalist terrorists who tortured, maimed, disappeared and murdered men, women and children.
Addressing the toxic legacy of the past in this way—through unilateral imposition by Westminster without the support of any political party in Northern Ireland—is foolish and unsustainable. A way forward has to be found—one done with people, not to them, which genuinely prioritises reconciliation and upholds the rule of law. It is striking that the Secretary of State made scant reference to the Government’s obligations under article 2 to conduct effective investigations. If his proposals are not legal, they will be tied up in the courts for many years to come.
The work of Operation Kenova is demonstrating that even now, many years on, important new evidence can be retrieved. The case for a comprehensive legacy process, as outlined in Stormont House, through investigations with full police powers, remains strong and compelling. It is totally wrong to abandon it.
The Secretary of State’s deliberations concern the most shattering moments; the midnight hour of some of the darkest days seen on these islands. They concern whether families for whom the violence was so intimate will have the chance to come to terms with what happened to their loved ones. I urge him to ask himself whether society’s interests are truly served by an amnesty, or whether it is his own party’s interests that he is serving.
This is the last chance for many victims to find the truth. The Secretary of State’s decision could be the last word. On this issue, more than any other, those most affected by the dark legacy of the past must come first.
We are committed to addressing the unresolved legacy of Northern Ireland’s past so that communities can reconcile and heal. That is what the Command Paper we will publish today sets out. I suggest the hon. Lady has a look at it; she will see that some of the issues she raised are the issues we have been talking to people about and cover in that Command Paper. As I said, we are determined that anything we do is article 2 compliant.
The hon. Lady referred to Operation Kenova, which has done excellent work with victims of families to get to the bottom of the truth. In the four or five years that has been functioning, there have been no prosecutions, but there is a model in Operation Kenova about how these things can work, which gives is a clear indication of how to get to information as we move forward. That is the kind of process that it would be constructive for us to look at and deal with.
On Stormont House, it is increasingly clear—I was frank about this in my opening remarks—that any approach to dealing with the legacy of the past that focuses on criminal investigations will be unlikely to deliver the outcomes that people hope for. There comes a point when we in this House need to be honest with people about the very painful and difficult reality of where we are today, as recent cases have shown us. That is probably why the previous Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland made the comment that some of those things were simply unworkable. We are also clear that we will never accept any moral equivalence between those who upheld the law in Northern Ireland, who served their country, and those on all sides who sought to destroy it.
Let me gently say to hon. Lady that she stood there and talked about engagement, but some of the people she criticised me for not engaging with we engaged with just last week, as part of a wide range of engagement over the past 18 months that will continue. The paper is part of the tools that are ongoing and will continue in the weeks ahead.
In the light of not hearing from the hon. Lady a single thing about what the Labour party would propose as a way forward, I will finish, as I did in my opening statement, with a quote: “Instead of releasing the sort of politics that can ensure the success of the Good Friday agreement, the party is an obstacle to progressive political development.” That is a quote today from Boyd Black, the secretary of the Labour party in Northern Ireland.
The Belfast/Good Friday agreement enabled peace to come to Northern Ireland and opened up the prospect of a much brighter future for that part of the United Kingdom, but does my right hon. Friend agree that young people today and future generations will be able to enjoy that brighter future only if Northern Ireland can find a path to reconciliation and if it is able to address—and, crucially, move on from—the legacy of the past?
Yes. My right hon. Friend, who I know has had a great interest in Northern Ireland for many years, is absolutely right. It cannot be right that, 23 years on from the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, still only some 7% of children in Northern Ireland are able to enjoy integrated education. If we want to see society move forward, we need to be clear and honest with ourselves that there is much more work to do on that. She is absolutely right that we need to end the intergenerational trauma that we are seeing and find a way to help Northern Ireland move forward so that the next generation and today’s younger generation can look forward, while always understanding where we have come from and what has happened.
May I associate myself with your remarks before the statement, Mr Speaker, about the unfortunate way in which this information has entered the public domain? I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement, but we should not be reading these things on the BBC and RTÉ websites before we can discuss them in the House.
I acknowledge the untidy and imperfect nature of some of the compromises that have had to be made over the decades, first to achieve peace in Northern Ireland and then to maintain it. However, whatever merits in principle there might be in proposals surrounding aspects of truth, reconciliation and ensuring that the hidden truths of the troubles can at last be told while it is still possible, there remain huge concerns about the apparent lack of formal consultation and engagement on them.
Does the Secretary of State understand the huge concern, unease and upset that these proposals for a statute of limitations will cause, not just across Northern Ireland, but right across these islands? Will he acknowledge that unease and commit to engaging with victims’ groups and political leaders to discuss the way forward? Will he also think again about that statute of limitations and find a way to ensure, whatever final proposals he brings forward to the House, that where independent prosecutors consider that there is a sufficiency of evidence and a likelihood of successful conviction and, importantly, where they independently judge that it is in the public interest to bring forward a prosecution, they will still be able to do so?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman about making sure that we are able to get to the truth and get to information. Nobody in this House ever wants to see again a situation like the Ballymurphy case, where the families have had to wait 50 years to get to the truth. We have to find a better way forward. The current system is failing everybody, so to do nothing simply is not an option that will deliver for people in Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.
We do want to engage. We have been engaging, and not just over the past 18 months. Even last week, my officials and I engaged with victims’ groups on these very issues. In the weeks ahead, with the Command Paper for people to read through and engage with, that engagement will continue, including with the political parties and our partners in the Irish Government.
Let us go to the Chair of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs.
My right hon. Friend should be commended for trying once again, as others have done, to resolve legacy. As we do so, can we resolve not to use the language—I know that he has not done so—of drawing a line and closing a chapter? For those who suffer still, that is something unreachable. We need to show the utmost sensitivity on that point.
The work of Operation Kenova has commanded cross- community support. Where do that model and approach fit into my right hon. Friend’s thinking as he tries to pursue truth and reconciliation? How will he evolve these plans, working in concert with the Irish Government, to ensure and maximise buy-in for a joint approach? Is there a George Mitchell-like figure hovering in the wings who could be deployed to help and to act as an honest broker as we try to resolve this all-too-long issue?
I appreciate the comments of the Chairman of the Select Committee. There is a lot of work to do with our partners, not just victims and veterans—who of course are also often victims of the troubles themselves in a wider sense, and in some cases directly—but the parties in Northern Ireland and also the Irish Government. There are still a range of cases that I know exist, which the First Minister of Northern Ireland wrote to the Taoiseach about not that long ago. That is why we are looking at how we can work together on information recovery to ensure that we find a way that gets to the truth and to information that we have not yet been able to secure in a process that works for families and victims. I do think Operation Kenova is a very good example of showing how we can get to the truth and can get information in a format we have not had before. We need to accept the difficult reality that, over the last five years, it has not yet seen any successful prosecutions, but the model of how it has worked—worked with victims and with families—is an important part of the discussions to have about information recovery.
I share with my hon. Friend the view that this is never about ignoring what has happened. We should not do that, and it would be wrong to do that. We have to be conscious of our past to be able to understand and learn more about where we can go for our future, and that has to be the aim for people, including the young generation of people, in Northern Ireland.
I know this is a difficult issue, and the Secretary of State is not the first to attempt to address these matters. I think we all have to take responsibility for the failure since 1998 to deal effectively with this matter.
On this day,
Like the former Prime Minister, Mrs May, I want to take the path to reconciliation, but I cannot believe that the path to reconciliation is made easier when we sacrifice justice. The victims have to be at the centre of this, and I would urge the Secretary of State, in taking forward his proposals, to listen to their voices. This must be a victim-centred process; it cannot be at their expense.
I want Northern Ireland to move forward. I want the young generation to see a Northern Ireland that is looking to the future, not living in the past, but upholding the rule of law, after all that we have been through in Northern Ireland, is important. Justice is important and, yes, truth is important as well, but I think the Secretary of State needs now to reassure the victims that they will be part of the discussion of these proposals and that their quest for justice will not be ignored.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: victims must be a huge and important part of this process. We have been engaged with organisations such as the WAVE Trauma Centre, and I met the South East Fermanagh Foundation myself just last week. Their stories, and those of others whom I have met and talked to, are moving and in some cases, as he and many in this House will know, harrowing. He is right to talk about Members of this House, and members of my party have obviously been victims. I noticed Lord Tebbit’s powerful comments this morning about his views.
It is right that we have victims in our mind. As the right hon. Gentleman rightly outlines, we often forget that many of those who served are also victims and close to victims, which is why taking the thoughtful approach he outlines is absolutely right. It is right that there is a point at which we need to be honest with people and deal with the very painful reality of where we are and what is achievable for people. This is about acknowledging the reality of where we are with retributive justice following the sentencing Act that followed the Belfast/Good Friday agreement—the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998—and actually looking at restorative justice and reconciliation as a way forward, and at how we facilitate getting the information we need to reach accountability, truth and reconciliation. We think, after so many years of looking at this, that it is the right way forward, but I look forward to having that discussion and debate with him and with others.
For many families who lost loved ones during the troubles, the chances of achieving a criminal justice outcome are vanishingly small, which is leading, understandably, to pain, suffering and disappointment. Despite that, however, for many of them the proposal to apply a statute of limitations will be extremely difficult to accept. So will my right hon. Friend assure me that he is working with communities on all sides to ensure that everybody’s voice is heard?
Yes, I can absolutely give that assurance. We have been doing so over the past 18 months, and with wider civic society as well. We were certainly doing so in the intensive talks that began after the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference on
In October 1990, Patsy Gillespie was abducted from his home by the IRA. His family were told he would be back soon, while being held at gunpoint. Patsy was then chained to the driver’s seat of a van filled with explosives and forced at gunpoint to drive that van to a nearby Army base. The IRA then remotely detonated the bomb, killing Patsy and five soldiers. Will the Secretary of State come with me and explain to his widow Kathleen why he wants to protect his killers from prosecution and even investigation?
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman tends in this House, as we saw yesterday, to use emotive comments for soundbites, often for his own social media outlet. To use somebody’s harrowing experience and loss in that way says much about him. I would happily meet any victims to talk to them about the experience they have been through and why we need to be honest with them about what is achievable and how we help Northern Ireland to move forward in a positive way, rather than continuing to use harrowing experiences like that for political ends in the way he has done in the past 24 hours.
I particularly welcome your opening statement, Mr Speaker, about the way in which this information came out today.
Many years ago, I was called to serve in Northern Ireland. I did not ask to go and it was a terrible thought that I had to carry a rifle amongst members and citizens of the United Kingdom. I, like many others, lost a friend. Robert Nairac was captured, taken prisoner, tortured and murdered, and his body has never been found. His parents died never knowing where he was or what happened to him. The Good Friday agreement, with its associations, and also the letters of comfort that followed have meant pretty much that many of us have now accepted, sadly, that we will never really know the truth about what happened to that brave man. I simply say today that this process, which is four years in the making—I do upbraid the Secretary of State for not having brought forward legislation at least giving us an idea of what the Government are planning—will not be beloved of anybody, but I do recognise, sincerely, that if we are to move forward we will all have to make some kind of sacrifice. My only concern is that the vexatious pursuit of soldiers who served, like many of us did, because that is what their country called them to do, should end and they themselves be seen as victims.
My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point. As he will appreciate, I know about the Robert Nairac case, which is a very good example of where we have not been able to get to information. That is why it is important to try to work with our partners, with the Irish Government and potentially the United States as well on how we can find a way forward that delivers information in a way that we have just not been able to do so far, and what allows us to step forward and do that. As I say, I think these proposals give us the basis for doing that.
My right hon. Friend also makes a very powerful point, which I absolutely accept, about legislation. He, my right hon. Friend Mr Francois and others in this House have, for a very long time, made the case for needing to move this issue forward, and I absolutely accept that they want to see that delivered as quickly as possible. He makes a very strong, powerful point that I support; I alluded to it earlier and it is worth making again. Those who served their country with honour, to protect life and to protect their country, are victims as well and have just as important a voice in this as anybody else in looking at how we move things forward for the people of Northern Ireland.
These shameful proposals are an insult to all victims and indeed to many veterans who served honourably. They do not draw a line but rather cross the line of justice and the rule of law. It is staggering that the Government are contemplating an amnesty, including for IRA and loyalist terrorists, in order to address this false narrative of vexatious investigations into veterans. There is near universal disapproval of these proposals in Northern Ireland. Can the Secretary of State give an assurance that he will not seek to impose these one-sided proposals over the heads of local parties in Northern Ireland and of victims’ groups across the spectrum?
I just say to the hon. Gentleman, as I said earlier, that there is a very important difference here. This is a statute of limitations. We are not pardoning terrorists for the heinous crimes that they committed. We are very clear as a Government that we will never accept any moral equivalence between those who upheld the law and served their country and the citizens of Northern Ireland, and those on all sides who sought to destroy it. I absolutely want to find a way to work through this with people in Northern Ireland—parties, civic society, representatives of the victims groups and victims themselves—to find a way forward. I ask him to look carefully at what we are talking about and engage positively on how we are looking to deal with information recovery in a way that means we can get to the truth, and with truth comes accountability. The way in the past 23 years has failed everybody. There has to be a better way of doing this and there is a duty on all of us to find it.
Having served on three operational tours, I have some knowledge of the Province and more about the ongoing witch hunt of our veterans. Of course, I welcome any move to try to end this injustice, but I am afraid that I do not believe that former terrorists, on both sides of the sectarian divide, will now participate in a truth recovery process, if I have understood my right hon. Friend correctly. This is not South Africa. Does he agree that it is time for the long-awaited and frequently discussed and promised Bill, not further discussions?
As I said to my right hon. Friend Sir Iain Duncan Smith, I do recognise the desire of colleagues to see legislation and they will see legislation before the end of the autumn. I would have liked to bring legislation forward earlier, but it is important that we are working with our partners, not just the Irish Government, as I have outlined, but interested parties and political parties in Northern Ireland, to find a way forward if we can. This paper is intended to inform those discussions in the next few weeks so that we can find a mutual way forward. I recognise my hon. Friend’s point about who will and will not come forward with the information, but one challenge of the situation at the moment is that information is not coming forward. If we do not find a way of doing something different, we are, sadly, in a position where, because of time, that information will no longer be with us. We believe it is time to do something bold and different to find a way forward that can get to the truth, as far as we can, to get answers for families who have waited for far too long, as well as to help Northern Ireland to move forward.
The Secretary of State’s statement today is a quite remarkable achievement. I have followed Northern Ireland politics all my adult life and I can think of very few occasions when Secretaries of State in this place have been able to unite all five parties in Northern Ireland, but he today has achieved exactly that. They are, however, all united in telling him that on the question of an amnesty he is wrong. He stands at the Dispatch Box today and says that he makes no moral equivalence between those who broke the law and those who upheld it. Why then is he offering them all legal equivalence?
I am sure people would have asked our predecessors those sort of questions with the equivalence that came from the Belfast/Good Friday agreement under the Labour Government at the time of that agreement and the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 that followed it. That is the reality of where we are. As I have said, there is a difficult, painful reality of where we are and the situation where we are in: the reality of not seeing prosecutions and painfully being honest with victims about what is achievable. In the conversations that Operation Kenova and I have had, people have talked, as we have seen in the past 24 hours, about wanting to get to the truth, get to information and get an understanding in many cases of what actually happened. The current system is not working and we need to find a different way forward to do something that can make a difference to get to the truth. That is what we want to achieve with a proper, genuine, delivering information recovery process.
Yes, absolutely. I do not underestimate, and I do appreciate, as I said in my opening remarks, the fact that this is a very difficult, sensitive and complex situation. I appreciate that we are asking people to take a very big step. That is why we want to engage intensively over the weeks ahead, but we are being very honest with people: we need to do something different. The status quo has failed and we need to find a different way forward. I hope we will be able to do that in the weeks ahead, before we legislate in the autumn.
Can the Secretary of State honestly think of any circumstance where he would say to the families of victims of murder anywhere else in the United Kingdom—including Northern Ireland, under different circumstances—that an amnesty was the way to bring them reconciliation and peace? If not, how does he say to the families of victims of the troubles that this is the correct way forward? Far from this practically meaning that we will move towards reconciliation, if he carries on with it, he will set up another wave of intercommunal unhappiness. That cannot be the way forward.
Where I agree with the hon. Gentleman is on the desire to end the intergenerational challenge and trauma that we are seeing, with families and people now with us who were simply not alive at the time of the troubles and have no recollection of just how dreadful a situation that was for Northern Ireland. We need to stop this intergenerational issue.
I will say in direct answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question that the troubles represent a uniquely troubled time in our history. The Good Friday/Belfast agreement itself acknowledged that. In focusing on a shared future for Northern Ireland, we sometimes need to make difficult decisions in relation to the past, as his colleagues did and as our colleagues did back at the time of the Belfast agreement. We are in a different situation in Northern Ireland with the troubles from most other crimes because of the sentencing Act that followed the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We need to be honest about that and deal with the reality of where we are, however difficult that may be.
I have had the privilege of working closely alongside the Secretary of State on legacy for much of the past six months, and I believe he is on to something. This is difficult work and it involves compromise, so I am slightly baffled by some of the negativity that I have encountered, both today and previously, with regard to the statute. I think that we in Westminster have a responsibility to get behind my right hon. Friend. Does he agree that his emerging statute will not just unpick and end this unpalatable cycle of vexatious behaviour, but help to create a strategic environment in Northern Ireland whereby truth, reconciliation and alternative forms of dispute resolution can flourish, for the benefit of future peace and stability?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and the experience that he has shared with our Department over the last period. He has huge experience of serving in the armed forces and in Northern Ireland, and of the reality on the ground. Our intention is absolutely as he outlined. He is absolutely right that the focus has to be to find a way, ultimately, to ensure that families in Northern Ireland—those families who want it—can get to the truth and that, as a wider society in Northern Ireland, we can share and understand what happened and find a way to look forward to the future positively.
I thank the Secretary of State for coming to the House to make his statement. Let me put on the record that the Democratic Unionist party does not support an amnesty for terrorist killers at all. Can the Secretary of State understand why legacy issues leave a bitter taste in the mouth of so many in the Province, who have seen hundreds of millions spent on inquiry after inquiry to ostensibly further the republican agenda to rewrite history to make their abhorrent atrocities seem acceptable? There can be no equivalence whatsoever between the soldier and the police officer who served our country, and those cowardly terrorists who hid behind masks and terrorised under the cover of darkness. We find, honestly, any such attempt at equivalence deeply offensive.
I absolutely understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes with clarity and passion, as I know he has done before. Obviously, as I said, the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and the sentencing Act that followed it created an equivalence legally, in the sense of how we deal legally with the troubles of the past, certainly in terms of sentencing. That is the reality we are dealing with.
That is why I make the point that there is absolutely no question that we would ever accept a moral equivalence between those who served their country, protected life and put themselves at risk—clearly, many suffered injury and loss of life as well, hence I agree that many of those who served are victims too—and those terrorists who put Northern Ireland through, as Louise Haigh rightly outlined, a dark and dreadful period of the troubles that prevented it from moving forward in an economic way, which we are still seeing the fallout from today.
That is why, some 23 years on from the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, we need to be honest about the difficult reality of that, what it means and what we need to do to take that big step to look at how we free society—the young of today and tomorrow—to move forward in a positive way, but never forgetting the past and what happened.
I say to the Secretary of State more in sorrow than in anger that, after four years of promising to do something about this, after two general election manifestos, after endless promises at the Dispatch Box, not just from him but from the Prime Minister, and after he privately assured the veterans’ support group many weeks ago that we would see the Second Reading of a Bill by the summer recess, what do we have today? A consultation document.
The Secretary of State has promised to introduce legislation by the end of the autumn. That means First Reading by Christmas. It will undoubtedly be a controversial Bill, so we will be lucky to get it on to the statute book by next summer. That means that our veterans, many of whom are in the autumn of their lives and many are in ill health, will have to undergo the sword of Damocles for at least another year. I say to our procrastinating Secretary of State: you are the boy who cried wolf once too often. After four years, where is your Bill, Brandon?
My right hon. Friend has highlighted the seriousness with which we are taking our engagement. He is quite right that, as I said in the statement, I would have liked to have brought legislation to the House before the summer recess. I committed back in January or February to update the House on where we were before the summer recess, which I am doing. I would have liked to have had a Bill’s Second Reading before the summer recess, but the reality is that the Irish Government have agreed to come into talks with us, which we agreed formally on
I absolutely accept my right hon. Friend’s point about how long it is taking. He has shown dogged determination over a very long period to deliver for veterans in Northern Ireland as well as more widely. I am determined that we will end the cycle of investigations for veterans, which—he is right—has gone on for far too long. I have heard his quote about me a couple of times now, and I will have to take it on the chin until I can prove otherwise by bringing forward legislation that ensures that we can end the cycle of investigations that is treating our veterans unfairly and serving nobody. The system in Northern Ireland is not getting to the truth and not getting to information, and therefore it is not allowing that society to move forward and reconcile. All of that must come together as a package. We are determined to do that in partnership with people and to do that at speed.
Is it the case that vexatious complaints are only half the story and that, as of today, if trials are proposed as the outcome of inquests or the Kenova investigation, they are now redundant? Will the Secretary of State confirm whether live cases against people such as Rita O’Hare, John Downey and Owen Carron will cease to exist? Will those people get off scot-free? What is the true outcome of the proposals?
The hon. Gentleman has highlighted some of the challenges in how we deal with such issues and move forward in this difficult reality. As we work through some of the details in the weeks ahead, we will talk to victims’ groups, political parties and people such as him to take things on board to ensure that, when we do legislate, we can help Northern Ireland move forward and have everything dealt with in a genuinely holistic way so that if we say we will end the unfair cycle of investigations that is serving nobody, we can do so properly.
Margaret Valente was just 30 years old when, in 1980, her husband was abducted by the Provisional IRA and held captive for three days before being murdered. Ten years later, her son-in-law was brutally murdered by the Ulster Volunteer Force. To this day, she has no idea whether there was a thorough investigation into either murder. How can the Secretary of State stand there and say that the response to this staggering failure of justice for Margaret and hundreds like her must be to close the book altogether and cruelly deny her any chance of finding the truth about what happened to her loved ones? Would Conservative Ministers be so insensitive about coming up with such ludicrous legislation if a member of their own family had been such a victim?
Mr Dhesi has just demonstrated that he has paid no real attention to what we have been talking about, and is clearly not up to speed with what we have been discussing with parties, victims groups and veterans in relation to these proposals. I suggest that he has a look at the Command Paper, because quite the opposite is true. The very fact that those victims have not been able to get to the truth is the issue with which we need to deal, and it is why the information recovery part of this is so important. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman looks carefully at the Command Paper and also looks at what I said in my opening statement, which he should have done before standing up and making a comment that was so far from the truth that it almost did not bear answering.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that these proposals are practically identical to those presented by the Defence Committee in its report of April 2017? Does he accept that the time will never come when there will be agreement between all parties, and that it is up to the Government to decide what they are going to do and do it? Does he accept that the vexatious pursuit of soldiers cannot be stopped without a statute of limitations, and that a statute of limitations to conform with international law cannot be selective? Finally, does he accept that a truth recovery mechanism fulfils the requirement of international law for a proper inquiry, and that that is the only way in which people will be likely to reveal what happened—when they no longer have to fear prosecution, which would in any case almost certainly fail?
My right hon. Friend has huge expertise and experience in these matters. The Select Committee report is indeed very clear, and goes into great detail about how this can work. My right hon. Friend is also absolutely right—which should surprise none of us—in his understanding of why the information recovery, truth and reconciliation part of this is so important. Not only is it the means for us to move Northern Ireland forward, but—here I return to what I said at the beginning of my statement—it is the means to ensure that what we do is compliant with human rights and article 2. To that end, we need to ensure that the information recovery mechanism is very clear, very focused and able to deliver, and, as we know from examples such as Operation Kenova, that can be done.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the expertise and advice that he has been able to provide, in the Committee’s report and subsequently. What he has said is absolutely right.
I will now suspend the House for a few minutes so that arrangements can be made for the next item of business.