No reasoned amendment has been selected.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The troubles represented a terrible period in Northern Ireland’s past and in these islands as a whole. They claimed the lives of some 3,500 people in Northern Ireland, across Great Britain and in Ireland. They left tens of thousands injured and they 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 to the vision, bravery and determination of those who forged the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. It is also a testament to the sacrifice of those men and women who went out each morning to uphold democracy and save lives, rather than those who went out to take them.
Looking around today, I see many wonderful examples of a transformed, inclusive, peaceful Northern Ireland, yet despite this exceptional progress, the troubles continue to cast a shadow over all those impacted and over wider society. Community tensions and divisive politics can undermine stability. This legacy of the troubles is an issue that successive Governments have attempted but ultimately been unable to resolve, because it concerns one of the most complex, sensitive and difficult periods in our country’s history, but we cannot stand by and do nothing; we cannot let the status quo continue. To do that 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 United Kingdom who still seek answers about what happened to their loved ones, in some cases more than 50 years ago.
This Government recognise the huge challenges involved in seeking to address Northern Ireland’s past. We have a responsibility to ensure that future generations do not suffer in the same way as those who have gone before them. With every year that goes by, the opportunity to obtain answers for those who lost loved ones in the troubles diminishes further. We have a responsibility to ensure that children can grow up together, be educated together and understand all aspects of our shared past—a past that, at times, 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, acknowledgment or 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 the difficulty in securing sufficient evidence, means that victims and their families very rarely, if ever, obtain the outcome they seek from the process.
We need to 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 arguably 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 are introducing legislation that seeks to address this most difficult and sensitive of issues.
The Secretary of State mentioned those who served in uniform. I remind him gently and kindly, but seriously as well, that my cousin Kenneth Smyth and his friend Daniel McCormick, both in the Ulster Defence Regiment, neither of whom were able to—excuse me. No IRA man was ever made accountable for their murders 51 years ago. Stuart Montgomery, a wee 20-year-old police officer was murdered outside Pomeroy—no IRA man was ever made accountable for his murder. John Birch, Steven Smart, John Bradley and Michael Adams, the four UDR men killed at Ballydugan, four men who served this country in uniform—no one was made accountable for their murders.
Secretary of State, you can understand the angst and the agony that I have on behalf of my constituents. I want to have the justice that they have been denied for over 50 years—in the case of the four UDR men, for 32 years this Sunday past. What are you doing to make sure that happens?
The hon. Gentleman gives a powerful and clear outline of the difficulty and pain that people feel, as he has just shown, in this very complex and sensitive area. He makes that point better than almost anybody else could. He touches on the very challenge we face, as we have seen over the past few decades, with the failure of the current system to bring that accountability, understanding and truth for people. As I will outline over the next few minutes, through this legislation we want to achieve an outcome that means people get the truth, with which comes accountability. He is right to focus on that for his constituents.
Like Jim Shannon, I have met many victims of the violence and the loved ones of those who died. They still want the Stormont House agreement to be implemented. The Secretary of State has to account for this. The civil proceedings on the Ormeau Road events revealed a lot of detail, as did the Kingsmill and Ballymurphy inquests. They all revealed truths that had not been known. What the Secretary of State describes as an adversarial approach to seeking justice actually works. This will disappear and he has to account for that.
It is not going to disappear. What we are looking to do is to have a full, independent, investigative, article 2-compliant process. I will touch on that in the next few minutes.
I will just make a bit of progress and then take some more interventions.
Drawing its core principles from the important work and principles of Stormont House, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, this legislation focuses on effective and timely information recovery, and the answers and accountability that come with it, for both families and survivors, as well as aiding reconciliation and helping society move forward.
The Bill will deliver on our manifesto commitment to the veterans of our armed forces, security services and the Royal Ulster Constabulary by providing the men and women who served to protect life in Northern Ireland with the certainty they also deserve. Many of them, of course, are also victims, or friends and family of victims.
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 the protection of the rule of law many decades ago. With this Bill, our veterans will 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.
I acknowledge the many hon. and right hon. Members on both sides of the House, particularly my right hon. Friend Mr Francois and my hon. Friend Johnny Mercer, as well as my right hon. Friends the Members for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) and for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) and Dan Jarvis, who have campaigned tirelessly and with great dignity on this issue. Indeed, I recognise that many victims and veterans groups more widely 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, and my team and I have done just that over the last 10 months. We have heard the pain and perspectives of people from all viewpoints and communities. During those conversations, we repeatedly had to confront the very painful reality that, with more than two thirds of troubles-related cases now 40 years old, the prospect of successful prosecutions is vanishingly small, which is why this legislation marks a definitive shift in focus by having information recovery for families at its core.
In all candour, I do not envy the Secretary of State’s task. He describes it as painful, difficult and sensitive. All those words are absolutely correct, but this is not the first time we have been in this situation. Since the days of John Major and Tony Blair, the only way we have been able to make progress is to get everybody together to build consensus and then introduce legislation. It is surely already apparent from today’s debate that the Secretary of State does not have that consensus, so what does he hope to achieve by introducing this legislation?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point. As I said, it is widely acknowledged that this is a very difficult and painful area on which there has not been consensus. There was not even full cross-party consensus on Stormont House. That is why there are times like this when, having listened to everybody—the political parties, the victims groups and the veterans groups—it is sometimes for us in Government to take those difficult decisions to find a way forward that can deliver a better outcome for people.
I think I heard my name in the list the Secretary of State read out earlier.
As early as April 2017, the Select Committee on Defence recommended a statute of limitation combined with a truth recovery process. One reason we felt able to recommend this is that the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 meant that no one, no matter how many murders they had committed, could face a jail sentence of longer than two years, which meant being released in one year or 18 months at most. So there is no question of punishment fitting the crime, and there is no question of it not being the same for service personnel and terrorists—the Act has already established that—so the question is, what will stop the process, because the process of trying elderly veterans is the punishment, rather than the sentence.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. I am very aware that the Defence Committee has published two reports in this area, and they are well worth reading. They recognise the changes that mean the criminal justice system for these cases is not like the criminal justice system for other types of crime across the United Kingdom. The reality is that, after the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, we had the 1998 Act and decommissioning, among other things that I will touch on in a moment, and it means that we in Government are looking at what we can do, based on the reality of where we are, with a very difficult and imperfect situation that has developed through difficult decisions made in the past, to deliver a better outcome in the future.
It is also about understanding that, regrettably, a distorted narrative of the past has developed over time. This legislation will help to ensure that more victims and survivors, some 90% of whom are of course victims of terrorist violence, are able to obtain answers about those who caused it.
The person who killed Lexie Cummings, who was murdered in Strabane, escaped across the border with an on-the-run letter. Where is the justice for Lexie Cummings’ family, when his killer has an on-the-run letter, gets away with it and now has a prominent role in a political party across the border? Where is the justice, Secretary of State?
I applaud the intent of the Bill and I want to see the end of the harassing of our veterans—people who have served this country well in uniform. My right hon. Friend talks of accountability a lot. Where is the accountability in the granting of immunity to people who have murdered or seriously maimed other people?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. One of the things that has been clear in talking to victims groups, and obviously one of the challenges of this issue is that different people, even within the same family, can have very different views about what they see as a successful outcome for their family, in terms of finding a resolution, or information and understanding. With that information and understanding, as the Bill will outline, can come accountability. It is right that we have accountability, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East, who was Chairman of the Defence Committee, outlined in his report, we cannot have justice in the sense of the punishment fitting the crime following what was done in the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act. I will touch on that in a few moments.
I am listening carefully to my right hon. Friend. May I ask him a linked question? Is not one of the problems that those who can be pursued through the courts tend to be those who were working on behalf of the Government, because there are records, which are well kept and in huge detail? There is little in the way of records on those who committed terrorist acts, on whichever side of the community. What, in general and specific terms, will happen to the letters of comfort that have caused such chaos in many of those cases?
My right hon. Friend makes the same point, and I will deal with that issue specifically in a few moments.
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, and carefully. We understand that, no matter how small the prospect of a successful criminal justice outcome, that possibility is something that they do not want to see removed entirely, and I know that, despite the changes we have made, this legislation will none the less remain challenging for some.
I want to say directly to all those individuals and their families that I, and we as a Government, respect the personal tragedies that drive their determination to seek the truth and accountability for the losses that they have suffered. I share that determination. The Government are not asking and would never ask them to forget what they have been through in the name of reconciliation. This is about finding a way to obtain information and provide accountability more quickly and comprehensively than the current system can and in a way that aids reconciliation both for them 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 helping us to understand the sheer frustration and hurt that they feel over the loss of loved ones. Every tragedy remains raw, as we have seen even this afternoon in this Chamber, with the pain of many as strong today as it was on the day it happened.
I have a question about engagement with the Command Paper. The Secretary of State will know that virtually every victims group and every political party had major concerns about that. With whom have the Secretary of State and his officials engaged on the details of the revised legislation? As far as I can see, not a single victims group in Northern Ireland has been engaged with on the details, never mind supports it. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which the Government have a statutory duty to consult, have not been engaged with. The political parties in Northern Ireland have not been engaged with. So who exactly have the Government engaged with on the Bill before us today specifically?
I do not recognise that description of events from the hon. Gentleman. There has been wide engagement on this, both with the political parties, including his own just last week, and with parties more widely.
The first part of the Bill provides that, for the purposes of this legislation, the period of the troubles is defined as beginning on
We recognise the importance of the new commission being able to deliver its functions with absolute independence. This will be crucial to gaining the trust of families, survivors and individuals who decide to engage in the information recovery process. That is why the UK Government will have absolutely no involvement in the commission’s decision-making process. The new commission will have all the necessary policing powers to conduct its own thorough investigations, including the ability to compel witnesses and test forensics. The body will be supported for the first time by a legal requirement for full disclosure from UK Government Departments, security services and arm’s length bodies to make sure that it can gather all the evidence that it needs to establish what happened in each case.
I recognise that my right hon. Friend and the Government are doing their level best in good faith to deal with a sensitive and intractable situation. Does he recognise that the establishment of the Goldstone commission in South Africa, which is not an exact parallel but has similarities, was itself beset by considerable controversy at the beginning, but its ultimate success was largely due to the stature and integrity of Justice Richard Goldstone as its chair? He was a former Supreme Court judge of South Africa and a former prosecutor for the international tribunals in both Yugoslavia and Rwanda, so a man of impeccable integrity and independence. Will my right hon. Friend make sure that, when we look for someone to be the chief commissioner, that is exactly the sort of person we will seek—someone with experience in these jurisdictions, but not necessarily even from the UK jurisdiction? Having someone of that level of standing will be critical, will it not, for the credibility of the decisions that the commission will be entrusted with?
My hon. Friend is right in the example that he gives. I will reference another one later. Operation Kenova has been successfully led and was also regarded with some scepticism at the beginning. It has shown that a piece of work, if properly done by the right people, can gain credibility, acceptance and understanding. My hon. Friend gives a good outline of exactly how this can be taken forward in a successful way for people.
I commend the Government for doing all they can to deal with this sensitive issue—as we have seen today. Having served in Northern Ireland for three tours, I quite understand where the sensitivity comes from. If this commission is going to find the truth, the likelihood is, as my right hon. Friend Sir Iain Duncan Smith has said, that on the soldiers’ side the evidence is there but for terrorists on both sides of the divide, it is not. How are the victims going to get the peace that we all want them to have when the truth is unlikely ever to be found?
My hon. Friend makes a good and important point. He is quite right. One of the challenges is the point about balance that I made a few moments ago. As we go forward it is important, first, that records will be made available in a way that they have not been made before, going beyond what we have done before with a legal duty for the first time on Government Departments, agencies and bodies, which will mean that a whole range of information will be available for the commission to look at. Of course, if people come forward with information, particularly in a demand-led process, as I will outline in a few moments, it will provide an opportunity for people to seek the investigation of crimes by an investigatory body with the right kinds of powers. Those crimes were committed in the vast majority, as he has rightly outlined, by terrorists who went out to do harm in Northern Ireland.
We as a Government accept that, as part of this process, information will be released into the public domain that may well be uncomfortable for everyone. It is important that we as a Government acknowledge our shortcomings, as we have done previously in relation to that immensely challenging period. It is also important, as hon. Friends have said this afternoon, that others do the same. Some families have told us that they do not want to revisit the past, and we must respect that. The new commission will therefore be demand-led, taking forward investigations if requested to do so by survivors 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 can fulfil their obligations under the European convention on human rights.
The Secretary of State used an interesting phrase when he said that others must play their part. On the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, we have heard evidence of hundreds of people being murdered along the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland but the terrorists having then fled to the safety of the Republic of Ireland for sanctuary and stayed there. What assistance, if any, has the Republic of Ireland given? Will any evidence that is gathered there never be made available to the commission in Northern Ireland? Will we therefore have a blindsided, one-sided process that does not allow the Republic of Ireland to be held to account for its covering over and hiding of terrorists for decades?
I know that the hon. Gentleman and other colleagues have previously raised cases with both me and the Irish Government. One thing that was outlined in the papers that were signed off and agreed by me and the Minister for Foreign Affairs in the Irish Government around a year ago was that the Irish Government also committed to bringing forward legislation in Ireland on information recovery, to deal with that very point.
I have not seen it yet, but I hope we will soon see something from the Irish Government to ensure that in both jurisdictions we are working to make sure that people have as much access to information as possible.
Written reports of the commission’s findings will be provided to the families or survivors who request an investigation. The reports will also be made publicly available, to provide accountability by ensuring that wider society can access the commission’s findings and understand and acknowledge the events of the past.
After we published our Command Paper, many individuals and organisations told us that an unconditional statute of limitations for all troubles-related offences was just too painful to accept. They said that we must not close the door on the possibility of prosecutions, however remote the chances might be. We have also heard from those in our veterans community who are uncomfortable with any perceived moral equivalence between those who went out to protect life and uphold the rule of law and terrorists who were intent on causing harm. Of course, there never could be a moral equivalence of that type.
For the reasons I have just set out, we have adjusted our approach to make this a conditional model. To gain immunity, individuals must provide, if asked, an account to the new commission that is true to the best of their knowledge and belief. That condition draws parallels with aspects of the truth and reconciliation commission that was implemented in South Africa, as my hon. Friend Sir Robert Neill outlined. The commission will require individuals to acknowledge their involvement in serious troubles-related incidents and to reveal what they know.
Let me turn to a point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green and others. The provisions will also apply to individuals who have previously been provided with the so-called on-the-run letters, or letters of comfort. When issued, those letters confirmed whether or not an individual was wanted by the police, based on evidence held at that time. However, I want to be crystal clear that the letters have absolutely no legal standing and cannot be used to prevent prosecution under this new approach.
On the OTR letters, some of us stated at the time, and have done since, that the only way that the people of Northern Ireland and across the UK will be able to understand and believe that the OTR letters are null and void is when a person in receipt of such a letter stands in a court of law and the judge says, “Irrelevant. The case will proceed.”
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. That is why I made the point I just made, which I will repeat because I want to be absolutely clear about this: these letters have no legal standing. They cannot and will not be accepted and they cannot be used to prevent prosecution under this new approach. The new body’s investigations will continue regardless of people holding those kind of letters.
I am just going to make a bit of progress.
It is crucial that people with the right level of expertise take the important decisions, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst outlined. That is why a judge-led panel will make the decisions about whether immunity should be awarded, aided by guidance that we will publish prior to any such decisions being made.
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, outlined by others this afternoon, that have already fundamentally altered the criminal justice model in Northern Ireland for troubles-related offences.
Let me ask my right hon. Friend a specific question. If somebody who committed a terrorist act appears before the truth and reconciliation commission and, during that appearance, talks a lot about what happened and names names, including the name of somebody who was involved in such a crime with them but refuses to give evidence to the commission, will the courts use the evidence provided as part of the truth and reconciliation process to prosecute the individual who refuses to testify before the commission?
Yes. I will go further: as we will outline in guidance, people will not be able to benefit if they come forward at the last moment. They have to engage at the point when they are asked. The short answer to my right hon. Friend’s question is yes.
I welcome the fact that after four years and two general election manifestos, the Government have finally brought forward the Bill that they have been promising the House for so long, but will the Secretary of State reassure me and my colleagues on one very important point? There are suggestions that the reconciliation process could take five years or longer. Many of our veterans are in the autumn of their lives, many are in poor health and some may well pass away before we get to that point. Will the Secretary of State reassure me and the House that this legislation, which was advertised as bringing vexatious prosecutions to an end, will not actually institutionalise precisely that problem?
Yes, I can give that assurance. As will be shown throughout the Bill’s passage, we are absolutely determined that it does not institutionalise the kind of problem that we are seeking to resolve, as well as, obviously, looking to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland. I can give my right hon. Friend that reassurance.
I thank the Secretary of State allowing this intervention. On the matter of the on-the-runs, can he confirm that Rita O’Hare is still wanted by the authorities for her deeds in respect of the murder of British personnel? Can he confirm that an elected representative in Northern Ireland holds an OTR letter?
I am sure the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I am not going to comment on particular cases, but I will say again that the so-called on-the-run letters have no basis in law and will not prevent or play a part in the process that we are outlining in this Bill. If somebody is in possession of one of those letters, they will still be subject to this legislation and, potentially, to prosecution.
As I have outlined, as a country we have already fundamentally altered the criminal justice model in Northern Ireland for troubles-related offences. We have seen the early release of prisoners under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 and the process of secretly decommissioning weapons, and of course there is already an effective amnesty for those who provide information to the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains. Although the Government believe that the difficult decisions taken at those points were absolutely right for the peace process, the overall approach to addressing legacy issues has not since been adjusted to reflect those very decisions.
We cannot simply pretend that things did not happen or that challenging compromises were not rightly made. As a result, the context in which we approach these issues is fundamentally different from that for any other crime across the country. The Bill strikes a balance between a focus on information recovery through an investigative process that is compliant with international obligations, and ensuring that those who choose not to engage will remain liable to prosecution, should the evidence exist. The provisions will apply to everyone equally.
Part 3 of the Bill details the impact of the proposals on ongoing and future proceedings within the current criminal, civil, inquest and police complaints systems. From the date the Bill comes into force, no other organisation in the UK, apart from the new information recovery commission, will be able to take forward a criminal investigation into a troubles-related incident.
Just a moment.
Any existing cases in which 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. We have listened to the concerns expressed, following the publication of our Command Paper, about active civil claims and inquests, which is why we no longer propose to bring them to an immediate end. Civil claims that had already been filed with the courts before the Bill was introduced will be allowed to continue, but new cases will be barred. Inquests that have reached an advanced stage by
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way again. Will he help me on two matters? First, will he explain—this harks back to the point made by my right hon. Friend Sir Iain Duncan Smith—how he envisages the interaction between clause 7, which will set limitations on the admissibility of certain material in criminal prosecutions, and the provision in clause 22 on the commission’s power to refer material? By the sound of it, compelled testimony and other types of material will be excluded, in meeting what I take it will be the full code test that will be applied by the relevant prosecuting authority.
Secondly, has the Secretary of State assessed the risk of satellite litigation by means of legal challenges to the decisions of the commission to make referrals? How will such challenges be dealt with?
My hon. Friend, as ever, makes insightful points. We are cognisant of those things and will go through them in Committee and in the guidance that we will issue. That is why it is important, referring to his earlier point, that this is a judge-led commission, which involves very highly respected investigative individuals in the process.
While addressing the legacy of the past rightly focuses on those most directly affected, it is a sad fact that the troubles have 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 was signed. It is therefore important that we think of reconciliation and remembering in a societal as well as in an 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.
No, I will make some progress.
A major new oral history initiative will be launched. We will 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 in 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, particularly 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 are bringing forward will implement a legally robust and effective information recovery process that will provide answers to families, uphold our commitment to those who serve in Northern Ireland, and help society to look forward, while, importantly, also recognising that those who chose, or do choose, not to reveal what they know should remain indefinitely liable to the threat of prosecution. We must recognise that, notwithstanding the important changes that we have made to the proposals as set out in July last year, this legislation, I accept, will be very challenging for many.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way. My hon. Friend Gavin Robinson will hone in and focus on this in more detail in his contribution, but there is one point that I want to raise. One of the most difficult aspects of the Belfast agreement was the decision that, if someone was convicted of a terrorist-related offence, they would serve a maximum of two years in prison. Under the proposed Bill, that will now be reduced to zero tariff—no time spent in prison. Where is the incentive in all of this for someone to come forward and to co-operate in a possible prosecution process when they know that, at the end of the day, if they just hunker down for the next five years and say nothing, there is no downside for them because they will never go to prison anyway?
I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s point, and I know that it is one that he and his colleagues want to explore over the period ahead, and I look forward to discussing this with them. However, there is a very big difference here with somebody having a criminal prosecution. One thing that has been fed through to us, and one comment that has been made in a number of engagements with different groups and parties, is that it is not necessarily about somebody serving time in prison, which, as a number of colleagues have said this afternoon, no longer necessarily fits some of the heinous crimes that were committed by terrorists during that period. It is about that accountability that comes with a prosecution if one is successful. None the less, I do recognise the point that he has made.
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 and has been done successfully in that example. 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, to provide accountability for the wrongs done on all sides and, ultimately, to bring understanding to the next generation so that 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. In order to enable society to look forward with confidence, letting the status quo continue is just not good enough. Compassion and commitment require honesty about these painful realities and about the difficult compromises that we have already had to make and that we need to make going forward. The moment has come for us all to face these head-on for the sake of the next generation.
The Northern Ireland Office has recently relocated to offices in the centre of Belfast, which is another sign of progress and something that would have perhaps seemed unthinkable 20 years ago. On the building opposite our entrance, there is a quote on the wall that colleagues will have seen as they walk past, or visit, that establishment. It reads:
“A nation that keeps one eye on the past is wise. A nation that keeps two eyes on the past is blind.”
That is our challenge: to see how we can provide families and society with a way to remember and reconcile, but also enable us to look forward and to focus on a better future for all. I commend the Bill to the House.
Before I call the shadow Secretary of State, let me say that I am sure that colleagues will be aware that there are many people who wish to speak in the debate on this extremely important Bill. In order to avoid a time limit, I encourage Back-Bench colleagues to keep their remarks to about 10 minutes.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for setting out the measures in the Bill. Since the Bill was deemed incoming, I have taken the approach of trying to find common ground, so that we can move forward; the people affected by the subject of this Bill deserve that. I have not at, any point, tried to tribalise or to party politicise the issues here. I wanted to put that on the record now because I will certainly be going on to criticise aspects of the Bill, but that is not what I set out to do in the first place. I thank the Secretary of State’s officials for briefing me on the contents of the Bill last week. Unfortunately, that was before the Bill was published, but I am grateful none the less.
We all agree in this House that we must find a way to resolve the outstanding legacy issues from the troubles. The conflict touched every family in Northern Ireland: more than 300,000 people lost their lives and tens of thousands were injured, and that was among a population of fewer than 2 million. A thousand of those killed were members of the security forces. Terrorist atrocities were also committed in British cities from Birmingham to Brighton.
The hon. Gentleman, for whom I have huge respect, has just misspoken. Three hundred thousand people did not die in the troubles. Three hundred thousand veterans served in Northern Ireland, and 3,500 people lost their lives. I am sure that he will welcome the chance to correct the record on that.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for correcting the record. Three thousand and more lost their lives in the troubles, and I apologise to the House for getting a zero in the wrong place.
The Belfast/Good Friday agreement sets out that
“we must never forget those that have died or been injured and their families”.
In truth, though, victims and their families were left without a clear path to address their personal tragedies through the peace process. The Good Friday agreement was a staggering achievement, but is ambiguous as to how to eventually address the killings committed during the troubles. While this was necessary to reach an agreement to end the conflict, it left victims’ families wanting. In 2015, following years of failings, the five main political parties in Northern Ireland and the UK and Irish Governments signed the Stormont House agreement. The result of months of painstaking negotiations, it provided a comprehensive way forward on dealing with the past. Its centrepiece was the establishment of an independent Historical Investigations Unit, with full policing powers to work through, in chronological order, outstanding troubles-related cases, and a separate independent commission on information retrieval. Despite Stormont securing the support of all elected parties at the time in Northern Ireland, regrettably this Bill jettisons that approach.
Northern Ireland deserves to look forward to a bright future, rather than living in the shadow of its past. That can only happen when those who have lost loved ones no longer have to spend countless hours searching for answers. The UK Government have a critical role to play in building a brighter future by building trust and acting as an honest broker to find a way forward.
Unfortunately, the Bill does not provide victims’ families with a process they can trust. In fact, it deepens their pain and trauma. Its provisions would set up a new body, the independent commission for reconciliation and information recovery, to provide answers to families about what happened to their loved ones during the troubles. All criminal investigations, all inquests that are not at the very advanced stage and all civil actions would cease and be folded into the new body.
The Government argue that, due to the passage of time, we have a duty to empower that body to grant immunity to killers in return for information they have about their actions. There is still the possibility of prosecution for those who fail to provide an account of their actions to the commission, but the bar for immunity is set so low that it is hard to see prosecutions happening in practice. The commission must grant immunity if three conditions are met: the perpetrator requests immunity, they then give an account to the body that is true to the best of their knowledge and belief, and the conduct they describe would otherwise have exposed them to criminal investigation or prosecution.
I must be blunt. Such a low bar for attaining immunity is offensive to the families who have lost loved ones and, in many cases, waited decades for answers. I will illustrate that concern with an example. Raymond McCord was murdered by loyalist paramilitaries in November 1997. His father joins us today in the Public Gallery. There was no coroner’s inquest into Raymond’s murder, no police investigation that involved or reported to his family and no public inquiry. Raymond Sr. went through two court cases to have information regarding his son’s death released. He won, but when he received all the information, he found out that of 303 pages, 296 were redacted. At the same time, his son’s gravestone has been repeatedly vandalised, an action clearly intended to deepen the pain felt by his family.
Across the House, we must consider today whether this Bill offers Raymond’s family as many new rights as it does his murderer. I do not believe it does. Under this legislation, Raymond’s murderer has the right to come forward and, should he tell a basic but realistic account of his crime, he must be given immunity from prosecution—an immunity that stands even if in future that account is proved to be false. He could even go on to write a book about it, and wave at the victims’ families in the street as they pass.
Those are the rights given to Raymond’s murderer, yet nothing in the Bill says that the independent commission must listen to victims, communicate with them or take measures to protect their dignity and health. Those seem pretty basic rights to me, but even that low threshold is not met. The situation I have outlined is not hypothetical. These are real fears that are frequently felt by victims and that cause crippling anxiety. We must be on their side.
Just as disturbingly, the Bill does not prohibit anyone who has committed or covered up acts of sexual violence during the conflict from seeking immunity. Máiría Cahill, who was the victim of years of sexual abuse at the hands of the IRA, has said:
“This bill is, quite simply, disgraceful. Government say they take sexual violence seriously. Yet they are prepared to grant amnesty to those accused of conflict related sexual offences either in NI or England. It is an affront to victims, to justice and is gross hypocrisy.”
Let us be clear what we are talking about here. This Bill could well lead to someone who has committed rape being given immunity from prosecution. None of us can even imagine the impact that such a thing would have on the victim.
I will return to that theme but, before I do, I will talk about how the Government have approached the Bill in the wider sense—namely, the staggering lack of consultation and care given to this incredibly sensitive issue in the way this new Bill was conceived, drafted and is now being legislated. For reference, in 2018 the Government ran a public consultation on the previous legacy proposals, which ran for 21 weeks and received 17,000 responses. That was the right way to handle the issue.
I agree with the words of this Government in 2018:
“In order to build consensus on workable proposals that have widespread support we must listen to the concerns of victims, survivors and other interested parties.”
In comparison, the process for this Bill, with its unprecedented policy of granting immunity for murder and serious violence, has lacked any meaningful consultation at all. The Government published the Bill a mere seven days ago. It is 90 pages long and, in the words of one victims’ group, “heavily legal”. Yet, regrettably, the Northern Ireland Office refused to give detailed briefings to victims’ groups until today’s debate. That has caused not only hurt but confusion about what the Bill is offering. It damages rather than builds trust.
There seems to be a dismissive attitude towards prelegislative scrutiny of the Bill. Let us take the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which was set up by the Belfast/Good Friday agreement specifically to safeguard rights in Northern Ireland. Its advice on the Bill was not asked for, and yesterday it announced that it appears incompatible with our human rights commitments. It read the Bill at the same time last week that the rest of us did. Had it been consulted before—that is, after all, part of the purpose for which it was founded—the Bill could have avoided some of the stinging criticism it is currently receiving.
Similarly, the Bill will have material consequences for the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the judiciary. Both currently manage legacy cases, yet neither seems to have been given advance notice that the Government were planning to strip them of their role with almost immediate effect. The Irish Government, our partners in the peace process and co-signatories to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, did not see the Bill until it was published. They have now said they cannot support it in its current form.
With the greatest of respect to the Secretary of State, consistent polling has shown that the UK Government are now the least trusted actor in Northern Ireland. Rushing these proposals into Parliament here in Westminster has already damaged the reconciliation we are all aiming for. I understand that the Secretary of State is trying his best to find a way forward, but any proposal to deal with legacy must have victims and communities in Northern Ireland at its heart.
I want to build on the point my hon. Friend Sir Robert Neill made earlier. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission dealt with many such concerns and fears; I used to live in the country and I have heard first-hand testimony from people who participated in it. What struck me as incredibly important in that set-up was the leadership and sponsorship of some of the greats such as Mandela, Tutu and other members of the community. I have listened carefully to what the shadow Secretary of State is saying and it feels very down in the detail, but can he encourage leaders in the different communities to give the Bill that sponsorship to get people to give it a chance? The truth is a nebulous as well as a legal concept.
I am grateful for the intervention. I have some understanding of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; I was studying for my doctorate in South Africa while it was running and I followed it very closely.
The figures who the hon. Lady mentioned were not just involved in running the commission; they were all also involved in conceiving it. The figures who lead communities in Northern Ireland—some in the House today, some not—were not involved in this Bill or consulted for it. The only process that did that was the Stormont House agreement, which has been jettisoned by the current approach. Sadly, the key learnings from it have not made it into the current Bill.
I understand the point that the hon. Lady is making about moral and political leadership. In South Africa, there was a huge, concerted effort to bring forward support from all communities, but what we are discussing is coming from Westminster into Northern Ireland. The provisions should be birthed in Northern Ireland and come through to Westminster.
I do not want to pre-empt the rest of the hon. Gentleman’s speech—it is vital that victims groups should be at the heart of this process. I think he is going to come on to this, but I am just checking: what about the veterans? They play a key part and should surely be at the heart as well.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is indeed pre-empting the remaining parts of my speech, which I will get on to as quickly as I can. He is free to catch my eye at that point, as he raises an incredibly important point.
What we needed from the Government in the run-up to this process was empathy. That requires listening and real care in the face of the most terrible tragedies. Let us take the case of John Molloy. John was walking home in north Belfast in 1996 when he was stabbed to death in a brutal sectarian attack. He was just 18 years old. John’s mother Linda wanted me to put her response to the Bill on the record:
“Why is John’s sectarian murder in Belfast different from a racially motivated murder in London? If this legislation gets through whoever murdered John could simply get away with it. It is just wrong that perpetrators will be able to get on with their lives officially, given amnesty by the state, while we are left to cope with the devastation. We brought our children up to believe in law and order and it is so wrong that the rule of law can be overridden in this way. The hurt never goes away.”
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that justice is just a word if it does not come to fruition? The current system is not leading to successful claims for the overwhelming majority of those affected. Surely there has to come a time when we have to try a better way. More than 50 years on from the start of the troubles, surely that time is now.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. We are not talking about whether we want to move forward or not; the important thing is that we move forward in the right way.
Investigations are absolutely central to families being able to move forward and to the ability to deliver justice. The hon. Gentleman will notice from the Bill, which I am sure he has read in great detail, that the word “investigations” is mostly replaced by “review”. The emphasis that has proven successful in the past—from the Stormont agreement right through to the ongoing Kenova investigations—has provided, in limited circumstances, the kind of reconciliation, truth and justice that victims have requested. That is where we believe the future should be.
Currently, there are 32 files with the prosecution service of Northern Ireland as a result of the Kenova investigations. Not one has been picked up, because the prosecution service does not have the resources. There has been progress, and I am sure that the justice that we are talking about could be dispensed if the prosecution service of Northern Ireland had the right resources.
I do not necessarily disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s line of reasoning at all, but on immunity, does he not accept that that ship sailed in 1998—a concept, of course, that his party needs to take quite a lot of responsibility for? He says that justice is being denied, and I have some sympathy with that, but does he accept that as a result there has been 20 years-plus of peace in Northern Ireland?
Since the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement there have been long periods in which politics has been functional, and there has been huge progress that had been inconceivable before. Its achievement was totemic. As I have already said in this speech, the commitments and aspirations in the Good Friday agreement with regard to victims have not been realised and we need to make effort. We are losing the generation affected by these issues, as has been said. We need to get on with this, but we need to get it right.
I appreciate the spirit of what the hon. Gentleman is seeking to achieve, but may I put this to him? It follows from my earlier intervention. I get the sense that he is suggesting that we return, where possible, to allowing a normal criminal justice process to take its course. Is not the difficulty that once immunities have been given, for whatever reason, there will have been a departure from the norms in any event? We are not, therefore, in exactly the same territory as we would be in relation to other offences in other places. That being the case, what alternative do the Opposition posit as a solution?
The alternative, clearly, was in the Stormont House agreement. Plus there is the additional learning from Jon Boutcher’s work on the Kenova investigations and inquiries, and the real desire among victims to make progress.
Of course victims are realistic about the chances of prosecution in some cases—what a lot of them want is often quite different—but the great thing that I have seen from talking to families who have been subject to investigations by Jon Boutcher under the Kenova system has been how it has been tailored and sensitive to the needs of victims, while being realistic about the prospects of prosecution.
I am going to make some progress, as others want to get in; I am aware of your desire for us to get on, Madam Deputy Speaker.
To proceed with this Bill, we must be able to answer Linda’s question, put in the quote I read a moment ago, and be sure that we are promoting reconciliation and not further division. Quite simply, the test for a way forward is that it must provide more benefits for victims than for those who committed acts of terror. In so doing, it would also offer greater fairness to our armed forces and veterans.
Last year, the Government suggested a blanket amnesty for everyone involved in the troubles. The vast majority of those who benefited would have been republican or loyalist paramilitaries, but it would also have stopped any further prosecutions of veterans of our armed forces. The origins of this proposal can be found in the Conservative manifesto of 2019, which promised:
“We will continue to seek better ways of dealing with legacy issues that provide better outcomes for victims and survivors and do more to give veterans the protections they deserve.”
The vast majority of those who served in our armed forces in Northern Ireland should feel proud of their service. Over 250,000 personnel were involved in Operation Banner and 722 were killed by terrorist actions. We cannot forget, and we remain grateful for their service, but it is clear that not every action met the standards that we set: a very small minority did not.
From a quarter of a million personnel, the Director of Public Prosecutions in Northern Ireland has brought cases against six former military personnel for offences committed during the troubles. The vast majority of our veterans deserve the chance to talk about their service with pride. They do not need to be granted immunity; in fact, the very assumption that they might need it creates a toxic moral equivalence between military service and acts of terror. What has caused so much anger among the Northern Ireland veterans community is the idea that there is no fairness in who is being investigated. The Bill fails to provide a fair and balanced system for veterans that recognises their service, addresses reinvestigations and provides welfare support. Delivering a Bill that provides more benefit to terrorists than veterans or victims is not fair to anyone.
My party will be voting against this Bill today because of the equivalence it makes between people who served in the armed forces and those who committed acts of terror and because of the incredibly low threshold. We should remember that 722 service people lost their lives by acts of terror, and the people who committed those acts—against our armed forces—could get immunity from prosecution with the very lowest possible threshold. That is what we will be voting against today. A better process would start by listening, rather than forcing solutions on people.
I served in Northern Ireland, and I do not feel in any degree that there was equivalence between what I was doing and what terrorists were doing. Can I ask the hon. Gentleman to try to clarify a point for me? He has spoken about some victims and quoted them, and in particular one who wanted to know the balance of what makes this work or not work. He talked about there being this equivalence with terrorists. Is the balance about punishment; is it about investigation, or is it about knowledge? Where does the balance in this lie for him? This is important. Instead of dancing around what is complained about, where does he think the balance lies for somebody who is a victim?
I have been very clear: I want to make sure that the rights of victims and veterans are equal to the rights of terrorists and people who committed crime in the era of the troubles. This Bill does not achieve that. Proper scrutiny and proper preparation would have delivered a Bill that did.
I am going to make progress. The provisions of this Bill will also have the independent commission carrying out so-called reviews into deaths and serious injury. The Bill provides that the independent commission officers can be designated as having police powers. However, it is unclear when or how such powers are to be exercised, nor is it clear whether the reviews that the independent commission carries out will in fact uncover any new information. In the additional notes to the Bill, the Government set out their view that
“for the ICRIR to conduct successful information recovery investigations, which will in turn significantly aid reconciliation in the long term, it is essential for the possibility of a prosecution outcome to be restricted to those who fail to participate effectively in the truth recovery process.”
We have concerns about how much truth will come from this immunity scheme. Immunity will be retained even in circumstances where the account given is deemed as being truthful by the perpetrator themselves, but is subsequently found not to be in accordance with the accepted historical account. The immunity requests panel is also not obliged to seek information from anyone other than the person coming forward in order to verify the truth of the perpetrator’s account. It comes back to the point I made earlier about the lack of investigatory work going on beforehand—it should be leading the process.
I again put on record how this Bill is affecting victims whose loved ones were killed by terrorists. Jean Caldwell’s husband Cecil was one of eight workmen killed by an IRA landmine in Teebane in January 1992. Today, Jean says:
“I want justice. All this talk of amnesty has brought it all back to the fore again. What will they”— the IRA bombers—
“tell that will be of any benefit to me? It’s so deeply unfair. My blood runs cold. There is no ‘amnesty’ for victims”.
In his opening remarks, the hon. Gentleman suggested that rape or sexual offences committed in conflict during the troubles would be subject to immunity. That is not the case at all. Only offences relating to a death or a serious injury will be eligible for immunity. Is he happy to correct the record?
I think the hon. Gentleman needs to read the Bill for himself. There are circumstances in which people have committed rape and other crimes and the whole lot would be subject to immunity. These are things that we have taken advice on before saying them here in the Commons today and that are now accepted by a great number of people with a prosecutorial background who have studied this area. They are absolutely clear that this Bill does not contain the right measures. At no point in the Bill is there an exemption for people who have committed sexual crimes, and that is something the hon. Gentleman should look for. If he can point to a line in this Bill where sexual offences and rape are excluded from immunity, I look forward to seeing it.
The Bill also contains the laudable aims of establishing oral history, memorialisation and academic research on the conflict, but it is the Secretary of State who will decide the designated persons to take forward the programme. There is also a more fundamental issue that with such widespread opposition to this Bill from victims and survivors, there is a danger they will refuse to participate in any historical projects that come from it.
I will make a bit of progress. On these Benches, we wanted to work with the Government to find a way forward on legacy issues, but the Government’s approach is to bulldoze their plans through without addressing the needs of victims and survivors. Alternative options, such as Operation Kenova, have shown that there is a way to handle legacy issues in a sensitive manner that delivers for victims, the security forces and wider society. The Government have the numbers to get this Bill through today, but I urge Ministers to reflect on what has been and will be said in the Chamber today and the reaction that this Bill has received on the island of Ireland. Reconciliation is difficult, and as the peace process has shown us, it requires compromise. This Bill is uncompromising and therefore has lost the legitimacy that it could have had.
Just the first two Front-Bench speeches and the interventions from Members across the House clearly show the thorniness of these issues, their long standing, and their polarising nature in views, interpretation and, indeed, in coming up with solutions. At the start, I thank my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Minister of State, and the Secretary of State’s office, for their courtesy and engagement with me as these proposals have come forward.
Because the Bill concerns those issues, it is uncomfortable, and it is tricky politics. We would all like—I agree with many—the majesty of the law to run its course in the normal ways we all understand, but that has not happened up until now, and evidence that my Committee has taken from the PSNI and others clearly indicates that there is simply a lack of investigatory resource and court time to deal with all these cases in a way that could be reasonably defined as timely.
When we use the phrase “the troubles”—it is one that we all use—is it not just too euphemistic? It is the sort of wording we might use for a slightly embarrassing medical ailment, but let us remind ourselves that it was blood and it was a period of fear, of people being maimed and of death. It was horror, so we need to deal with these things in a serious way.
Is the Bill perfect? No, of course it is not, and no legislation is, but let us not lose the good, or at least the intent to achieve the good, in pursuit of perfection. The Government need to be clear, and the House needs to be assured, that the proposals before us are fully article 2 compliant—that is a key test for anybody, irrespective of which side of the argument they are coming from and their own personal experience. Without setting a precedent, I urge those on the Treasury Bench to give active consideration to putting Treasury counsel’s advice on this matter in the Library of the House of Commons so that we can all be persuaded, if on no other point than that.
Briefly, my hon. Friend is right. Many Conservative Members served in Northern Ireland during the troubles. He will accept that we in this place tend to underestimate the pain caused for many families by not knowing what happened to their relatives, the victims—some of whom disappeared altogether. We should also always remember that there has been a dearth of prosecutions since the Good Friday agreement, and it is not as though we have made great strides on that. We should balance those two factors carefully in the consideration of the Bill.
My hon. Friend is right. It is a sadness that there has been that dearth, which has led to huge frustration and has compounded the agony. He is also right to remind the House that each individual victim or survivor or victim’s family will respond to these things in different ways and will have different requirements from the process. We should be very careful not to resort to language such as, “This now delivers closure,” or, “This draws a line.” It will deliver closure, answer questions or draw lines only when that person is satisfied, and there will be myriad ways in which people will be looking for that satisfaction.
The Government are to be congratulated on the tangible policy evolution since what many of us recognise was the rather ill-judged, and certainly wrongly toned, written ministerial statement of March 2020. The Secretary of State and the Government are to be congratulated on facing into this issue. If there were easy solutions, by God they would have been delivered by now. If we want this to work, we have to make sure that this too-long-neglected issue is dealt with, and it has to be through this Bill. So much time has been spent on it and so many years have been spent discussing these issues that I cannot envisage—I could be wrong; I often am—
There was no need for such an endorsement; it is nice to see the collegiate nature of the Select Committee burgeoning on the Floor of the House.
As I was saying, I cannot envisage this or any other Government, or any other Secretary of State, devoting future time and energy to trying to resolve these issues, so I am tempted to say that although the Bill needs some amendment, it will be this or it will be nothing at all.
As we know, the politics of Northern Ireland can be different and difficult and testing. I am inclined to think—this may be a strange way of looking at it through the wrong end of the telescope—that it is possibly a good thing that no one and no constituency of interest in Northern Ireland is claiming absolute victory or absolute defeat. To me, that would have suggested that the Government had got it wrong. There is within the Bill the potential for something for everybody who has a legitimate interest in this issue.
I will turn to a couple of specific points. On the programme motion, eight hours for Committee, albeit on the Floor of the House, and one hour, as I understand it, for Third Reading is simply not enough. Physically, this is not a huge Bill in terms of the number of clauses, but it is a mammoth Bill in terms of history and issues. A sceptical Northern Irish audience needs to be given full comfort that full scrutiny will be given to the Bill and the proposed amendments to it. I suggest to the business managers—such as the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury, who is on the Treasury Bench—as much as to the Secretary of State that the Bill should be given at least four days for Committee and half a day for Third Reading. That would give comfort to those people who want to make sure that the solution is properly scrutinised.
My Committee will be looking at the Bill, so I do not want to prejudice its deliberation, but I will make a few observatory suggestions. The Secretary of State appoints to the independent commission for reconciliation and information recovery. I would like to see a parliamentary vote affirming those appointments, which would give the body extra legitimacy. On the commissioners, I would certainly like a seat to be reserved for an international participant; I agree with my hon. Friend Sir Robert Neill, the Chair of the Justice Committee. He referred to South Africa, but there are lots of people with United Nations experience. Again, they will add credibility, independence, a new voice and a perspective that should give extra help to those people who are looking to get the proposals over the line and to invest their faith in the commission. There also needs to be an oversight panel to the commission, as we have with Kenova, which could include groups representing victims, the Veterans Commissioner and others.
We need to accept, with regret—I am perfectly honest about that—that Stormont House is dead. We can flog it as much as we like, but it is a horse that will not get out of the stable. It is gone. It is that ex-parrot. That is unfortunate, but it is true. The need for coalition building remains alive, however, and the need for the Government to take people with them is as strong as ever.
Clearly, as Ian Paisley said, the Bill will work better if the Republic is engaged and on side. I agree with him that north and south are two sides of the same coin on this, which have equal weight and responsibility to bring forward solutions that are binding and that can command support and confidence. I hope that the Irish Government will try to meet in the middle, and I would urge them to do so, to try to build that consensus and that joint approach.
It is a quick one. Building on that point, does my hon. Friend agree that the importance of our relationship with the Republic reinforces the importance of the quality and international nature of the commission’s membership? Given that the Republic adheres to the same common law jurisdictions and has the same approach to criminal jurisprudence as we do, that would surely be a means of rebuilding trust in that regard.
I agree fundamentally with my hon. Friend. I urge the Secretary of State to continue his conversations with Minister Coveney. It might be a step in the right direction to say that one of the commissioners could or should be a nominee of the Irish Government. I know that that would be contentious for some, but in trying to build that consensus and share the obligation, it may—there is no guarantee—pay a dividend.
Can the hon. Gentleman reflect on what the Secretary of State said at the Dispatch Box? He said that, more than a year ago, the Republic of Ireland indicated that it would bring forward something, but it has brought forward absolutely nothing. I do not think that augurs well; I think that it will turn a blind eye to the issue for as long as possible and do nothing, because if the veil is lifted on its legacy of the troubles, it will not be a pretty sight.
Well, as my right hon. Friend Mr Francois, who is no longer in his place, referenced, it has taken two general elections and four years to bring this Bill to fruition, so I am not sure that we are in a position to lecture, or are entirely innocent on that point. As we all know, however, heaven rejoiceth when a sinner repenteth, and it is not too late for both sides to build that consensus and to bring forward either conjoined proposals or separate but mutually corresponding ones. That would be a good thing.
On clause 5, which relates to full disclosure, subsection (1) is absolutely right that
“A relevant authority must make available” the items that are listed, but subsection (2) says that
“A relevant authority may also make available”,
which depends on interpretation. The relevant authority could have some information that it thinks might be important and of relevance to an inquiry, but that has not been specifically asked for and that might be unhelpful to that authority, so it might hold it back. I would like to see the compelling nature of “must” in subsections (1) and (2), and I am certain that amendments will be tabled to address that.
The Bill needs to give further thought to how the PSNI interlinks with the commission. I hope that the PSNI will allocate the about £30 million that it spends currently on legacy purposes to invest in providing resource and support to the new process.
In summary, this Bill is not perfect.
I have listened intently to my hon. Friend the Chair of the Select Committee and I do not think that he has really mentioned veterans much, if at all. As
My right hon. Friend is probably right, but of course there were many veterans who were also victims, as were their families, because, as we have heard with the figures, there are those who died, or were injured or maimed. We will not help this debate—can I just say this gently to my right hon. Friend?—if we characterise it as one side being more important than the other—
And I am not putting words into his mouth. I did reference the fact that the Veterans Commissioner could be on the observatory panel and the advisory panel, or scrutiny panel, to the commission. That would be important, but it is important, I suggest—and I know that he knows this—to get that absolute balance right.
There is a difference in view among the veterans community. Some have been arguing for a blanket clearance from day one. Others have told the Committee that they do not want to see that, because they want to make sure that those who did wrong are held to account—of course there are some who did wrong; the terrorists did everything wrong, but some of the police did wrong and some of the military did wrong—and they do not want everybody to be tarred with the same brush. So there is a difference of view in the veterans community on how we deal with this. I think the Bill broadly gets it right by making sure that one side is not favoured over the other.
As I say, the Bill is not perfect, but it does create a framework that can and could help. We do need more time to consider it in this place, which is why I make the plea for revision of the programme motion. After all these years, something needs to be done to try to ensure that progress is made. This is the Bill to do it. We need to be driven, I suggest, by that imperative. If anything can unite the House in this debate, it might be this point: what we should be seeking to achieve in this Bill is to ensure that future generations are not infected by the poison of this too long neglected and running sore.
Could I begin by thanking the Minister of State, Conor Burns, in particular for the time he took to brief me on the contents of the Bill? Allow me to say that I very much appreciate what has been attempted here and the sentiment behind it. We certainly look to the memory of all those who lost their lives during the troubles, to the tens of thousands of those who were injured and to the families, relatives and friends to make sure that we approach this in the right way to get the right outcomes.
Given the length of time that this has all gone on, is it not quite clear that there is no way that there is a single solution around which consensus can be built? Therefore, the Government are left with two choices: either do nothing and carry on as has been happening, or come forward with the best solution they can come up with, in the full knowledge that everybody who has been fighting among themselves without reaching a solution will find something to object to in it. The fact that they are all objecting to it by no means means that this is wrong; it is the only way forward, other than doing nothing.
I thank the right hon. Member for his intervention. He is certainly correct that this is a very difficult and intractable set of issues that need to be navigated through, but if he really imagines that by introducing this Bill the Government are in some way cutting the Gordian knot, he is very sadly mistaken. I do not think that that kind of approach is the one that could yield the greatest amount of fruit. I do not believe that it needed to be the case that this was the outcome.
Stormont House was not agreed by everybody, but nevertheless it did provide a platform for a potential route forward. By failing to try to establish and build on what consensus there was in that, we are highly unlikely to reveal truth satisfactorily and we are certainly not creating the conditions whereby reconciliation might be achieved.
It is fair to say—certainly from the representations that I have received, particularly over the last 48 to 72 hours, from groups in civil society in Northern Ireland and from those who take an interest in the law and its application—that confidence in this process and this legislation is low. It is not being helped by the fact that we are here to discuss the Bill on Second Reading just days after it was announced formally in the Queen’s Speech. To only have two days in Committee here is, I think, thoroughly inadequate for the parliamentary scrutiny that a Bill of this kind deserves. It certainly does not pay the respect that I believe is due to victims groups and those with a stake in the outcomes here, in and across the island of Ireland and in veterans communities, to try to get us to a place of closer consensus.
In responding to the statement on
The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting point about closure. I do not think that so far in this debate there has been enough conversation or debate about closure. Convictions are important, but we also need to make sure that the families of victims have the facts to bring closure—whether that is where the bodies of the disappeared are buried, how their loved ones were murdered, or if they had a glass of water before they were executed. Does he not agree that the Bill will make it more likely that some of these terrorists and people will come forward to give those details? It tries to bring closure for victims’ families.
I thank the hon. Member for that intervention. No, I do not agree with that and I will go on to explain in a bit more detail why.
As I have said, the Bill would clearly make that kind of continuation of the judicial process and the process of investigation impossible. So the question that I have been left wrestling with is whether the approach in the Bill can work and, if it can, whether the potential benefits of doing that outweigh the very negative and real consequences of bypassing the normal processes of the rule of law. I have to say that I have reached the conclusion, and my group has reached the conclusion, that they do not.
We have very deep concerns about the manner in which somebody might be granted immunity. There is a real danger that the process set out in the Bill as it stands actually puts more power in the hands of the perpetrators of past crimes or atrocities than it does in the victims’. The bar, as has been set out by the Labour shadow Secretary of State, is extraordinarily low in this respect. Simply to say that to give somebody immunity they have to request it but that what they then say has to be true to the best of their knowledge is not the sort of standard we should be hoping for in a completely open and accountable process of reconciliation and truth telling, because it means that there is absolutely no compulsion in there to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Even if we did wish to remove the process from a purely judicial setting, surely the very least we should expect from somebody seeking amnesty for their crimes is to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth before such a panel or tribunal.
I will be interested to hear what the Minister of State has to say, when he sums up, about the exemptions that are to be granted on the grounds of national security and what the independent commission should or should not do. Clearly, we would not want the commission to do anything that would imperil national security, but we can all see the potential conflict between revealing information that is held on file and the use of the national security clause to draw a veil over it. The process of reconciliation will require some hard truths, not just from the UK Government but, I suspect, from the records of the Government of the Irish Republic. Having that prohibition in the Bill potentially represents a further tilting of the balance away from revealing the truth and delivering justice.
One of the most pernicious aspects of the Bill is the way in which it seeks almost to bring down the shutters on families who have already engaged in inquiries or in the process preparatory to inquiries. To remove the rights of individuals to pursue a criminal or civil remedy appears to me to be in clear breach of article 2 of the European convention on human rights, and therefore aspects of the Good Friday agreement, as the convention is hardwired into it.
My reasons for opposing the Bill are ones of principle, articulated by those with a care for the legal and constitutional implications of what is before us, as well as the many strong and clear voices of those who have been affected by the troubles. In the light of those real concerns, I remain unpersuaded that the goal of truth and reconciliation will be more likely to be achieved by this process, or that it justifies setting aside the norms of the rule of law and the fundamental rights of the individual to seek recourse or to uphold their rights through the law.
I am also bound to observe the dismay of the Irish Government at the proposals. At a time when open dialogue and good will are in greater demand than they perhaps have ever been as far as the present UK Government are concerned, it is a missed opportunity to go about this process as they have, rather than try to find a way in which both Governments’ sets of records could be made available and open up a process applicable to all victims on both sides of the border.
Operation Kenova shows what can be done when police investigations into historical inquiries are allowed to take place. It is not good enough to point to the backlog in the PSNI historical inquiry unit as a reason for introducing the processes in the Bill. That backlog is an argument for adequately resourcing the PSNI so that the historical inquiry unit can complete the work it was tasked to do.
I do not think that reconciliation is something that can ever be imposed. It is something that has to be achieved. The legislation is being imposed, to the great distress of many, and that is unnecessary. The Bill in its current form is not one that my party can support.
The issues that the Bill seeks to address are some of the most sensitive and challenging in our nation’s history. Drawing a line under the past in Northern Ireland is a challenge successive Governments here have sought to address. As we have heard, recent work has been based on agreement between the UK and Irish Governments and the Northern Ireland parties, with a commitment that law and justice matters are devolved and dealt with locally. That was confirmed by the Stormont House agreement in 2014, which almost all Northern Ireland parties signed up to along with the UK and Irish Governments. The Bill, driven from Westminster, overrides both the policy of Stormont House and the focus on consent present in that international agreement. I am deeply uncomfortable about voting for a Bill that will formalise immunity for those who have committed murder and other crimes, but I do acknowledge that none of the range of policy options for the Government is straightforward.
I want to focus my remarks on the fact that with the substantial policy shift that has occurred since Stormont House, now crystallised by the Bill, victims and survivors are deeply concerned that not only will they have to deal with accepting amnesties, but they will have to accept less rigorous reviews of their cases, rather than robust, evidence-based judicial investigations. Throughout the Bill, there are references to reviews, not investigations. The victims point to the fact that the powers in the Bill to compel testimony are weak; that there is a focus on existing evidence, rather than exhaustively looking for new evidence; and that prior investigations cannot be reconsidered. They are extremely wary that the UK Government will be the arbiter of every aspect of the process, from the choice of commissioners to what Government information is shared with the new body.
When I speak to victims, families and survivors, there is a consistent theme—a burning desire to know what happened to their loved ones. Take Shauna, who was just 10 years of age when her mother Caroline Moreland was abducted by the IRA and held for 15 days before being shot dead at the border, just weeks before the IRA ceasefire in 1994.
“Without this investigation we would never have got answers. Operation Kenova has been important as someone else thought my mum’s life was worth something. Everyone has the right to a thorough investigation”.
Or take Kathleen Gillespie’s husband Patsy, who worked as a chef in an Army base in the city of Derry. On
Many victims feel that they have been hit by a double whammy by the Bill—their route to justice cut off and, at the same time, their route to the truth restricted.
I really appreciate the contribution that the former Secretary of State is making, and I know that he is deeply invested in finding solutions from his time in Northern Ireland. We appreciate the work that he has done. I served in the armed forces and lost comrades who were murdered by the IRA, so does he agree that this issue is not simply black and white? As president of the regimental association of the Ulster Defence Regiment, I speak to many UDR widows who are crying out for justice and want the opportunity to have the murders of their loved ones investigated in an article 2-compliant investigation.
I agree with my right hon. Friend’s point. The widows of RUC members, and other victims, are at the centre of our thoughts as we debate the Bill today.
Lawyers, victims’ groups, Liberty, Amnesty International, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and experts at Queen’s University also fear that the proposals will not meet the requirements under article 2 of ECHR and will breach both the UK’s international obligations and the Human Rights Act, which requires independent and effective investigations. If those fears are right, the Bill risks leading to ongoing legal challenge and a highly unstable environment for victims, which many argue would be worse than the patchwork system of troubles justice in place in Northern Ireland today. I urge the Government to look again at the independence and investigatory powers of the body and ensure that it can guarantee victims a full, thorough and legally compliant investigation of their case.
The way in which the Bill will shut down civil cases and inquests is also a source of much anger and worry. Civil actions have provided an effective mechanism for victims to obtain discovery and reparations. As recently as 2021, the Ministry of Defence had to pay significant damages with regard to the Miami Showband attack. In 2021, there was a review of inquest cases and a five-year plan for when each case would be heard. Many families now have the commitment from the justice system that their case will proceed. Inquests provide next of kin with substantial disclosure and provide families with information, answers and results that were previously denied. With the Bill, families who have been promised that inquests will take place risk having them thwarted just because of their place in the queue.
Those inquests have been shining a spotlight on new evidence. For example, the long-running inquest into the IRA murder of 10 Protestant civilians at Kingsmill has involved the largest volume of intelligence material disclosed in any inquest that has run in this jurisdiction. We saw recently in the Ballymurphy inquest, completed in July 2021 after 100 days of evidence, that the verdicts and findings of Mrs Justice Keegan were that the 10 victims were entirely innocent and the force used by the British Army was not justified. It is important to acknowledge that the inquest system has sucked up significant resource, often without conclusions. I urge the Government also to look at that. There must be a fairer way of completing the current work programme and avoiding such an unfair cut-off point.
I return to the shift from the Stormont House agreement to the Bill. Many victims have had their confidence shaken by the lack of support for the proposals from Northern Ireland political parties, Ireland and the US. Policy content aside, key to Stormont House was agreement, buy-in and consent. Consent is vital when dealing with legacy at a practical level for cross-jurisdictional changes that need to be solved and need assistance from Ireland. Consent also has an impact on the ground in Northern Ireland today. The Bill is about the past, but it is also about the present. Paramilitarism is still a key feature of Northern Ireland society, and how issues of the past are dealt with feeds into the groups and organisations that traumatise Northern Ireland society today. Balance and an even hand are vital.
I am sorry; I will not give way.
Above all, consent builds trust, which in turn increases the acknowledgement required for resolution. In 2010, when the right hon. David Cameron made his statement on the Saville enquiry in this place, he spoke about the long commitment and service of those who served in Operation Banner but, at the same time, he acknowledged the wrongs of that day. Bloody Sunday was “unjustified and unjustifiable”. When you stand in the Museum of Free Derry and see a copy of the former Prime Minister’s speech in the display cabinet next to the bloodied clothes of those who were killed, and when you hear what it meant to the people in Derry that the UK Government finally apologised, you get a real sense that that particular UK acknowledgement has made a tangible difference to reconciliation. In the brilliant “Derry Girls” finale—I am sure that all of my colleagues watched it on Channel 4 last week—the lead character Erin’s monologue on coming of age in Northern Ireland was set to clips of Bloody Sunday and, more importantly, David Cameron’s apology. It was a clear, modern reflection of the importance of that acknowledgement of the past.
Victims payment legislation has provided a further form of acknowledgment. When I visited the victims’ group WAVE two years ago, I was struck by the significance and appreciation of these acknowledgements to the patient and amazingly resilient victims who had lived with the most horrendous injuries over decades. Some of those whom I met on that day are now dead.
For Northern Ireland to come to terms with its past, there is a need for acknowledgement from all sides: from the IRA for the thousands of murders; from loyalists for the hundreds of killings; from the Irish Government for their role in the troubles; and for the killings and collusion by UK forces. Having spoken to many in Northern Ireland, I genuinely believe that there is the potential for achieving those acknowledgements. Acknowledgements will allow victims and families and Northern Ireland as a whole to come to terms with the past, to deal with the present and to give hope to future generations rather than passing on the pain and hurt of the past.
On investigations and inquests, I therefore urge the Government to pause and to listen to the voices of our valued Irish partners in the GFA, to Northern Ireland parties and to the victims and survivors. I hope, too, that the Government will reflect on how they can reframe the Bill to gain the trust required to help deliver a resolution to this fragile and unique part of our country.
I hope that the remarks made by Julian Smith will echo not simply around the Chamber but around these islands. The tone that he struck was the one that I wish to see, and I wish—I do not mean this personally—that it were the one coming from the Government. His points about reconciliation are absolutely fundamental. Like many hon. Members, I have met many victims of the violence and the loved ones of those who were killed, and it is hard to listen to victims without recognising their tremendous hurt and how that will continue to be there. They need to go through the knowledge process, which is so fundamental to their own ability not to reconcile—in a way, it is a very difficult thing to lose a loved one—but at least to accept that the state, as the arbiter of these things, has made every conceivable effort to ensure that their pain is recognised and moved through.
I can think of no victims who will be satisfied by the Bill. The Secretary of State cannot say that any of them are in favour of this piece of legislation, nor did he even try to suggest it. Many of the victims would say to me that the two-year limitation of sentences is already a betrayal of what they seek, and I have genuine sympathy with that. We can almost certainly balance that with the fact that the process led to peace. Different people have different views on that, but, nevertheless, even with that two-year sentence limitation, it is not about the magnitude of the sentence; it is about recognition that somebody has been held to account for the crimes that took their loved ones away or changed their individual lives. That is so important.
Do we have a victim-centred process before us? The answer is, simply, no. I really regret that. Yes, it is an improvement on the absolutism of the amnesty that we had before us only a few months ago, but it is only a very limited improvement. In any case, in five years’ time, we will have a de facto amnesty. In the short-term, as my hon. Friend Peter Kyle pointed out, because of the very low bar on granting immunity, it is nearly certain that the amnesty will become the de facto process that applies.
I have to say to Conservative Members who campaign for the rights of veterans that it is worth reflecting on the over 700 veterans who died during the conflict, because they, as victims, also have rights. I think Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson made exactly that point about those with whom he had served in the UDR, and we can take that across different parts of our armed forces.
So there is a genuine issue about victims, but victims who were serving soldiers.
I have to make this point as well. I have listened to this debate over many years. One of the things I find intriguing is that when I talk to former members of the RUC, the PSNI and the armed forces they will say to me very directly that those who were culpable of criminal acts should be prosecuted, because they offer no credit to those who served under the law and in protection of the people of Northern Ireland. The idea, therefore, that we pit the rights of veterans in some way in opposition to the rights of victims is simply a dangerous fiction and one we have to dispense with. Frankly, that lies very much at the heart of the Bill. The reality is that the Secretary of State has given in to what he perceives to be the demand from his own Back Benchers, but at the expense of the many people who could have been served by a much better Bill. That has to be recognised.
If the hon. Gentleman does not mind me saying so, I think he is mischaracterising the concern of those of us who served and who remember what others went through. No one has ever asked for immunity. Everybody has always said that those guilty of a crime must face the normal judicial process. That is an established fact. The problem for them is that, because they are the ones on which information exists, there has been a fishing expedition going on without any real evidence to start the process. Then there is an inquiry and it goes on and on for people, without end. That is the problem: it is the process that is actually the penalty, not the prosecution.
Actually, I would not want to mischaracterise the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks, because I have heard him say that before. I have always welcomed the fact—the Secretary of State for Defence, Mr Wallace made the same point and he is a very well-respected former serving soldier—that there is no demand for an absolute amnesty, and that those who broke the law should face the consequences of the law, whether they are from a paramilitary organisation or from those who claim they were there to serve the public good. That is right and proper. I recognise that that is the position he has always taken, but nevertheless there has been the demand elsewhere for amnesty as a way of simply saying, “Let’s move on”. That is precisely what the Bill will do. In five years’ time, there will be an absolute amnesty. De facto, there will be an effective amnesty under the provisions in the Bill.
We need to look at whether the Bill is compliant with the European convention on human rights. I know that for some on the Conservative Benches that is a contentious issue in its own right, but nevertheless we should be compliant with that convention. There is considerable opinion that the Bill does not conform to either articles 2 or 3 of the convention in terms of the need for proper investigation, in particular in terms of torture, and to make sure there is adequate redress. The Bill is almost certainly not compliant, but, in a way, important though it is, that is a lawyer’s point. What lies behind the lawyer’s point is delivering justice to the people who suffered during that period of violence.
There are other defects in the Bill that have to be established, because any system of justice, if it is going to satisfy victims, must have enough transparency and a sense of independence. The Bill simply has neither. When the Secretary of State appoints the commissioners, the process will already be undermined because it is open to political manipulation. When the Secretary of State can direct the commissioner, for example in granting immunity, we have a very dangerous political precedent. The idea that this will be equivalent to the South African truth and reconciliation process is, frankly, a joke. There was a very different process in South Africa, one that was independent of politicians—that was important—and one that, of itself, allowed for challenge of the evidence brought forward by those who came seeking the amnesty process. That is why only 17% of those in South Africa were allowed that form of immunity from prosecution.
In that context, we have to recognise that there are many, many things that must change in Committee. In the end, we have to deliver something that is trusted. The words on reconciliation depend on trust. As the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon rightly said a few moments ago, the words on reconciliation need all parties—the IRA, the loyalist paramilitaries, the Irish Government and our own Government—to stand up and accept that things went wrong in their name. That process is important to reconciliation and it is not there in the Bill. In the end, it is important that there is trust in the justice process that, frankly, will not be there and is not there, because victims’ groups and politicians across the piece in Northern Ireland just do not accept that this is the legislation that will move things on. Unless we have that trust, we will not move further on down the road of reconciliation.
I will finish at this point because of the time and to let others speak. I hope the Secretary of State will now listen to the voices that have come here. This is not a party political division or a division on ideological grounds; it is a division because this is a bad Bill that will not deliver justice to either veterans or victims. It will not deliver the capacity for Northern Ireland to move on down that road of reconciliation.
I would be inclined to agree with many of the speeches made from the Opposition Benches, not least the eloquent one from Tony Lloyd, if it were not for one salient fact. As part of the peace superstructure, in 1998 the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Bill was passed. That Bill put an end to the argument that we must not treat terrorists on the same level as security forces, because it does that in one sense only, which is that everybody is treated equally before the law. It was often said at the time, “Security forces personnel could go to prison for life, but terrorists could not be sentenced to more than two years in jail no matter how many people they had killed.” I had a meeting with MPs from both sides of the divide in Northern Ireland, including Sinn Féin MPs, who pointed out to me that, as far as they knew, that applied to the security forces just as much as it applied to the IRA. And they were right: it does.
I think the Defence Committee was one of the first organisations, if not the first, to introduce the concept of a statute of limitation into the current debate. We did so in 2017 with our first report, but I had heard of the concept of the statute of limitation some 50 or 60 years ago in the context of Nazi war criminals who were escaping justice because a certain number of decades had elapsed since they had committed their crimes. As it happens, a few years before I was born, the vast majority of my family in Nazi-occupied Poland was murdered for nothing more than the crime of being Jewish. I felt then, as I am sure the victims’ families feel now, that it would be outrageous for the perpetrators to get off simply because a certain amount of time had elapsed. However, there was a difference then, in that legislation had not been passed—as it was felt necessary to pass it in this context in 1998 —to say that no matter how many people someone had killed, they could not be sentenced to more than two years in jail and they would not serve more than a derisory few months of that sentence. So the pass has already been sold on the question of getting justice for heinous crimes.
We then come to the question of those who say, “Well, it is not so much the length of the sentence that matters, but that we should have our day in court.” There is another problem here: all these years have elapsed and people have not had their day in court, because there has not been enough evidence adduced.
I tried to raise this point with the Leader of the Opposition and I pose it to anybody: what do people want? Do they want the knowledge of what happened or do they want the prosecution and the punishment? As my right hon. Friend said, the punishment is pretty much gone. The point of the prosecution is also gone, unless it is only about the knowledge—in which case, how do we go about getting the knowledge? That is clearly what this seems to be settling down to, if people are honest about it.
That is exactly the central point. There are perhaps two ways of getting the knowledge. One way is to go on as we have been in trying to investigate these things piecemeal, with everybody trying to hide everything to the maximum because they feel that they will be prosecuted. The other way is to bring in a truth recovery mechanism which, in return for the granting of immunity, maximises the possibility that the truth may come out.
Does the right hon. Member concede that a middle path is to have investigations, rather than reviews? That is what a lot of the commentary in Northern Ireland is focusing on. The prospect of prosecutions actually happening is very limited, but victims are looking for the interrogation of evidence and the challenge that happens through a proper investigation rather than, simply, a desk-top review.
I apologise, but I want to develop this point. Is the Bill not, in fact, about changing and tightening the process, if knowledge is the key element, to make it happen in an interrogative manner—in which case, that would be the way forward?
I can happily live with that compromise, if Stephen Farry can do the same.
In our 2016-17 inquiry, we approached this question from the point of view that serving and ex-service personnel were being dragged into court—because we were worried not that guilty service personnel might be found guilty, but that innocent service personnel would be found innocent only after they had gone through a horrendous process of trial, investigation, reinvestigation, and on and on. There are numerous cases of perfectly blameless personnel who, as a result of vexatious litigation, have found themselves being investigated over and over again. We have heard much about the trauma of the victim’s family, and I empathise with that totally—not least because of what I said about my family history—but we have not heard enough about the trauma of innocent service personnel and security forces who were being investigated over and over again. [Interruption.] I am delighted to hear murmurings of support from my hon. Friend Johnny Mercer, who knows more about this than most.
It is not just about those who were dragged through the courts; it is about those who have been at home for years and years afterwards—I first served in 1976—worrying about whether a letter would come through the box. It is about the fear felt by innocent people as well as those who are being dragged through.
That is absolutely right. It is all about protecting innocent service personnel from the vexatious use of the legal process. As I said in my intervention on the Secretary of State, it is not the punishment, but the process; indeed, the process is the punishment.
In the Defence Committee’s inquiry, we were fortunate to discuss with four eminent professors the applicability of the statute of limitations. Of course, I do not attribute my views to any of them, but I record the then Committee’s gratitude to Professor Sands, Professor Rowe, Professor McEvoy and Professor Ekins. They made it very clear that any statute of limitations had to apply to everybody or to nobody; there could be no legislating for state impunity.
The professors also made it clear that international law required not a prosecution, but an adequate investigation, and that that requirement could be met by a truth recovery process. The one concession that I make to those who have been criticising the Bill is that the Government need to be absolutely sure that the truth recovery process that they propose will stand up to that test in international law.
As I said in my intervention on Richard Thomson, we can do one of two things. We can do what the Opposition parties want, which is to go on investigating cases more or less ad infinitum with very few prosecutions and even fewer convictions, but with a miasma of fear percolating among people who know themselves innocent—particularly those who served with distinction in the armed forces, but feel the sword of vexatious legal persecution hanging over them. We can go on with that process in the almost certainly vain hope of convicting a few more murderers, or we can protect those people, but the only way to protect them is by protecting everyone.
That is what we did in the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, so the Labour party, which introduced that Act, has no basis on which to criticise a Bill that proposes exactly the same thing, for the same reason: to put an end to this persecution and, perhaps, to increase the possibility that, through the truth recovery process, families will find out more about what happened to their loved ones. One thing is certain: the families are unlikely ever to see the people who killed their loved ones brought successfully to court. Those people are even less likely to be convicted, and even if they were, they would serve only a few months in jail.
Bereaved families are being asked to make a sacrifice, but they are being asked to make it on behalf of a huge number of former soldiers and others in the security forces who deserve to be protected from vexatious pursuit through the courts. That is what the Bill is intended to achieve.
It is a pleasure to follow Dr Lewis. He and I have parsed the course on this issue and the myriad alternatives within legacy over many years. I served on the Defence Committee with him during the 2016-17 inquiry, and the later inquiry whose findings were published in about 2018. We do not agree, and I am not sure that his synopsis of the views of those four academics was entirely fair; but I will return to that later in my speech.
Before I proceed, let me say that I thought the contribution from Julian Smith was the most powerful that we are likely to hear this afternoon. I think that it was motivated not by prejudice or political aspiration of one hue or another, but solely by the right hon. Gentleman’s emotionally charged and personal experience in Northern Ireland. It was rooted in principle, and I thank him very much for it.
I have been thinking back to a debate that we had in Westminster Hall about proposals for legacy, and I was reading some of the speeches in Hansard this morning. I recalled a radio interview that I had heard on the morning of that debate. Alan McBride, a victims’ campaigner from Northern Ireland and a victim himself, was talking about a day of reflection for victims in Belfast and elsewhere in Northern Ireland. He said, “When we were thinking about a day of reflection in Belfast, we tried to find one day—one date—when nobody died.” They could not find one. They could not find a single day in the calendar when somebody had not been killed in Northern Ireland. They chose
When it comes to our party’s approach to the issue of legacy—and, in fairness, the approach of the majority of parties in Northern Ireland—we cannot detach ourselves easily from victims, or their experiences, or their hurt, or the lingering fears and doubts that pervade our society. I know that it is easy for others in the Chamber to take a more “singular” view—a singular constituency-based view, or a single veteran’s view—but we cannot do that. A principle that we have applied throughout the myriad decades of consideration about legacy has been one that keeps open the hope of justice, no matter how easily those who have spoken today have tried to detach us from it. It keeps open the pursuit of justice, of recognition by the state that what happened to people’s loved ones was wrong. It is the principle that natural justice and the rule of law in this country still matter, still count, and should still run through our system. That is something that we have attached to every proposal that has been brought before us.
There is a second principle. I do not attach this to other parties, but we have never wanted to see an equivalence between people who lived innocent, peaceful and wholesome lives and were cut down in their prime as a result of terrorists—or those brave women and men who stepped forward and stepped up to protect all of us and give us the freedom to stand in this Chamber and political chambers throughout Northern Ireland, and to stand up for what is right and what is true—and those who went out to destroy and wreak havoc in our society.
I am afraid that on those two principles, this Bill fails. I take no joy in saying this. I know that there are Members in this Chamber wo are thinking, “For goodness’ sake, Northern Ireland legacy again, can they not just agree?” We do all agree in Northern Ireland that this Bill is wrong, that this Bill will not command support, that this Bill drives a coach and horses through the pursuit of justice, although I take no pride in that.
We have been through the discussions about a statute of limitations. I chided the right hon. Member for New Forest East earlier about his revisionism—perhaps his fair rehearsal—of the approach of the four academics, but I said it fondly, because I have huge admiration for him. He is right to say, and the academics were right to say, that should anything be brought forward, principled and detailed, as a statute of limitations, it would have to apply equally; but the landscape in Northern Ireland is not equal.
We always advanced the argument that no one who broke the law could escape the law and no one who deserved justice should evade justice. When those who served our state and put on the uniform of our brave armed forces—whether it was the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Ulster Defence Regiment or other organisations—were involved in incidents that led to a killing, there will have been an investigation. We know that, post-1973, those investigations were article 2 compliant. We have always advanced the argument that where our state can demonstrate that it has discharged its duty, we should be able to move on: no reinvestigations, no trauma and no fear of that knocked door, because the state has done what is required of it under the European convention on human rights. For whatever reason, however, there were too few within the system of government that wanted to embrace that argument. I say that the landscape was uneven in Northern Ireland because when the state was involved, an investigation duly followed, but I am afraid that when the state was not involved, there were far too many deaths for which there was no investigation. That is how that principle could have been applied.
There has been mention of two years: the Good Friday agreement, the early release of prisoners and a maximum sentence of two years. Explanations have been bandied about today, including, “That’s just the way it is”, “That was proposed by the Labour Government”, “It was passed by referendum in Northern Ireland” and “It was ultimately put through this Chamber”. I will not be shy in saying that I found it obtuse and offensive then, and I find it offensive to this day. Two years—that is all. If you have served it, out you go. That is not justice. There were no cheerleaders for that proposal in Northern Ireland. Some accepted it as a compromise as part of the Good Friday agreement, and others did not.
How many times have we heard in the debate this afternoon that two years is not what we are talking about here? Read schedule 11 of this Bill; it will not tell you that the Bill removes those provisions. It will not be two years in jail; it will be nothing—no jail time whatsoever, whether someone engages in the process, seeks immunity from prosecution and tells the truth, or they do not. If someone sits outside the system, if they offer no answers for relatives of victims and their loved ones and if they decide that this process and this Bill are not for them, it does not matter because the British Government seek our support in this Parliament for legislation that reduces their time in jail to nothing. Who could be proud of that proposal? Schedule 11 does not even spell it out, but those are the ramifications of the Bill. Engage or do not engage—it does not matter; you will serve no time.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. Does he agree that these provisions are not something remote in the sense that they apply only to incidents that occurred in Northern Ireland, but that in fact the provisions of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 apply to terrorist incidents that occurred in Great Britain and elsewhere? They include the murder of British citizens in this city, in Birmingham, in Manchester and, indeed, in many of the constituencies represented by Conservative Members. Those Members need to understand that this injustice does not just apply to the people we represent; it applies to every single family in this United Kingdom whose loved ones were cut down in cold blood by terrorists, and that that capacity remains in this country to this day.
I agree, and I hope that the point is not lost.
No intended time, and no consequence. With no consequence to not engaging in this process, there is no inducement to engage in it. I heard Sir Iain Duncan Smith—who has been fair in his contributions on the legacy issue over many years—ask what it is that people want. Do they want time served in jail or do they want answers? There is no single answer to that question— there are many victims. It has been said today that people just want to know the truth. There are victims the length and breadth of Northern Ireland who know exactly who killed their loved one, and they see the perpetrator walking freely through their town on a daily or weekly basis. As they walk the lonely path to the graveside to see their loved one, the person they know to be responsible for their loved one’s death walks free through the streets with their family. That person still walks and there has been no effective investigation.
To bring the question into this House, how often do Members walk through the double doors into the Chamber and look at the plaques right above? There is commonality between each of those three plaques, because each gentle man stood for election to this House, each gentle man believed in democracy and the rule of law and each gentle man was murdered by terrorists related to the Northern Ireland troubles.
Rev. Robert Bradford was murdered by the IRA at his constituency surgery in Belfast South in 1981. Airey Neave was murdered in his car by the Irish National Liberation Army with an under-car booby-trap bomb in 1979. In 1981 Ian Gow was murdered by the IRA, again with an under-car booby-trap bomb. They were our colleagues and predecessors who stood up for democracy in this country, but they were cut down in their prime. What else connects them? Nobody has been made accountable for those crimes. The perpetrators have evaded justice.
Again, my hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Is he aware that the chief suspect for the murder of Airey Neave in the precincts of this House is currently operating a bar in Spain? He has eluded justice and, under the provisions of this Bill, will never have justice served upon him.
That is exactly why I raise these issues. I want hon. Members to know that this is not just about cold cases that have never had a prospect of success in the courts. There are people out there today who are guilty of the most heinous crimes during the Northern Ireland troubles, against our state, our citizens and our neighbours across the communities in Northern Ireland and throughout Great Britain. They have evaded justice, they have fought extradition and they have squirrelled themselves away into the Irish Republic and, under the political offence exemption, have stayed there. Some of them live in the United States of America, and our Government have sought their extradition because they know they are responsible and they want to bring them to justice, yet they stay in their safe havens. And some freely walk the streets of Northern Ireland in exactly the same position.
Those perpetrators of violence, be they republican or loyalist, will be able to sleep soundly in their beds once this Bill is passed. They will know that they never have to spend a day in jail. They know that the focus will be on state cases for which there is information that will naturally run through the information recovery process. They will not engage in this, and there will be no consequence for their not doing so.
I say with as much respect as I can in the circumstances that the idea that our Government and this Parliament will pass legislation that allows perpetrators of violence who have evaded justice to retire in dignity is a disgrace, and retire they will. This Parliament has considered on-the-runs legislation in which our Government, at a request from the republicans, were going to pass measures saying that those who were on the run and evading justice could come home and get away scot-free. It was going to be passed by the Labour Government until Sinn Féin realised that it would apply to soldiers, too, and pulled its support.
After the on-the-runs legislation, we had the letters of comfort. I am glad the Secretary of State ruled out the application of letters of comfort today, but John Downey walked free from court as a result of letters of comfort. They were not issued by the Conservative Government; they just came to light after 2010. John Downey is responsible for the Hyde Park bombing that killed 11 service personnel and seven horses working alongside them. When he stood in the Old Bailey, he produced a letter that said, “You’re not currently or actively sought for investigation.” This Parliament has a history of bidding for the wrong people in my view. Our view will always be based on those who have suffered the most in Northern Ireland.
I am sure that the Government have got the impression that we will not be with them on Second Reading of the Bill, but the issues are far too important for us to say that we cannot have any part of it and therefore not engage. I want the Government to hear us loudly and clearly that we will be tabling amendments, and we will seek as much cross-party and cross-community support for those amendments as possible. I hope that if we do that in the spirit of good will and co-operation, the Government will engage in these thoughtful considerations about sentencing and time served, because getting a conviction, being out on licence and having all the freedoms that people enjoy while their victims do not is simply not sufficient. We need to rule out the ability of people who have actively evaded justice, and who the Government have sought through extradition proceedings, to come home and retire with dignity. I hope that we will get a willing ear, Mr Deputy Speaker.
If we have speeches lasting 16 or 17 minutes, we will not get everyone in. Guidance was given earlier about looking towards 10 minutes, and I hope that people will now start to look to do that. Going a shade over is not too bad, but I just want to get as many people in as I possibly can.
I have huge respect for many of my colleagues in this House, and I have listened intently to what has been said today on all sides on this issue, on a path that I have walked down for seven or eight years now, whether in relation to Iraq, Afghanistan or the unique intricacies of Northern Ireland. I have seen the difficulty with this issue laid bare today. I was the Minister who introduced the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Act 2021 that brought to a close the Iraq historic allegations team. Everyone understands that if people see someone commit a crime they want them to go to prison. Everyone wants accountability. To pretend otherwise is a huge disservice to the victims and those who serve in the security forces. That is to approach the world and this whole problem—it has been approached this way for the past 25 years—not as it actually is but as we would like to see it. We would all like to see those things. We would all like to have seen decent investigations from back in the day that would withstand ECHR challenge now. We would all like families to genuinely have hope of an understanding of what went on and have answers to their problems, but there is nothing we can do about that now. There is nothing we can do. That is not my opinion; it has been tested to destruction in the courts and the justice system in Northern Ireland.
The process of testing that to destruction has destroyed the lives of some of our people who sacrificed the most for the freedoms and privileges that are enjoyed in that part of the United Kingdom today. I am afraid that colleagues in this space have to get real and stick to the truth and the facts. A number of comments that have been made today are, I am afraid, not true. I dearly love my friend Peter Kyle, who is on the Opposition Front Bench. He is a great friend of mine, but what he said about sexual offences is not true. The truth is written in the Bill, and Members can read it.
My right hon. Friend Julian Smith made an incredibly powerful speech, but he mentioned collusion. Collusion has never been proved—[Interruption.] Collusion has never been proved in a court of law. If anyone would like to challenge that, please do so now. The suggestion that it happened is incredibly offensive to those who went out there to try to sustain peace.
I urge colleagues to accept that there are no winners here. There are going to be no winners. There is no social media clip that they can send out to the people who vote for them that will suddenly make them think they are the best thing since sliced bread and ensure they get in at the next election. There are no winners in legacy. It is a mess. The whole thing is a disaster. But we have to do what we can to bring some sort of end, finality and truth to this process for the victims. That is what I want colleagues to focus on.
Some Opposition Members have consistently said in the press that people want individuals to get away with murder and all the rest of it. It is a total load of garbage. I have always been clear, from the outset, and I say it again, that all I have asked for is fairness. All this Government are looking to introduce is fairness to all sides. I have never argued for those who operated outside the law to be unaccountable—I argue the complete opposite, because it is a foundation of our society.
There are those who continue this argument. I go out to the trials in Northern Ireland and they ask why I do not engage with them. It is because they are deliberately propelling a false narrative for political ends. That has gone on for too long in Northern Ireland and failed too many people. I am afraid I will not be part of it. To those people I say again today, as I have said many times before, that uniform in particular is no place for those who cannot adhere to the standards set and maintained by the vast majority of those who serve in Britain’s armed forces. We can find that idea espoused most by the operators themselves.
As I have said, the core of the problem is that people see this issue not as it actually is—a complete mess in which the state has failed families and failed veterans—but as they want to see it and as they want their world to be. If they were totally honest with people, they would say, “Do you know what? You’re not going to get the evidence up to a criminal threshold that means we will convict someone for your son’s murder.” I will tell the House why they have not done that: because it requires a level or integrity and courage that has eluded so many politicians in Northern Ireland. That is the reality that is currently being tested to destruction every day in the courts. It is often said that it is not justice they seek but their version of justice. That is not my opinion; it has been proven a number of times—the evidence gathering was terrible.
If it was my family member, I would be leaping. I would be jumping up and down, absolutely furious if my brother, sister, father or mother had been killed in some of the situations investigated by the British state. The soldiers were not interviewed by the police, they spoke to the Royal Military Police and some of the statements were pre-written. It is a disgrace, and I accept that. People will get away with things they should not get away with. We can bemoan that all we like, make speeches and speak to our home crowd as much as we like, but it is never going to change. I tell you now, everybody knows that is true—the judges who serve on these cases, the prosecutors who promise convictions for bereaved and vulnerable families, the so-called community leaders who pump out this rhetoric without a care in the world for the damage they do to the families who are looking for answers.
Of course, for veterans this must end. They hound old men in courts over in Northern Ireland. Two weeks ago, I listened to what exactly the drills were for a GPMG—general purpose machine gun—weapons system at a particular moment in time 40 years ago. There was an old man on the stand and he simply had no recollection. It is a farce, and I tell you now: it looks appalling for Northern Ireland. It looks ridiculous for Northern Ireland, and it loses the credibility required to bring anybody along in the process. For people like me—who, I reiterate, are not protectors of those who break the law in uniform—it fatally weakens the cause.
Attitudes have changed. We cannot let history’s notoriously heavy hand be an impediment to reconciliation, peace and opportunities in Northern Ireland for the greater good. Truth about the past has an important role to play but, as I have said today and pointed out to individual Members, it is about the actual truth, not their version of the truth, and about all the uncomfortable, messy, bloody and disgraceful actions that occurred. It has to be the truth, not their version of the truth.
I wish to focus my remarks on two key groups: the families of the civilians who died and those who sought to uphold the law in the security services—I will come to the veterans in a moment. I am talking about the real people in this debate. They are not trying to get elected all the time. They are not saying ridiculous things in the Chamber like, “British soldiers went to my town to murder civilians”. They are not saying that sort of thing just to get social media clicks—[Interruption.] That is precisely what Colum Eastwood said. That is exactly what he said, and it was an absolute disgrace. He is a disgrace to this House. These are real people, and they are not like that. They are real people without answers, without parents, without siblings and without loved ones, some of whom are under threat from almost interminable prosecutions.
I accept that the Bill needs work. The Government must overcompensate for the failures of the past, particularly on transparency. We cannot blanket rule out people finding out what happened to their loved ones because of national security. That has been the situation for too long, and the truth has not come out. Time has passed, and we are in this situation now. We must hand this over to the main protagonists, and chief among them are the team at Op Kenova led by Jon Boutcher. Time and again, I have said that the Government must bend over backwards to show what Boutcher is doing in that investigation, and that it should be lauded in all parts of this House. What he is doing requires really difficult skills, and it must be replicated in this commission, so that victims have confidence in what is being done.
I recognise that many Members have come out against the Bill, despite the fact that it has been in the public domain for only 48 to 72 hours, and I genuinely think that that is a mistake. This is an incredibly difficult space. We have probably a generational opportunity to get this right. Legacy is not an amateur sport. It is not about coming out and saying slogans and thinking that it will all go away—Members on the Conservative Benches have been as guilty of that as anybody else. It will not go away, and to imply otherwise is deeply misleading.
Critical to the success of this Bill is how it is handled by Ministers, and I encourage them in their endeavours. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for what he has done. When the Command Paper came out, it was clearly rejected—I was probably one of the few on these Benches to come out against it. But the Secretary of State has had the character to look at it and come back with more realistic and better proposals, and he should be commended for that.
Finally, I want to address the issue of veterans. The Good Friday agreement was an incredible piece of work, ending years of bloodshed in Northern Ireland. However, there is no doubt that the issue of veterans was left on the table, and there are some of us who will never accept that. We are not asking for favours; we are asking for fairness.
I thank the hon. Member for giving way. I know that he speaks passionately on behalf of many veterans, and I understand that. He spoke of the Government responding to his concerns. Does he agree that, when the Minister of State rises to respond to this debate later, what we want to hear is a willingness from the Government to consider carefully reasoned amendments to this Bill that take account of very real and genuine concerns that we have about this process?
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman 100%. We have a job here to go down that route. It must be abundantly clear to families in particular that the powers in respect of information held by the security forces sit not with the Northern Ireland Office but with the commission, which has unfettered access to that material. Any evidence that exists must be allowed to have modern techniques applied to it, as is the case under Kenova, to ensure that the truest accounts—not a version of the truth, but the truest accounts—are given to the families. The commission must have the right to speak to anybody who is still alive and could shed light—the barman in Spain, for instance.
Finally, I do want to address the matter of veterans. This Chamber is not packed today. I tell Members now that there is no other country in the world that would treat its veterans like this. I totally get the emotion in people’s speeches—I genuinely do—but the way that this has carried on over the past 25 years is an absolute disgrace.
I promised veterans before I was in Government and when I was in Government that I would do whatever it took to help them—that I would not allow them to be left behind on the negotiating table, or to be left in that “too difficult” column, as has been the case for decades. Those decades have seen lives ruined and lives ended prematurely. The whole premise of a generation’s sacrifice in Northern Ireland has been questioned openly with almost no defence, save from a few hon. Members, some of whom are here today.
I never served in Northern Ireland and I have no relation to that wonderful part of the United Kingdom, but I know the institution that shaped me. While I know the UK’s armed forces will always have their challenging individuals, as any organisation does, and we must do better in holding them to account, the overwhelming sense is one of deep professionalism, humility, courage, integrity and self-sacrifice. Those values have been tested to destruction and beyond. I have personally seen men die in the upholding of those values.
In this journey, one of the most affecting testimonies I have heard—I realise I am going slightly over 10 minutes, Mr Deputy Speaker, but this is important.
Okay. I just want those soldiers’ voices to be heard at the end of this. We talked about the two-year limit and the pain that that has caused. Veterans are not stupid. We understand the need for difficult compromise. Peace must prevail and endure; that is ultimately why we sign up in the first place—to protect the peace. However, allowing veterans’ sacrifices to be used as pawns in this political settlement has to end. When I came to this place I could not believe the ease with which those sacrifices were trashed or the ease with which political leaders abandoned those veterans to their foes, who are now invited into government in Northern Ireland, with the full utility of the levers of state at their disposal. Never again must we allow them to rewrite history in their favour.
I say to veterans: the nation is deeply proud of your role in securing peace in Northern Ireland and profoundly grateful for your sacrifice. Whatever happens in the process of this Bill—I urge colleagues on both sides to work with Ministers and I urge Ministers to bend over backwards to get it through—I hope veterans begin to understand that there are some of us in this place who will do whatever it takes to get there in the end.
Order. I remind people again that 10 minutes is the target we are looking at, otherwise I will introduce a time limit. And let us have temperate language, please, to one another throughout the debate.
I will point out one thing at the outset. I am sitting with colleagues from Northern Ireland around me, and while we rarely agree on much—I think they will agree with that—we agree on this. We come at it from different perspectives and we will make different types of speech, but we agree that this piece of legislation goes absolutely against the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland and against the interests of the victims in Northern Ireland. Nobody on these Benches is interested in social media clips or dipping in and out of an issue every couple of months. We have been doing this for a long time; we speak to every single victims group and we try our best to represent them. Some people in this House might not like that, but we will continue to do it.
I have great respect for the Chair of the Select Committee, Simon Hoare, but he said that there is something in this Bill for everyone. I say this with great respect, but there is nothing in this Bill for the victims and those people who have been left behind by all the perpetrators who destroyed lives and families over many years.
I was interested to hear the comments of Dr Lewis. He intimated that we have all been fighting with each other and we need the British Government to come in and sort out the problem for us. That is a fundamental misunderstanding of what happened over many years and many centuries in Northern Ireland. The British Government are no neutral observer in what happened, and they cannot be allowed to make the decisions on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland. We have already agreed how to resolve this issue: it is called the Stormont House agreement. As difficult as that is, as complicated as it has been, that is the only route that has buy-in from all the political parties and two Governments—at least, it used to have.
Before I came into this Chamber, I met for a cup of tea with a man called Michael O’Hare. His sister was called Majella, and she was 12 years old in 1976. She was walking with her friends to the chapel when she was shot twice in the back by a British Army Parachute Regiment member. Michael does not want an amnesty for anybody.
I was reminded of another case in my own constituency by the fantastic and heartfelt speech by Julian Smith, who talked about Patsy Gillespie. The IRA abducted Patsy Gillespie from his house, leaving his wife Kathleen and his family at home. Patsy worked in a British Army base. He was chained to a van full of explosives and forced to drive into that army base on the Buncrana Road in Derry. Patsy was killed along with five British soldiers. The people who carried that out will be freed from any concern as a result of this legislation.
I also wonder about the Ballymurphy families. In August 1971, 11 people were killed by the British Army—by the Parachute Regiment, again. Daniel Teggart was one of the victims. His daughter is called Alice Harper. This is what she had to say recently:
“We identified my daddy by his curly hair. Fourteen times they shot him. The next day they blackened his name and called him a gunman. Two years later, my brother Bernard, with a mental age of nine, was killed by the IRA. We want no amnesty for anyone.”
The Ballymurphy families would never have seen the truth that the world got to see about what happened in Ballymurphy if these proposals had been brought in before the result of that inquest.
We hear that the new system will provide truth for people. Well, Columba McVeigh was 17, from Donaghmore, County Tyrone. He was abducted and killed by the IRA and his body was disappeared. His body has still not been found, despite the fact that the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains allows for immunity in these cases. It would have allowed for the IRA to come forward and tell Columba’s family exactly where the body was buried. They have not done that—that is the point.
The idea that this legislation will bring truth to families is absolute nonsense. The pretence from this Government that the legislation is about victims or reconciliation is frankly an out and out lie. This is about politics and a manifesto commitment—about protecting the state, as it always is. It will protect every single perpetrator who committed those crimes in Northern Ireland. I cannot find anybody, apart from Government Members, who believe that this legislation is the way forward. The Queen’s University law school’s model Bill team describe it as unworkable and as breaching international law. Alyson Kilpatrick, the chief human rights commissioner in Northern Ireland, said:
“we are sure that this Bill is substantially, in fact almost certainly fatally, flawed.”
This is an overt attempt to close down access to truth and justice for the victims of our conflict. It rips up the Stormont House agreement—an agreement that people have bought into—and it does not have the support of the parties in Northern Ireland. It has absolutely no support from victims’ groups in Northern Ireland: many have told us in the past few days that they will boycott the processes if they become law.
Others have said that there is no such thing as collusion. I cannot believe that they are still saying that today, given the number of times the police ombudsman has uncovered the fact that there has been collusion in Northern Ireland between the state and paramilitary organisations.
Do you know what? I won’t.
The Bill is attempting to close down the police ombudsman’s opportunity to investigate issues of the past. I wonder why. It is also closing down access to the civil route for families. What happened last Tuesday? The Secretary of State announced that there would be no new civil cases after that day. Families who had been told that they were supposed to be at the centre of this were running around with their lawyers trying to get access to the courts before they closed that day. That is some way to treat the people who have suffered the most!
It is all right for the rest of us, who are still here and doing quite well out of the peace process. The people who have been left behind have been treated shoddily by this Government as recently as last week. People who have waited decades for an inquest and are now in the queue for one are being told that they will not have any opportunity to get the proper truth. If this is about truth, why are we afraid of inquests? I just do not understand it.
This legislation is riddled with Government overdrive and there is nothing independent about how the organisation will be constituted. There is no meaningful article 2 compliant investigation. Frankly, it is a recipe for impunity.
I have heard reference to Kenova. This Bill is not Kenova. It is nothing like Kenova. Kenova allowed proper judicial processes and proper investigation processes so that families and the rest of us could get access to the truth. South Africa, equally, it is not, and that argument has been well debunked.
The Government are telling us they want to see access to truth. Let me tell the House about two cases I know well. Paul Whitters was 15 years old in 1981. He was shot in the head by a police officer with a plastic bullet. Despite promises from this Government given to me, his file has been closed for a further number of years. Mr Deputy Speaker, do you know when that file will apparently be opened? In 2084. He was 15 years old. In the same year, 1981, the British Army fired a plastic bullet that killed Julie Livingstone, 14 years old, in Lenadoon, west Belfast. Her file will not be opened until 2062.
The Government are telling us that they want truth and access to reconciliation for victims, but every single thing they have done—whether this Bill, the Ballymurphy inquest or the Bloody Sunday inquiry—has been to protect the state, to deny access to truth and to deny access to justice for those people who do not have the same ability to protect themselves. I heard we have a new shiny headquarters in Belfast for the Northern Ireland Office. Victims were standing outside it today, protesting these proposals. They were also in Derry and at Downing Street, because they believe—to a man and woman, in my experience—that these proposals are absolutely wrong. Raymond McCord is in the Public Gallery. He has had to fight against the state and loyalist paramilitaries to try and find truth and justice for his son, Raymond.
The question is, do this Government really care about Raymond and all of those victims, or do they simply care about fulfilling a manifesto commitment, protecting the state and protecting paramilitary killers, because that is exactly what this piece of legislation will do if it is passed?
I rise to speak in this debate because I have had a long interest in Northern Ireland. I served in Northern Ireland in 1975. I remember the billboards at Christmas saying, “Seven years will have been too much”. To be honest with you, Mr Deputy Speaker, I hated every moment of it. I did not ask or volunteer to go there. I did not want to be doing something that I did not think I was ever trained to do, although we did carry out training. It struck me as a real problem.
I also want to say one other word about it, because often it is bandied around that political parties over here do not really get it. The Conservative party has lost a large number of people to terrorism—in the Brighton bombings alone and in other killings. We can see their coats of arms up on the wall in the Chamber. My predecessor, Norman Tebbit, has had a lifelong period of pain. His wife was disabled. She is now dead sadly, God rest her soul, and she put up with a lot as a result of her husband being in politics. The sadness is, as he leaves politics now, that he bore that all the way through. After the Good Friday agreement, he had to watch those who he knew had done it walk away. They walked away under the agreement that reduced everything to two years, and the pain he and his wife must have suffered was enormous—I know it was. I speak therefore with a certain amount of humility, as much as I speak about my own service.
The truth is, I want to talk about one particular person. Captain Robert Nairac was a good friend. He was passionate about going to Northern Ireland as a Catholic. I am a Catholic myself, and he thought that he could do something over there to help and that he would understand it. [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend Sir Mike Penning served with him as well. The truth is that Robert was captured. He was taken, he was tortured, we understand, and we think he was eventually executed after attempting to escape, but we do not know the full circumstances.
The sadness of all of us who have watched is that we want to know what happened. We want to get some closure. We have never understood what happened. Where is he buried? His parents went to their graves never knowing where he was. They could never go to that grave and say some words over it. That is the reality of where we are today and the point is that many people already suffer because of it.
The truth is that I do not love this Bill. I think that it is, in many senses, imperfect—as it will be—and it has problems and difficulties, some of which were related earlier. The question that we need to face is what we are really after. If we want justice in terms of prosecution and, if necessary, eventual incarceration, we need to deal with the reality that we no longer have that, because two years for murder most foul is not justice. It cannot be justice.
So do we want the prosecution to raise information? The problem is that many prosecutions are taking place against people about whom there are huge numbers of records because they happened to be servicemen and women. That is why those cases can be taken up—because the Government have all those records. Those who committed terrorist acts, however, where there is little information and little willingness to do anything about giving evidence—they may have fled the country—will remain a mystery. I talked about Robert Nairac, but I have no idea who committed that murder or how many were involved in his final demise.
All I can say is that if the Bill is about knowledge, the system at the moment is imperfect. If it is about punishment and prosecution, the system at the moment is imperfect. So what are we going to do? I understand that the Bill is a process and I think it is a genuine attempt by the Government to try to find a way that allows the families of victims to at least know and understand what happened.
My point is that things will have to change if we are to see any of this happen. On that, I have a small comment for the Opposition. I understand their position, but I wish that they had said “Maybe” rather than “No”, because we now engage in a process. The question is whether we can get some of those things right during that process. That is the point. There was an exchange between my right hon. Friend Dr Lewis, the Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, and Richard Thomson about exactly what we want to achieve at the end of this and whether it can be made to achieve it. That comes down to a couple of issues, which I will deal with now.
First, we have a problem in the reconciliation process. To allow someone to just come in and say, “As far as I can recall, this happened and that’s my lot,” and for them to be told, “Well, that’s okay. Now you can go away and you’ll never be prosecuted for it. It’s alright. Don’t worry.” does not work for me, and I do not think it will work in the process. It must be much more interrogative and individuals must be cross-examined about exactly how far their knowledge went.
Secondly, I would like the commission to decide whether we are going to go ahead with this regardless of whether it considers that, on balance, the individual has told the truth and deserves any kind of immunity from future prosecution. In other words, that needs to be tightened up a great deal. If families of victims are to have any faith in it, they will need to understand that there was due process.
The right hon. Gentleman touches on a good point, because the commission would consider what the individual seeking immunity says and whether it is truthful, but under the Bill it is not allowed to consider any other information. Does it not strike him as odd that it has no ability to challenge the rigour or integrity of what it is told?
I understand that. As I said earlier, with all humility to my colleagues from Northern Ireland, I start from a position of trying to find a way through. That is one of the problems with the Bill. If it is about knowledge, we have to meet that requirement somehow in the Bill, because it is not happening out there. For all the talk about prosecutions and knowledge, few of those who carried out those heinous crimes have ever ended up in the courts or will ever end up in the courts, so how can we manage to make that happen?
Another part of the problem is those who do not co-operate. I worried about the two-year issue in 1998, because it seemed unfair and not really justice. If someone blows somebody else up; murders them; or takes away a family’s father, brother, sister or whoever or a member of the armed forces who was there to protect them, they should, after committing such a crime—murder most foul—face the fullest penalty.
I understand the compromise that was made at the time—I understand that. Many of us had to bite our lips, but we understood it. My point is that if we are going to open the door on the one hand to those who would entertain the possibility of coming to speak the truth, we must also say that those who do not will face the full penalty of the law for murder most foul: “You will not be given an exemption. You will not end up with only two years. You will face a full prosecution if you are not part of this process. In other words, either you co-operate, you face the interrogation and you actually come out as having told the truth, or else you go down the other road back into the justice system and you face full prosecution.” To some degree, that would at least give balance. It would at least give an idea that somehow the process not just sought the truth, but punished those who refused to participate in that process.
I end simply on the basis that the process will never satisfy everybody. I know that, and I know that families will feel very hurt by this process so far, but I think there is a way through. The one thing that has characterised, in many senses, this House over Northern Ireland has been somehow trying to find a way through the thicket of the different positions that people take. I for one think that the process of trailing veterans—where the information is there, they had given evidence previously and they have been fact-faced at interrogations—should not go on, because it is terrible and belittling, and at the same time creates real problems for them at home. We want to find a way to settle that, but I do not want to settle it on the backs of those who still await to find out what happened.
If we can find a way through on this Bill, imperfect as it is at the moment, that would be worthy of the effort. I would encourage the Opposition to engage as much as they possibly can, because this is too important an issue to divide on in a very political sense. I want to see closure: I want to find out what happened to my friend Robert Nairac, because it troubles me every single day and I never got to say goodbye to him.
I am very conscious that this debate is most likely being watched by victims and survivors in Northern Ireland as well as those based here on the mainland. I am conscious of how painful this is for them—the hurt and the trauma inflicted and, indeed, the sense of betrayal brought about by this Bill. I make no apology for stating that it is those innocent victims of terrorism who are front and centre in how I and my party approach dealing with the past. The past is still their present. They paid the greatest price. They did not choose to pay that price; it was inflicted on them by the bomb and the bullet, by the evil, wicked hand of terrorism. All they seek in return for the price paid is justice, and for the perpetrator to be held to account for their deathly actions. While the widow and her young family stood at the graveside mourning the loss of the innocent husband and father, they craved the moment when the terrorist stands in the dock facing justice. As time has passed, that ray of hope has grown dimmer, but remained. Today, the Government are extinguishing that hope.
As a party, we have consistently applied a number of tests to any proposal around legacy. The tests are that there remains the opportunity for justice for victims, that there is no amnesty and that any process is fair and balanced. What we have before us today in the form of this Bill fails all three tests. As far back as the Belfast agreement, the DUP opposed the reduction in tariff for terrorist-related offences to a maximum of two years. We found such leniency towards those guilty of some of the most heinous crimes imaginable to be a perversion of justice, yet what this Bill proposes is even worse, for there is no custodial sentence whatsoever in these proposals, only a period on licence. To the on-the-runs’ letters of comfort, add the freedom pass. How utterly repugnant.
We know how the process will work. In reality, a terrorist could come forward and tell whatever tale he or she contrives. With no new evidence and on the balance of probabilities, some will get the reward of an amnesty for their tall tale. I am yet to decide if it is naive or simply duplicitous of the Government to suggest the Bill will help to address the legacy of the past: to do that, surely truth must mean something. For Sinn Féin, “truth” means concealing as much as it can about IRA terrorism. When Martin McGuinness, an IRA godfather with the blood of many innocents dripping from his hands, appeared before the Saville inquiry, he stated that his IRA oath curtailed what he could say. He said, and the Government should take note:
“I feel I cannot answer that question because there is a Republican code of honour. For me to identify who these people are would be a betrayal, in my view. To do so would have been a gross act of betrayal. I have a duty, in my view, stretching back 30 years, to those people and I am not prepared to break my word to them under any circumstances.”
Let me raise one other issue in relation to our brave armed forces, who stood against those intent on death and destruction. We have seen the imbalance in resources and in the ferocity with which answers have been sought in instances involving our armed forces, compared with terrorism. It is not that long ago that I stood outside a Belfast courthouse with Johnny Mercer and the late Dennis Hutchings, who was chased to his grave by those intent on the vexatious prosecution of soldiers. Dennis, like others, was placed in that position in rural Ulster not through choice, but in response to a situation foisted upon our land. This country and this House put our young men and women in an incredibly dangerous position and, as part of their operational duties, they had to make very difficult operational decisions, sometimes with tragic outcomes. It is appalling that they should then be subject to the full rigour of criminal investigation, as proposed by the Bill. Furthermore, it is scandalous that should a soldier tell his story and it not be completely corroborated by documentary evidence, the burden of proof for the soldier is much higher than for the terrorist whom he was sent to defeat.
It was William Gladstone who famously said:
“Justice delayed is justice denied”.
However, the Bill is much worse. It is justice denied and justice destroyed.
I am honoured to speak in the debate and I understand the sensitivities, the emotion and the hurt that many people in the Chamber feel, given their personal experiences and those of loved ones. I shall try to temper what I say in my speech as a result.
I served for 18 months at the back end of the troubles, so I am one of the youngest of those who served there. My father served in Northern Ireland in the early days of the 1970s with the SAS. I grew up in Hereford watching my dad search under cars. I would ask, “Why are you looking under the car, Dad? What have you dropped?” We grew up with that—I lived two or three roads from the SAS camp. The fathers of many of the kids I went to school with served in Northern Ireland and were family friends. The whole community felt it, and we would regularly have bomb threats near the camp.
On a lighter note, some of my friends realised that if they called in a hoax bomb threat to the school, we would be sent home for the day. After three days of hoax threats, the school said that we would have to go in at the weekend, so the bomb threats stopped—at least, the hoaxes did.
In my community, we grew up understanding all that; it was always there. We would see it on the news when I was at school throughout the early ’80s. When I left school, I joined the Army and the Royal Green Jackets, which as a regiment probably lost among the most soldiers throughout the troubles. If we put it with The Rifles and the Light Infantry, they would without a doubt have lost more than anybody else. Every single loss of life in that experience is a tragedy.
When I joined, all our instructors at the depot were Northern Ireland veterans—they could not have been instructors without having gone through that—and we knew that, within a few years of passing out from the depot, we would be going to serve in Northern Ireland. Everything was geared around that. Twelve months after getting out of the depot, getting shot and recovering, I went on Northern Ireland training. Unlike my right hon. Friend Sir Iain Duncan Smith, who did not look to enjoy it, I could not wait to go to Northern Ireland. I was looking forward to it and could not wait to serve my country over there.
I had had extensive training; I knew right from wrong; I knew my rules of engagement. I knew, in no uncertain terms, what I could and could not do. I and all my colleagues were tested to breaking point on the ranges in scenarios over and over again for several months. We took the experience from those who had served many times before. I know that quite a few hon. Members served over there. During the process, we were shown what had happened to some of our colleagues who sadly never returned. We saw, in graphic detail, the loss of life from car bombs and murders. We saw videos. We knew that, if it was to go wrong for us, it would really go wrong. We knew what that was like.
When I was deployed, I remember getting to Belfast—we were in big, armoured trucks—and, as I looked out of a gap, I could see what looked like my home area. I saw streets, not a war zone as I had thought. It looked like a normal area. I am not afraid to admit that I was afraid. I was nervous and did not know what to expect. I was a teenager on an operational tour. Most of my colleagues had not been there before—I think that only the corporals and above had—so we were very wary.
Initially, there was a ceasefire, but the Canary Wharf bomb going off at the beginning of 1996 changed what was happening. I was in Drumcree in the summer of 1996 when we stopped the marching, and the whole Province erupted. Several RUC, who were always outstanding in operating with us, were shot. I think that four were shot in one night. There were multiple attacks, with people getting burned out of houses. We were in riot, and we were being full-on attacked left, right and centre. That went on for a long time. After about three or four days, we realised that we had not slept. We were tired. We were exhausted. We were getting bricked and people were getting shot at and petrol-bombed. That was going on and on, but we knew what we could and could not do.
We must weigh up how, in that scenario, every one of us had a split second to decide whether the person running round the corner with something in his hand was running away from someone trying to attack him or running towards us to attack us. At that very moment, we held life and death in our hands. If we took action, we took a life. If we did not take action, we died or our colleagues died. We were in that scenario.
I believe that, through all of my operational tours, people acted in the most professional manner. There have been mistakes that have happened, and there has been wrongdoing by people in unform. That is a stain on what the British Army represents. Those incidents are few and far between, but mistakes happen in the heat of the moment. Things do go wrong. I am 46 years of age, and I sometimes struggle to remember what I did last week, let alone 25 years ago—
I know—my right hon. Friend served the year before I was born—but many people would not remember exactly what happened then. Everyone in my patrol would describe those incidents in a different way. Dragging soldiers through the courts for what has happened is a stain on what we had.
The Good Friday/Belfast agreement was put in place in 1998. I can see why it has taken until now to get to where we are, because there is a lot of talk and there are a lot of reasons—people always have a reason for why something cannot be done—so I take my hat off to the Secretary of State and the Minister of State for getting us here. We have heard that there will not be unanimous support for the Bill. We see that. I look to my colleagues on the Opposition Benches who serve in Northern Ireland. Gavin Robinson said that Democratic Unionist party Members do not agree with the Bill and do not support it, but want to make some reasonable changes as it goes through. I understand that this has a different impact on them and their communities. Many of us will be touched by these issues, but DUP Members still live in those communities. It will be decades before there is change. No Bill will change the impact of the lives that were lost or the impact on people who went and served over there. People are never the same afterwards.
I would like to think that I am quite a reasonable person and I tend to measure what I say, but those on the Labour Front Bench have put up one Back-Bench Member to debate the Bill, and I find that an absolute dishonour to this House. I find it an insult.
No, I certainly do not. As I said, I am trying to temper my remarks, but Labour is going to vote against the Bill for political reasons. [Interruption.] Peter Kyle turns around to look. There is not one Labour Member there. [Interruption.] There have been a couple, I will give him that, but they could at least put forward an argument for why they are not supporting the Bill, and not just from the Front Bench. Labour Members will be voting against the Bill without having put forward a reasonable argument and that is completely unacceptable. Words have happened too much in this House; we need to see action now.
I think my hon. Friend is making the point on his own, but I extend the hand of friendship and emphasise that this is Second Reading. It is plainly obvious that amendments will be tabled in Committee and on Report—we have heard that from across the House—and surely on Second Reading the Opposition could support the Bill and then change it in debate in Committee. It will fundamentally change. There has been no debate from Labour Back Benchers really. This is Second Reading, and we should extend the hand of friendship across the House and agree that we can make amendments later on, but to vote against the Bill now is a slight not only against the victims, but against the veterans who served.
As I wind up, I want to make clear that this is not a personal attack on the hon. Member for Hove. He is here, but nobody else from his party is here and that is not acceptable. They could at least have come and put forward a reasoned argument for why they are not supporting the Bill. I will leave that there. I will be supporting the Bill because it is the right thing to do moving forward.
At the outset, may I put on record that I think we can all be here in support of UK armed forces but have a different opinion on what is the right thing to do in terms of the legislation? I stand here as someone who wants to restate my support for the work that the armed forces have done in Northern Ireland in the past, where they served with great honour, distinction, integrity and sacrifice, and for the work they are doing in places right around the world at present. All of us are very clearly aware of the huge threats that exist in the international space at present. I want to pass on my thanks and appreciation personally to Stuart Anderson and his colleagues for their service.
Our difficulty is that this debate is based around a false narrative of vexatious investigations and prosecutions that simply does not stack up under scrutiny. As a consequence, we are seeing the production of bad law—indeed, law that will prove to be utterly unworkable in the situation of Northern Ireland. Legacy is by far the most sensitive issue in our political space. There is a real prospect that what is happening with this Bill, including the manner in which it has been handled, will end up retraumatising victims, because no preparation has been done for what is coming down the tracks. People are seeing the potential prospect—slim though that may be—of justice being snuffed out over their heads. That cuts really deep, to their very sense of being and the slim hope that they have been holding on to.
Of course, the legacy process in Northern Ireland is fragmented and piecemeal. Outcomes are poor, in terms of justice and reconciliation. There have been some notable exceptions where results have been delivered, not least in some of the recent inquests. However, we have the legacy investigations branch of the PSNI, the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, inquests and civil cases, so the need for a comprehensive approach to legacy is clear. The Bill does not represent that solution. It is unworkable and incompatible with the principles of justice, the rule of law and reconciliation, and it is not compatible with international human rights standards either.
The Stormont House agreement of 2014 represented an agreement between the UK and Irish Governments and most of the Northern Ireland parties. It also has the support of most victims’ groups and other stakeholders, but it has never been implemented. It was never even given a chance. When people ask us, “What is the alternative?”, the answer is clearly “Stormont House—return to it and give it a chance before you move on to something else.”
The Bill is not even consistent with the principles of the Stormont House agreement. Furthermore, it is even a breach of the New Decade, New Approach agreement from as recently as January 2020 under the current Prime Minister. That agreement recommitted the Government to Stormont House—not to a different process. It is there in black and white.
The Bill is not compatible with the UK’s obligations under article 2 of the European convention on human rights. There is already very significant case law on requirements around the nature of investigations. The processes set out in the Bill do not, and cannot, provide the necessary independence, effectiveness or rigour, in terms of the interrogation of evidence, to be compliant with article 2. We have had an interesting debate about how that can potentially be addressed. We would have to recognise that a whole range of references to “review” in the Bill need to be stripped out and replaced with “investigation.” We are talking about surgery in which, essentially, we would have to select all and replace all, with “review” coming out for “investigation”.
I want to reiterate the following point: although we have to keep on the table the prospect of prosecutions happening in what may well be a small minority of cases—people will cling on to that hope—the important point about investigations relates to the rigour of the investigation, the interrogation of evidence and the challenge that actually provides answers for people. That is what they have been looking for, and that is the type of process that has reached results in limited cases so far. That is what an inquest does, for example. However, on paper in this Bill, we do not have that interrogative approach—it is very far away from that. Indeed, given the Bill’s failure to uphold the European convention on human rights, we could argue that it breaches the Good Friday agreement.
The Operation Kenova model negates the Government’s argument that investigations with full investigatory powers are not viable. Although there have not been any prosecutions, my understanding is that substantial files have been referred to the Public Prosecution Service in relation to that. Again, what is in the Bill is nothing close to what was included in Operation Kenova.
The process around the Bill has been flawed. It is a top-down imposition that does not reflect co-design with the key stakeholders. Indeed, there was no meaningful engagement with Northern Ireland political parties or other stakeholders on the Bill. That includes the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.
The Bill is driven by a narrative from the Government, and the Conservative party more widely, based on vexatious claims and investigations against veterans. That does not stack up. Ministers cannot, and will not, cite examples of what they mean by “vexatious”; they have had plenty of opportunity to do so but they have never taken that up. Indeed, the Northern Ireland criminal justice system is rigorous. It has a high bar for what is pursued through the courts and it self-polices any vexatious cases. Anyone who claims that there are vexatious claims in the system is attacking and undermining the existing criminal justice system.
It is also worth bearing in mind that the Bill is opposed by virtually every victims’ group in Northern Ireland, which raises the question: on whose behalf is it being passed? The groups opposing the Bill include Amnesty International, the Committee on the Administration of Justice, Relatives for Justice, South East Fermanagh Foundation, the Pat Finucane Centre, WAVE and the Commission for Victims and Survivors for Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission says that
“this Bill is substantially, in fact almost certainly fatally, flawed.”
The Irish Government are supposed to be a partner in the process and in managing the Good Friday agreement, but have not been part of this phase of the legacy deliberations. They, too, see the Bill as unworkable and as incompatible with article 2 of the convention.
Furthermore, much of the Bill relates to matters that are essentially in the devolved space of Northern Ireland. The original understanding behind Stormont House was that the UK Parliament would pass legislation covering both UK responsibilities and Northern Ireland responsibilities on a hybrid basis, with the active consent of the Assembly; that was the only tactical way of getting the comprehensive package through. As things stand, however, the Government are openly working outside the Sewel convention on this most sensitive area.
Contrary to the dominant narrative that veterans support the Bill, it is important that we recognise that views are at least mixed, particularly among former Army and police personnel based in Northern Ireland. The vast majority believe in the primacy of the rule of law; they believe that the very small minority of their colleagues who have potentially broken the law should be held accountable. The Bill risks drawing a false equivalence between them and the terrorists, with special measures having to be put in place when there is no need for any protection to be given that sullies anyone’s service. For someone who may have invested 30 or 40 years of their life in protecting the community, that twisting of the narrative behind the nature of their service will cut very deep.
The Bill will grant the Secretary of State direct control over the establishment and operation of all the proposed mechanisms, undermining the independence of actors. That is particularly problematic when the state is one of those actors. The powers to compel testimony are weak, suggesting that there will not be the capacity to conduct effective investigations. The functions are weighted towards reviews rather than investigations, the bar for re-examining previous investigations is high, and the conditional immunity approach amounts to a de facto amnesty.
A false equivalence has been drawn with what happened with the early release of prisoners, with decommissioning and with victims’ remains. I was deeply uncomfortable with the early release of prisoners, which was a part of the agreement that I did not find particularly tasteful, but it is important to recognise that anyone subject to early release was out on licence and could be recalled in the event of another offence. With victims’ remains and decommissioning, there was immunity only where evidence led to the discovery of remains or the handover of guns; there was no broad immunity for the people responsible. It is important to set out that context.
In the rare cases where immunity is not granted—I stress that it is a very subjective process—there is still only a technical risk of prosecution, because who else will do the investigation? All other routes are being shut down. There is a very real danger that people will simply choose to wait out the conclusion of the new body’s work, so there will be a blanket amnesty by default.
Amnesties are increasingly regarded as problematic in post-conflict situations around the world, so the Government are going against the trend. Amnesties are particularly problematic in the context of the ECHR framework; the Marguš v. Croatia case is especially relevant in that regard. The lessons are very clear: for any amnesty to be even remotely tenable, it would need either to be part of the peace agreement itself or to be agreed across the political parties. Neither of those tests has been met.
I am conscious that I am running out of time, but I make a couple more comments in conclusion. There are major concerns about shutting down civil cases and inquests, particularly as the last Lord Chief Justice and the present Lady Chief Justice have been working through a programme in which different inquests have been scheduled in a different order, so there is a risk that inquests will be completed for certain families but snuffed out for others.
The proposals relating to oral history, memorials and academic research are also centrally controlled, and are being used to give a reconciliation veneer to what is actually being done. Reconciliation is at the heart of the DNA of my party, but it cannot be done from the top down: people cannot be told to reconcile. It has to be done in an organic way, but that is not going to happen.
Let me make a final comment about process. I believe that the Bill is irredeemable and fatally flawed, which is why I will be opposing it. However, even if the Government offer to amend it, a Committee of the whole House over two days will not give us enough space for proper consideration of any amendments. That belies any genuine attempt to fix any of the problems.
Thank you for calling me for the graveyard shift, Mr Deputy Speaker.
There has been plenty of passion and emotion in this important debate, but I want to give my view, as a relatively new Member and, I hope, a pragmatist. Today is about the past, the present and the future, and it is about people, many of whom were terribly caught up in the troubles. It is already clear that the Bill will not be a panacea—far from it—but it does have defined outcomes that I believe to be broadly positive, for reasons that I shall explain. No one will pretend that this is at all easy, or that it is a formality.
Let me begin by commending the Secretary of State and his staff in the Northern Ireland Office for acting in good faith throughout. This process is very difficult legally, and very sensitive politically. It has required strategic patience and huge personal and professional resilience under pressure. Ultimately the Bill is a no-win statute, because it will not bring people back, and it will not bring solace to victims and their families, in that those whom we should be holding to account may now never be brought to justice. However, I believe that it will ultimately provide some solace and some closure, although not a lot. Despite all its imperfections, I believe that it will do what it says on the tin, as the least worst option.
This legislation has done the rounds. It has been through the Irish Government, veterans groups and victims groups, and it is probably the missing chapter of the Good Friday agreement of 24 years ago. It therefore comes as no surprise to anyone. It has, I believe, received due diligence. It has taken longer than expected, and yes, the Northern Ireland Office has received criticism—not least from Conservative Members—for the strategic pause that has been necessary, but it was a manifesto promise, it was in the Queen’s Speech, and it is finally being delivered. It is now deliverable as well, but it is also a heavy responsibility for the Government.
What I want to say about the Bill relates first to veterans, veterans groups and those who may still be serving. Do I think that the Bill is the right way to protect veterans from vexatious complaints? The simple answer is yes. Why? Because it breaks the cycle. It ends the misery, and it ends the knocks on the door at 3 o’clock in the morning. We owe it to these people, who served in good faith in Northern Ireland. I commend the good work of my hon. Friend Johnny Mercer and my right hon. Friend Sir Iain Duncan Smith, and the work of so many veterans groups. This has gone on for too long, and it needs to be killed now.
Of course, it is not possible to deliver legacy protection for veterans in isolation. It has to be able to withstand legal challenge. It has to be article 2 compliant. It has to get through Strasbourg and comply with the Human Rights Act. The principle of legal equivalence underpins that statute because it has to, and therefore the premise of conditional amnesty is rightly pivotal. It was right to move away from the original premise of what might be termed “new and compelling evidence”. Who decides that, and how does one draw the line in law? It is impossible: the bottom line is that one cannot. I therefore understand the logic of why a blanket statute of limitations has been introduced, and I think that is now the right thing to do.
What does the Bill actually do? We know that it establishes the independent commission for reconciliation and information recovery. In theory, it creates an environment of openness, which may give answers and some closure, but I appreciate the flaws in the argument. It will grant immunity from prosecution to those who engage with the commission. The important point is that legal equivalence does not mean moral equivalence, so it is absolutely right that conditional amnesty is dependent on engagement. The Bill will end troubles-based criminal investigations and protracted legal proceedings, which is the right thing to do, and it should mean the commissioning of a record of every troubles-related death from the ICRIR. The list goes on.
However, in the interests of balance, I should point out that the PSNI currently has a caseload of at least 900 unsolved cases. Op Kenova, which was mentioned earlier, has unfinished business for many, and victims and families will not get the resolution they seek. I am also acutely conscious of the concerns of those who believe that protagonists just will not engage. In my view, we have to give this a chance. It is important that we do that.
The Bill is divisive, as we have heard today, and we have to go forward as carefully as we can, mindful of the particular sensitivity of victims’ families. That is a given. But the time is now 24 years on from the Good Friday agreement, and we have no choice. We have to deliver on the promise that was made, not least to our veterans. Personally, I am bewildered and disappointed by Labour’s decision not to be in the Chamber today and to vote against the Bill. In addition to doing the right thing for our security services and our veterans, the Bill is ultimately about national politics, not party politics, and I hope that my colleagues on the Opposition Benches will do the right thing this afternoon.
I certainly laboured that point, but it is a point that really needs labouring. Does my hon. Friend agree that Labour is not the party of veterans, and that its action tonight will be seen across the veteran community?
My personal view is that we have to show the requisite support to our veterans, our armed forces and our security services. Today is ultimately about two things. It is about drawing a line under vexatious complaints and about hoping that Northern Ireland can emerge into a peaceful and prosperous future. I very much hope that that happens.
We have heard a number of helpful and interesting contributions on what is a difficult subject. Sir Iain Duncan Smith made an important and interesting point when he identified that there should be significant amendments to the Bill. Those amendments, if carried in the way he suggested, would change what the Bill does, and we look forward to them in hope and in expectation, because change to this Bill is necessary. Many Members representing all types of constituencies in Northern Ireland and all parties across this House have rightly stated that they are opposed to it. It has failed the Northern Ireland test of getting any sense of consensus whatsoever, and it is important that that is placed on record.
It is disappointing that Labour Members have not contributed to this debate in the way that we would have expected them to do, given that it was in 1998 that the genie was let out of the bottle when all terrorist prisoners were released from jail. That set on course a series of events that has told us that justice in Northern Ireland will be served up very differently for everyone. It is important that people recognise that, since 1998, we have been served a catalogue of abuse to the justice process. Let us consider the letters of comfort that were secretly issued, and the on-the-runs processes, which were a total disgrace.
These events have even been characterised in the recent series “Derry Girls”. I watched with interest the other evening as two characters fell out with each other over the release of prisoners. They came from the same tradition and similar families but they fell out because, as one of them said, “Your brother committed murder and he shouldn’t be let out.” That is how it affected all families in Northern Ireland—Protestant and Catholic, across the divide. It was appalling. Even Stephen Farry, who supported the Belfast Agreement, has indicated today how that jarred with him. It is important that hon. Members recognise that the genie being let out of the bottle then is how we got here today with this legislation, which says, “If we can do it once, we can do it again. We can undermine the rule of law again, because we did it once.” Perhaps that is why the Labour Benches are empty today—because it is unsatisfactory for Labour Members to stand on their moral high horse and read a lecture about the morality or immorality of this. Maybe the finger is pointing back at them and what they did in 1998 has finally come home to roost. That is an important point.
I mentioned earlier the case of Rita O’Hare, who tried to kill a soldier called Frazer Paton in Belfast 51 years ago. She evaded justice when she was given bail. She fled to the Irish Republic and went on the run. She got a job in the United States of America, where she has been Sinn Féin’s director of publicity since the 1980s. She cannot come back to Northern Ireland because of an outstanding warrant, but under this Bill she gets off the hook. What is she going to do—read a little story to an inquiry tribunal and tell it what actually happened? She will never serve a day in jail for attempted murder, she will never serve a day in jail for possessing the murder weapon and she will never serve a day in jail for maliciously wounding a soldier, all because of this piece of legislation. We need to call it out for those reasons.
On Sunday I had the privilege of standing in Ballymena Memorial Park as we unveiled a memorial to the Royal Ulster Constabulary George Cross Foundation. As we stood and listened to the names of the fallen from County Antrim, as tears fell on widows’ cheeks and as orphans and colleagues of the fallen stood around the memorial, it was obvious that this legislation is not a cri de coeur that no one will be left behind, as some hon. Members would have us believe. The RUC will be left behind and the victims will be left behind.
Colum Eastwood rightly said that not a single victims group, not a single party—for different reasons—and not a single rights group in Northern Ireland, including the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, accepts that the Bill is compliant with article 2 of the European convention on human rights. Some hon. Members go to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on behalf of the House to uphold the European convention on human rights, and we chide Russia for breaking it, yet we are putting legislation through the House that contravenes the convention because it is not article 2 compliant.
It is perverse when we hear hon. Members calling in this House for war crimes to be identified and for people to be brought to justice in another part of Europe, because there is an attempt to conceal and forget war crimes here in the United Kingdom. Veterans have been fed an unfair diet this afternoon with the idea that the Bill will be very good for them, but it will not be. They are getting a crumb off the table, and that crumb is blue-moulded and will not taste very good because, instead of veterans being able to hold their head high and walk tall and proud for the great service they gave to our nation in Northern Ireland, this legislation marks them out as getting some sort of dodgy special deal, like 1998 all over again. It does not do them the justice to which they are entitled, and it does not exonerate them in the way they should be.
For many years, hon. Members on both sides of the House campaigned for justice for the victims of Libyan-sponsored terrorism in Northern Ireland. The next time I hear an hon. Member say they want to see justice for victims across the United Kingdom who suffered due to Libyan-sponsored explosives in the hands of the IRA, I will take a double look, because this Bill stops that in its tracks.
My constituent Billy O’Flaherty, a police officer, lost his limbs in Ballymena because of a Libyan-sponsored bomb in the hands of the IRA. I have to go and tell him tonight that, as a result of this Bill, he is never going to get justice. He is never going to see the people who tried to murder him and who murdered his colleague on the same day put behind bars. The Bill will not get us to a point of justice.
If anyone in this House honestly thinks that somehow terrorists are going to walk into a review process and ‘fess up to all the bad things they did and that it will all be forgotten, they are absolutely wrong. This is not about reconciliation. It was wrong to call this reconciliation because it will not reconcile the differences; it will drive a stake between people and leave communities—not a community—in Northern Ireland feeling let down once again.
I commend my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland for introducing the Bill. Governments and Secretaries of State of all colours in the past 20-plus years have grappled with the incredibly difficult question of how to provide better outcomes for victims and survivors of the troubles. This has been fraught with political, legal and moral hurdles, many of which have often been considered insurmountable. So my right hon. Friend deserves immense credit for grasping the nettle and introducing the proposals when previous Governments have all concluded that the easiest thing to do was simply to do nothing. There has long been broad agreement across Northern Ireland that the current system for addressing the legacy of the troubles simply does not work. Victims, survivors and their families have waited far too long for answers and, in order to allow Northern Ireland and its people to look towards the future, the Government are right in bringing forward this Bill.
The years of the troubles were an awful period in the history of our United Kingdom, with tragic loss of life and severe injuries inflicted on thousands of people, but it should always be remembered at this point that 90% of the deaths in the troubles were deliberate killings by terrorists who set out to inflict untold misery in pursuit of their perverse political agenda. Being in my early 30s, I am of course not old enough to remember the worst of the troubles, but I do recall the signing of the Belfast agreement. The agreement has stood the test of time and laid the foundations for peace and security in Northern Ireland over the past 20 years. However, it came at a tremendous cost. In 1998 the prison gates were opened and terrorists guilty of horrific crimes were released without fully serving their sentences.
One can only imagine the tremendous anger, distress and upset that this must have caused, not just to the victims and their families but to those communities who were devastated by the barbaric actions of terrorist groups such as the IRA. This, alongside the on-the-run letters, was a complete corruption of justice. Some Members of the House opposed the Belfast agreement at the time, for this reason and many others, and it is easy to see why. However, we cannot look backwards; we must try to deal with the present and move Northern Ireland forward to protect the peace process and create prosperity, and we must do so while seeking to provide some form of closure to victims and families who are understandably still hurting.
Victims of wrongdoing should always have access to justice for the atrocities committed during the troubles, but the harsh reality is that these crimes occurred many decades ago and the likelihood of successful prosecutions diminishes with every passing day, as we have seen with the recent collapse of several trials. It is obvious that the current system is failing. It delivers neither truth nor justice for the vast majority of families. The emphasis that the Bill places on information recovery will help many families who have waited far too long for answers and may help to bring about some closure for the events of the past. The process will allow us to see more information than ever before on the circumstances of many crimes that resulted in horrific injuries and families losing loved ones.
The process will also provide certainty to those veterans who have for far too long faced the threat of reinvestigation, which has, in a number of cases, destroyed the final decades of their lives and inflicted great anguish and pain on their lives and those of their loved ones. It is absolutely appalling that veterans have been subjected to suspicion and have had to live their lives in fear of prosecution for so many years. By ending the cycle of vexatious criminal investigations and protracted legal proceedings, we will finally deliver on our manifesto commitment to protect veterans. That will be warmly welcomed by my constituents in Blackpool.
I am pleased that the Government have listened to concerns about automatic access to immunity and that it will now be granted on the basis of an individual’s co-operation with the commission’s inquiries and acknowledgement of their role in troubles-related incidents. The Bill will give veterans the certainty and finality that they deserve but, of course, leaves the door open to the prosecution of those who do not co-operate or share information with the commission.
I welcome the proposal to include an oral history initiative, which would create opportunities for people to share their experiences of and perspectives on the troubles. Such an initiative needs to be handled with the utmost care and sensitivity. There can never, under any circumstances, be a moral equivalence between those who perpetrated violence and those who tried to bring it to an end. An oral history archive must never be used to rewrite history from the perspective of those republicans who inflicted so much misery on their innocent victims and on the people of Northern Ireland as a whole. We must never agree to a version of history that seeks to legitimise the indiscriminate and barbaric actions of terrorists such as the IRA.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, as important as such an initiative is, we must make sure that it is not twisted by either side to become a recruiting sergeant for future years?
I agree with my hon. Friend’s point. It of course needs to be fair, balanced and proportionate and give an accurate account of events. It is important that it is not whitewashed by either community.
It is extremely disappointing that the Labour party will oppose this legislation this evening. The fact that I can see just one Labour Member in their place on the Opposition Benches—
I beg the House’s pardon—there are two. But that says it all. In opposing this legislation, the Labour party will allow the continued harassment of our brave servicemen, seeing them dragged through the courts with unsubstantiated claims, causing pain and misery for their families. I suspect that the reason why very few Labour Members are in their place is that they see straight through the ridiculous reason given by Opposition Front Benchers for opposing Second Reading: a tenuous argument about their objection to the so-called conditional amnesty. I am afraid it was the Labour Government who opened the floodgates to release dozens of terrorists two decades ago.
I am pleased to support the Bill and wish to go on the record again as thanking the Secretary of State and the Minister of State for their brilliant work and for having the guts to bring this Bill to the House.
I rise, like many of my colleagues did, to explain my opposition to the Bill as it currently stands. As has been explained by several of them, the issue here is about justice and truth. This year, 2022, is the 50th anniversary of the worst year of the troubles in Northern Ireland. In 1972, almost 500 people died as a result of the troubles, as we euphemistically call the period.
Just before Christmas last year, I went to an innocent victims’ group and asked them to organise an event that would commemorate that 50th anniversary, and they gladly did so. I and some of my colleagues attended the event in St Columb’s cathedral in Londonderry just a couple of months ago. The reason that I did that, and many of the other things that have occurred, is that there has been a tendency throughout the troubles and since their ending—hopefully for good—to equate perpetrators with victims. Unfortunately, we can trace that back to what happened after 1994.
Very often in this House and outside, people talk about peace dropping slowly in 1998. In fact, what happened was that, in 1994, the main perpetrators, but by no means the only perpetrators, were the Provisional IRA. Riddled with informers, it decided to call a halt to activities, and the loyalist paramilitaries, who were also engaged in killing, followed suit.
There were then discussions and negotiations for a period of years, resulting in the Belfast agreement, which at that stage legitimised terror—I am glad that some Members have conceded that point. It brought terror into the heart of our political democracy. That is what happened in 1998. People might resile from that and may not like that being said, but that is what happened. We cannot turn the clock back; we are where we are now. I sympathise totally with the Government, as they are in a very difficult position, having to deal with the issue of legacy in a way that will bring comfort, succour and support to those on all sides. That will be almost impossible. Whatever they do, the job will be almost impossible.
I thank my right hon. Friend and colleague and say that there is a substantial degree of accuracy in his observation. We have seen the outworking of that over the past five or six years.
Let me come back to those on the Front Bench. They are in an invidious position. Many people in Northern Ireland accept the difficulties that the Government are faced with. I do not meet many innocent victims who realistically hold out the prospect for a successful prosecution and limited jail term for the people who carried out the atrocities against their loved ones. I meet very, very few who say that. Most of them say that there is a limited possibility—a minuscule possibility—that they will receive justice. But what they do say is, “Don’t extinguish it. Don’t put it out for ever and a day.” And that is what this Bill does—extinguishes that possibility for ever and a day. Justice is gone—finished—and never coming back.
That is why the Government must listen to reasoned amendments to make this Bill less unacceptable than it currently is, because I do not think that there will be an acceptable Bill that will command support across the victims’ divide, and across the political divide. None the less, we could, if the Government were open to reasoned amendments, retain the possibility of justice if new evidence emerges—if it does emerge. Victims want to know that their loved one did not die in vain.
Does the hon. Gentleman therefore agree that the timetable envisaged in the programme motion is woefully inadequate to have a proper debate on those reasoned amendments and to try to address the concerns that he and his colleagues have raised in this debate?
I thank my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, for that observation. We are in danger of agreeing too much today, but I do agree with what he has just said. Maybe the proposed Bill has done some good.
In all seriousness, however, the Secretary of State made the comment, which I see is now headlining on BBC News, that there is a diminishing possibility of prosecutions. We understand that, but a diminishing possibility is not the same as extinguishing the possibility. That is the difference we must maintain.
I agree and believe that truth recovery can contribute towards people’s moving on and accepting that what is done is done. While they would like to see justice, and still hold out the hope that they might, if they got more information and knowledge about what happened to their loved ones, it would at least bring them some comfort.
A number of people have alluded to the case of a person I knew very slightly, the late Patsy Gillespie. He was what was called a human bomb, strapped into his own van and instructed to drive into an Army camp in Londonderry. The van was exploded, with him and five innocent soldiers also paying the price for the depravity organised by the late Martin McGuinness, who was the second-in-command of the Provisional IRA at the time.
I have an affinity with Patsy Gillespie, because he was an MOD employee on one side of the river, and I was an MOD employee on the other side. Likewise, I have an affinity with two of the three former Members whose plaques are above the door of this Chamber. They died as the result of under-car booby-traps. My family—my wife and two young children, one of them only four months old—were victims of an under-car booby-trap device; thanks to almighty God, it fell off before exploding and killing a man, a woman and two innocent children.
Let us do work with this Bill and try to improve it considerably. As it currently stands, it is totally and utterly unacceptable.
For far too long, for my life and beyond, Northern Ireland, the Republic and Great Britain have been scarred by the legacy of violence. History has been politicised and the truth has too often remained hidden.
The damage is not historical. It continues. For families desperate to know the truth about what happened to their loved ones, the current adversarial litigation system is an abject failure. We need only look at the success rates: despite decades of information gathering and hundreds of millions of pounds spent in legal aid, it has been overwhelmingly unsuccessful in bringing prosecutions and even less successful in securing convictions.
We have talked a lot this evening about justice—the hope of justice, access to justice, the rule of law—but justice is only a word unless it brings results. With the passage of time and the complexities of Northern Ireland, I am afraid that justice has become just that—a word. The only winners are the lawyers.
The system is failing communities, who are unable to have their experiences of the troubles properly heard and recorded. Feelings of isolation, disempowerment and conflict persist. And yes, the system is failing veterans, who, despite the near-universal failure of litigation, continue to live under its threatening shadow into their 70s and 80s. We have heard from my right hon. Friend Dr Lewis that the process of litigation, not the result, has now become the punishment.
All those people have been and continue to be failed by the current system, so for my part I welcome the Government’s proposals to end adversarial legal proceedings as the route to truth finding. An independent commission for reconciliation and information recovery does have the potential to be more effective and will rightly focus on all deaths and serious injuries, not just those brought into the litigation process—too often as a mechanism for extending division rather than achieving resolution and reconciliation. We need to remember in this House that of the 3,500 people who have been killed in the troubles, 370 were killed by members of the security services. Overwhelmingly, it is the evidence of former terrorists—republican and Unionist—that the families and others so desperately need to hear.
For reconciliation to take place, the truth must be supplied by every actor in this tragedy. The UK Government will provide a statutory requirement for state bodies to provide full disclosure to the commission, and I welcome that, but that transparency and openness need to be the approach of all actors, not just of the United Kingdom Government.
Linking engagement and co-operation with the commission to the possibility of immunity from prosecution could create an important incentive to unlock some of the shameful untold stories of the troubles, each one of which has the potential to provide answers to a grieving family. However, I also recognise the suggestion, in the speech of my right hon. Friend Sir Iain Duncan Smith, that there may be an opportunity to improve the Bill by making full prosecution the alternative to not co-operating. We should properly explore that as we seek to improve the Bill.
The same approach must also be adopted by the Irish Government. Last year they made a commitment to establishing their own information recovery scheme, but what has happened to that? Families deserve to know the truth about what happened south of the border just as much as north of it. Imperfect as the Bill may be, I still welcome it. I hope that the initial positioning in response to its publication quickly gives way to collaborative working towards a shared vision that inspires it. My greatest concern relates to the consultation process prior to the Bill’s publication. I hope that the ministerial team will engage fully with Members in this House across the divide and take on board their feedback during the legislative process.
As we have heard time and again today, the status quo is broken. I commend the Government for grasping this nettle. I hope that we work collectively to improve this Bill in Committee.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate; I thought Claire Hanna was going to get in ahead of me there. I would have been pleased if she had, by the way, but today it will be the other way around.
First, I declare an interest as a former member, for three years, of the Ulster Defence Regiment and of the Territorial Army for 11 and a half years—14 and a half years in total. I believe that this Bill is very important. I have a number of issues with its details, such as the fact that clause 37 appears to allow cases already in the pipeline, such as current cases against soldiers and others, to continue. That defeats the supposed purpose of the Bill. It means that any investigations being undertaken need only the Public Prosecution Service to signal an intent to charge and they will be exempt. I am anxious to understand how that would stop a repeat of what happened with Soldier F through a case that could already be in the system.
I have issues with the detail, such as the fact that general and specific immunity are not explained fully and would appear to lend themselves to other uses. I have problems with other details of the Bill; my hon. Friend Gavin Robinson, as we have come to expect, queried and posed the questions with a greater ability than mine.
As my right hon. Friend Sir Iain Duncan Smith said earlier, we think that Captain Nairac died on
I do not want the House to be misled. I was a guardsman; Captain Nairac was a captain, and in the Guards you know your position in life. However, I did spar with him in the gym a few times and gave him a couple of good digs.
The right hon. Gentleman and Captain Nairac served together, and that is the important thing to put on the record.
I want to put something from a different point of view and to speak about the victims. In the middle of all this debate—my hon. Friend Mr Campbell referred to it—it is important to focus on that. I do not want to speak as Jim Shannon the Member of Parliament for Strangford; I want to speak as the cousin of Kenneth Smyth.
It is important for the House to recognise that sometimes politicians talk about how powerfully these things affect us, but it is fair to say that from my hon. Friend’s contributions throughout the years he has brought a great deal of personal empathy and emotion to these issues. I make that intervention, and I will talk perhaps longer than you would normally permit in an intervention, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I will look for a nod from my hon. Friend whenever the time is appropriate—
Thank you. My brother William and I used to go down to my cousin Kenneth’s back in the ’60s. My cousin Kenneth was the one who took us shooting. We were introduced to country sports at a very early age, and it is something that I love today. I have introduced my son and my grandchild to it, as well. It is something that he instilled in us. They were different days in the ’60s than they are today and they were in the troubles. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East for intervening—I should have said that right away. I remember those days with a real fondness.
Kenneth Smyth and his Roman Catholic friend Daniel McCormick were murdered on
Daniel McCormick left a wife and three young children. She got £3,500 from the Northern Ireland Office as compensation for the loss of her husband and the father to her children. How does that give us justice? It does not give me justice, and I do not think it gives anyone in this House justice. What I see unfortunately is legislation that does not take into consideration my position as a victim or that of Daniel McCormick’s wife and family.
The family dispersed almost immediately within months. My cousin Joseph went to America, where he has been all his life, with Mariam his wife and the children they have had. My aunt Isobel sold the farm. My grandmother grieved, as did my grandfather. My grandfather died of a broken heart. That is the story of the victims, whom we do not hear much about—but we should, because that is what is really important and that is what I want to talk about.
I want to talk about the four from the Ulster Defence Regiment killed in Ballyduggan. I speak as a man who loved a chat with John Birch, who was born in Ballywalter and was one of the Ballyduggan Four. I was not there, but I was aware and was around at the time he was born. I remember Steven Smart from Newtownards very well. His dad Sammy and I were best mates and good friends. There was also Michael Adams, who worked in a butcher’s shop while I had the business and I knew him from there. He always knew that he was going to be a soldier and he joined the Territorials, which I was in at that time. I remember that well. Again, I had to fight back the tears when I learned that a 1,000-lb bomb at Ballydugan took his life and the life of Lance Corporal John Bradley, whose widow I spoke to recently. No one was ever held accountable for those victims. The IRA did that and got away. Members will understand what my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry said—if there is even a smidgen of possibility of holding them accountable, I want that for my constituents and for the victims I am speaking about.
I am the MP for the son of young John Birch, who came to see me and told me about the grandchildren who his dad would meet only in the next world. He asked me whether he could ever expect to learn who carried out the atrocity that robbed him of his childhood and his role model on that fateful day,
Stuart Montgomery—I knew his dad, Billy, very well; we were friends for many years—was two weeks out of the police training college and was killed by a bomb at Pomeroy along with another police constable. Nobody was ever held accountable. Justice? Not in this Bill. Not for Stuart Montgomery, and not for the others.
I mentioned Lexie Cummings earlier, who was shot by an IRA man when he was having lunch in his wee Mini car in Strabane. He was a member of the UDR. They got the fella, by the way, but the boys made a slight mistake in the summons that meant that when he came to court in Omagh it had to be rewritten. In that time, he got out of the court and on a bike and cleared off across the border. My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry knows the story only too well. That guy is now a prominent politician with a Republican party in Donegal, so Members will understand why I feel sore and aggrieved.
I have huge affection for the hon. Gentleman. I can see the emotion and the anguish written all over his face as he talks of his friends who have been victims in the conflict. He wants that 1% or 2% chance of justice, but I ask him with all humility, at what cost? I know that he also feels that aspects of the process are deeply unfair, so at what cost do we keep going down that rabbit hole to get the answers that I know he authentically, genuinely wants to find, but that some Conservative Members feel cannot be found?
There is no price on justice. I am trying, perhaps haphazardly and not with the focus that I should, to put forward the case on behalf of the victims and to explain why the Bill does not deliver that. The seven people I have mentioned—the four UDR men, my cousin Kenneth, Daniel McCormick and Stuart Montgomery—served this country and wore the uniform that the hon. Gentleman wore. They do not have justice, and I feel annoyed.
I will mention some other examples. Abercorn was an IRA atrocity against innocents who were brutalised, murdered or maimed forever. In the Darkley Hall massacre, people who were worshipping God were murdered. Lastly, I think of La Mon because it is in my constituency. Other hon. Members have spoken well and encapsulated what I am trying to say in my raw broken form. People were burned alive in La Mon. They were members of the collie kennel club—they were not soldiers—but they were murdered, brutalised, destroyed. Their lives were changed forever. I remember that day well. Where is the justice for those victims in this legislation? I do not see it and it grieves me to think about it. The IRA commander who was in charge and responsible for the bomb at La Mon was a prominent member of Sinn Féin. He happens to be semi-retired, but he is still there.
I speak as someone who has watched investigation after investigation seem to focus on one narrative or one viewpoint—focused on 10% of the atrocities, and leaving the 90% wondering why their pain and sorrow meant less. I tell you what: the pain for my constituents is no less than anybody else’s pain, nor is mine either. Who has heard the cry of the ex-RUC, the ex-UDR or the ex-prison officer who has been retraumatised by investigations designed specifically to pursue them by republicans to justify the atrocities that were carried out? I speak as someone who understands very well the frustration of the ex-soldiers being called to discuss an event of 50 years ago, when they cannot remember their shopping list for last week. I understand that—I understand it very well.
I speak as someone in this Chamber who has lived through the troubles, and who has intimate knowledge of the pain and despair caused to so many in Northern Ireland, regardless of their religion or political affiliation. My cousin Kenneth served alongside his Roman Catholic friend—they were best friends; one was in the UDR and one had left—and the IRA killed more Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland than anybody else. So we understand the victims, given the way we feel, the pain and soreness we have, and how we are with the things in front of us. I believe this gives me the right to speak in the Chamber with some authority when I say that this Bill does not achieve its aims.
This Bill does not deliver justice, and it does not answer the anguish or grief of the families I speak for or whom I want to speak about. It does not draw a line under current cases. It does not offer justice to my cousin Shelley Gilfillan, whom my right hon. Friend Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson knows extremely well. She is involved with a victims group up in West Tyrone. She has mourned her brother for 50 and a half years, as have so many others because their cases do not have a live investigation or a firm suspect who can be asked to give information in lieu of immunity. Those murderers are well covered with their on-the-run letters. The gunman who killed Lexie Cummings had an on-the-run letter, and he got across the border and had a new life. Lexie never had a life after he was murdered in Strabane all those years ago. So the House can understand why I just feel a wee bit angry and a wee bit annoyed on behalf of my constituents, and it is because of how they feel that this legislation, for them, does not deliver what it should.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and I am sick in the stomach that murderers are apparently going to get away with it as a result of this Bill. It really is the fly in the ointment of this Bill. It is an imperfect Bill—I fundamentally feel it is wrong that murderers get away with it—but I honestly now feel that we have little choice, much as it makes me puke.
I think we all like the hon. Gentleman—I probably love him; it is not a secret. I think he is a great gentleman, and I understand and respect his honesty. I have to say that we have to disagree on this. The hon. Gentleman will, I hope, understand my point of view.
I want to conclude, and I am sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I have gone on a wee bit. I apologise for going over the time. I thank Ministers for seeking to give a platform for us to move forward, which I think they have, but they have not done it right. I know that in life things are not perfect all the time and we do not always get things the way we want them, but I think in this Bill we get imperfection, and imperfection rules. Therefore, on behalf of my constituents and on behalf of my family, who still grieve, I urge greater engagement with individual victims, and I urge that better legislation—not this legislation before us, but better legislation—be put forward that puts the victim at its heart and addresses the aim to prevent the current attempts to rewrite history by painting the guilty as warriors for justice against an oppressive state.
That is my opinion of the Bill, and I believe it is the opinion of many on this side of the Chamber. There are many on this side of the Chamber—I am very pleased to see Dan Jarvis in his place—who have served in uniform, and we should not decry people, and there are such people here, who do the same.
In my opinion, this Bill achieves neither of those goals, and with that in mind, I will always speak up, as I always have, for the victims. Raymond McCord is no longer here, but I will always speak up for Raymond McCord as well. I will speak up for all those people who have lost loved ones and who grieve—grievously—for those who have passed away, even though it may be 50 years ago, 32 years ago, 20 years ago or longer, because that is what this is about. This legislation does not satisfy my constituents and it does not satisfy my family, and we want justice. I want that wee light of justice. I know that when I burn the rubbish at home, there is a wee light when I light the match and it does not seem to be doing very much, but all of a sudden that wee light can burn the fire. I think I want to see that wee light becoming a fire, but I do not see this legislation being the way to do it.
The legacy of the conflict is like a fog all around us. It affects politics in the everyday, and throughout this afternoon we have had a few glimpses of stories. Hon. Members will know that every time we meet a group or read a book, we hear a heartbreaking story that we have not heard before. Each one was a senseless loss that changed the futures and the lives of the families involved. Each of them is deserving of justice.
It is understandable that people say that we need to move on. Nobody wants to move on more than victims and survivors, but the Bill and the approach to legacy over recent years will not let them do so. It is blandly declared to be about reconciliation, but it will be a barrier to truth and reconciliation. It pretends to be about truth and reconciliation, but it will be difficult for people to shake the belief that—as with other major challenges facing us in Northern Ireland—it owes a lot more to placating parts of the Conservative party than it does to a good-faith attempt to get information for victims and survivors, and to aid societal healing.
In the face of opposition from every victims group, academics, legal experts and international commentators, and without the express consent of any political party in Northern Ireland, it is an act of institutional hostility for the Government to present the legislation as a fait accompli without the normal engagement. It is unwanted and unworkable. Ensuring the success of any legacy initiative requires independence—it is crucial to credibility —but unfortunately the Government are not independent on legacy. State actors and agencies were party to the conflict, and many of their personnel were perpetrators. While many served faithfully and to the best of their ability, some colluded with paramilitaries.
In direct conflict with the Stormont House agreement, the Bill places expansive and extravagant powers in the hands of the Secretary of State and a Government who are not trusted by a large number of the peoples in Northern Ireland. The Bill explicitly overrides devolution: senior personnel will be appointed to the new body by the NIO and the Secretary of State; rules on immunity will be made by the Secretary of State; national security and other vetoes, which for many years have been used as thwarting mechanisms, will be in the hands and at the whim of the Secretary of State; and those responsible for oral history will be in the hands of the Secretary of State, as will the budget. The purpose is to embed the control of the Secretary of State over the narrative and the outcomes.
The Command Paper in 2020 was an explicit amnesty, and this is the same thing, but in a less explicit way. It is clear to everybody what it is. The approach is structured to make it routine and fool-proof for perpetrators to get amnesty, which must be granted where a person has provided an account that is true to the best of their knowledge. That is a subjective test, and there is no test proposed of the actual truth of a perpetrator’s account. The perpetrator knows that the amnesty is available and must be granted if they assert that what they say is true. There need never be any word about those who called the shots.
The claim that prosecutions may follow for those who do not take part rings hollow when no new investigative body or pathway for prosecution will be created. The ability of the DPP to pursue prosecutions is theoretical, because if the Bill is passed the DPP will not be able to pursue prosecutions. Members have glibly referenced accusations not being proven in court, but it will not be possible to prove them in court if the Bill becomes law. Members also mentioned South Africa, but this is so far removed from what happened in South Africa, where victims provided impact statements and could be present, along with their lawyers who could cross-examine applicants. It is not even clear in the Bill that victims’ families will be notified if an amnesty is granted.
However much Members do not want certain offences to be in the Bill, it is clear that sexual violence will be covered by the amnesty. We know that people conducted and covered up systematic sexual abuse in paramilitary organisations, and they too will be eligible for immunity under the Bill. It is clear to everybody who the Bill is for. It is not for the people who have carried the weight of the conflict for decades: it is for the people who have the most to hide.
In the autumn just passed, I was part of a delegation of TDs, Senators and MPs who, under the Oireachtas’s Good Friday Committee, met a variety of different victims and survivors one afternoon. We discussed a range of issues, and one thing that came out organically in a number of conversations was a pattern in how the trauma of bereaved people is compounded through the denigration of the victims by those who killed them. The daughters and sons of people murdered by the British Army in Ballymurphy in 1971 told us about the marginalisation and shame that they faced for many years as allegedly the daughters and sons of IRA men and women. Paul Gallagher, who was paralysed aged 21 when the Ulster Freedom Fighters took over his home to murder his neighbour, suffered the further indignity of the man believed to be responsible for that shooting saying that he shot him because he was a provo. He said that those words hurt more than the six bullets that entered his body in 1994.
Columba McVeigh was a teenage boy who was disappeared by the IRA, and his family still have not been allowed the basic dignity of a body to bury. He was made a non-person by allegations that he was a collaborator—allegations by an organisation that we now know was riddled with informants and which thought that that was an acceptable thing to do to a teenage boy. The Bill waves through immunity for each of those killers, and people really need to give their heads a wobble if they think that those perpetrators will just go quietly and not use their new get-out-of-jail-free passes to firm up their self-serving versions of the past. As my hon. Friend Colum Eastwood explained clearly, we have an example from the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains, which was established in 1999 to give some comfort to families left without a body to bury. Despite immunity and the process being risk-free, only half of such cases have been solved.
Alongside the amnesty, the Bill pulls down the shutters on the alternative pathways to justice and the existing patchwork of mechanisms for dealing with the past. As I said, the architecture has not been put in place to do it properly, and it has been weakened by a refusal to implement judgments of the European Court of Human Rights and by delays in provision, but it seems that even those piecemeal provisions have brought forward too much truth for some people.
The Secretary of State’s arbitrary diktat on claims last Tuesday forced dozens of families to try to race to issue proceedings and washed away years of good law and practice. That casual statement, not even made to the House—it was a written statement—drove yet another coach and horses through the process, and families who had been given promises by the legal system are now thwarted because they are placed in a queue over which they have no control. Inquiries and inquests are far from an ideal method of dealing with these issues, but they have been delivering some outcomes for families and wider society. Government Members have used Operation Kenova and Jon Boutcher as some sort of an amulet in defence of the Bill, but those inquiries and inquests have advanced huge amounts of information to families about the IRA cover-up machine.
Members have mentioned inquests. In my constituency, we had the Sean Graham bookmakers killing, when loyalist paramilitaries killed five Catholic civilians. It later emerged that one of the weapons used was part of a shipment organised by a military intelligence agent, and another weapon handed into a barracks elsewhere in the constituency was ultimately handed back to those paramilitaries. That information had not been disclosed before. There is the issue of a cycle of reinvestigations, but this had not been investigated properly in the first place—many victims never spoke to a police officer—so that is why issues come back up.
Oral history and the exploration of themes and patterns will also be mangled if the Bill becomes law. We are clear that there is not a pathway to justice for absolutely every family, but oral history has been a way of giving voice to victims and survivors, capturing some of the complexities of the conflict and understanding its deep and tangled roots. However, the Bill denigrates that approach and uses it as window dressing for what is actually impunity. Will those who have waited for decades and had the shutters pulled down now be sent to the library to read about people who have been hand-picked by the Secretary of State to tell their stories?
Members have cynically used the failure of successive Governments over decades to address this issue as an excuse to now “get Northern Ireland done”, but it is a consistent and recorded frustration of the SDLP that the needs of those who suffered the most have not been addressed, while perpetrators and politicians have gone on to a very bright future. In every single negotiation, absolutely every time—there have been five or six over the last 20 years—the offering and the outcomes for victims and survivors have been watered down. Everybody knows the Stormont House agreement was not perfect, but it was an international bilateral arrangement and it had the support of most of the parties—I think all the parties—in this House. That is no mean feat, but it has not been delivered because it has not been actioned and has not been allowed to be delivered.
Instead, the Bill and this interference in the justice system undermine the rule of law and block all pathways to truth and reconciliation. Deliberate fiction is being created today that this is about reconciliation. It is clear that that is hollow. The message is going out today not that anybody who has used violence for their political ends will ever have to be held to account, but that after a number of decades, if they did that in a uniform or in a paramilitary organisation the record will be wiped clean in a few years. That is an awful message to send to families and an awful message to send into the future in our turbulent part of the world.
Ian Paisley referenced “Derry Girls”, which is not a sentence I ever thought I would say. That very moving episode did show how living and breathing the values of the Good Friday agreement are for all of us. As Erin and Michelle said, none of this stuff is easy, but just because it is not easy is not a reason. We cannot keep closing the door to truth. Every conflict around the world will show that the truth will out. People need to understand that it is not going to go away. The Bill will not let victims and survivors to move on. I urge the House to change it.
It is an honour to be able to close this debate on behalf of the Opposition. I want to make clear that we are not opposing the Bill for opposition’s sake. This is a flawed and damaging piece of legislation that does not serve victims and survivors. It does not heal the wounds of communities. It does not allow Northern Ireland to move on.
We know and understand how challenging this is for so many. To hear the emotion in the voice of Jim Shannon really hits home. It is important that his voice as a victim and the voices of all victims are heard. As my hon. Friend Tony Lloyd said, the Bill does not deliver justice for victims or veterans—many veterans are also victims. The Bill as it is, as we have heard throughout the debate, demonstrates a woeful lack of understanding of the situation faced by families and communities affected by the troubles, and an off-handedness towards groups in Northern Ireland, including the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which has not even been consulted on the proposals.
Victims and survivors often do not speak with one voice on these issues, but in this situation the Government have miscalculated. All the victims and survivor groups we have heard from are singing from the same songsheet: the Government have misjudged the mood. Indeed, as Colum Eastwood said, he cannot find anyone, apart from those on the Conservative Benches, who wants the Bill to pass. Gavin Robinson spoke about those elected in Northern Ireland. They do not represent one single view on legacy. So when Stuart Anderson attacked the Labour party for not standing up for veterans, it was hurtful and, frankly, deplorable.
The point I made is that, throughout the whole debate in the many hours we have been here, only one Labour Member spoke from the Back Benches. I think that is offensive. It will resonate throughout the veteran community that Labour has not put its views across in this debate and has not argued the point for veterans
The hon. Member needs to reflect on the fact that this is not about us today; it is about the people in Northern Ireland, and this is the start of a legislative process where we will all be represented. [Interruption.] It is not appropriate, and very hurtful, for hon. Members to continue to make sedentary remarks and chunter on. I would rather be able to make progress.
Julian Smith, who spoke from the Government Benches, displayed the integrity and understanding of the people of Northern Ireland, which is precisely why the Government need to reframe the Bill. The Government say that they have learned lessons from South Africa, but there are significant differences between the two processes that will, in our opinion, not solve problems, but cause them in future.
First, on the independence of the entire process, the Bill gives the Secretary of State sweeping powers, including to appoint people to the commission and over the process of the commission. Let us consider the following paragraph from clause 20, which is titled “Determining a request for immunity”. Subsection (8) states:
“The immunity requests panel must take account of any guidance given by the Secretary of State—
(a) when deciding in accordance with section 18(7) whether P should be granted—
(i) specific immunity from prosecution,
(ii) general immunity from prosecution, or
(iii) specific and general immunity from prosecution;”
The word “must” is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence. It is saying that the Secretary of State can make a judgment on whether a person can be granted immunity in specific cases or even in general. That comes on top of the guidance that the Secretary of State can give about whether conduct is “possible criminal conduct”. Those are not judgments that any Secretary of State should be making. The Government are leaving themselves wide open to legal challenges.
The Government will probably also be subject to legal challenges on the second difference between this model and the South African model—namely, the lack of conditionality on the amnesty. Whereas in South Africa the process was public and transparent, the system that the Government are trying to bring in is, as one commentator put it, “impunity repackaged”. Conditions on an amnesty are so low that they may as well not even exist.
The last difference between the South African system and what the Government are proposing is the running of the inquest system. Clause 33, which is called “No criminal investigations except through ICRIR reviews”, states:
“On and after the day on which this section comes into force, no criminal investigation of any Troubles-related offence may be continued or begun.”
As my hon. Friend Simon Hoare pointed out, any future investigations will not be allowed to take place. That is a significant difference and, frankly, it is not a solution that builds trust or delivers for victims or survivors.
We have also heard from the Government and Government Members about the process being the punishment, but they failed to mention that the Bill removes any reference to investigation of crimes and that that has now been replaced with the word “review”. For victims and survivors, that is not good enough. We cannot keep retraumatising victims and survivors of the troubles.
In Belfast less than two weeks ago, I heard at first hand from numerous organisations, when discussing legacy, how frustrated they were that they had better working relationships with the former Secretary of State and architect of the New Decade, New Approach agreement, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon, and the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for North Dorset, than they do with the incumbent Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. That is not good enough. The manner in which the Government have behaved at every stage of the process in bringing the Bill before the House has been the antithesis of the values that underpin our system of governance.
The Bill will give the Secretary of State enormous powers, but there has been no prelegislative work and no scrutiny by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. The hon. Member for North Dorset has eloquently made the point that the Bill addresses such a contentious and emotive subject that it deserves more time for debate and consideration. The Opposition would support an extension of time to discuss the Bill.
We would also welcome a full consultation with the people of Northern Ireland. A consultation on the Northern Ireland (Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan) Bill received 17,000 responses, with a clear message that there should be no amnesty for troubles-related abuses. Why are those voices now being ignored? Despite the clear support of the people of Northern Ireland for the Stormont House agreement, the UK Government released a written ministerial statement in March 2020 that signified a unilateral move away from it. That ran contrary to the Government’s commitments in the agreement and the expressed will of the Northern Irish people.
The Secretary of State says that he has consulted. Will he tell the House exactly whom he has consulted and what they have told him? There is such a lack of support for the Bill from organisations such as Amnesty International, which he refuses to meet, and from the Government of the Republic of Ireland and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, so we need to know. Demands for meetings with, in some cases, less than 24 hours’ notice is not the way to show organisations respect.
The Secretary of State and the Minister of State will know from seeing the visitors in the Gallery that victims of the troubles have made the journey to London today because they are so upset and angry that their voices have not been heard. Is it not one of the Secretary of State’s principal roles to listen to victims and their families, sit down and take note, consult fully, undertake due diligence and, above all, pay them the respect that they deserve?
No matter how the Bill is dressed up, it equates to a blanket amnesty. It undermines fundamental human rights enshrined in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and undermines the institutions established to uphold that monumental and historic agreement, which underpins peace in Northern Ireland. The Bill is solely a product of the UK Government. It does not arise from an agreement with the political parties of Northern Ireland or with the Government of Ireland; it does not have the democratic legitimacy that previous legislative change has had. Even though it purports to be about reconciliation in Northern Ireland, it does not have the support of the people of Northern Ireland.
The Labour party is an honest broker. Having listened to the victims’ groups, the organisations and the political parties that want justice and truth, we cannot support the Bill today. It delivers for no one and does not address the issues in Northern Ireland that need to be resolved.
It is a pleasure to respond to this debate on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government. It has been a varied, informed and intensely emotional debate, which is only to be expected, given the subject of the Bill. Words matter—they matter more in Northern Ireland than in perhaps any other part of our United Kingdom. Across the House, we all have an obligation to use our words in a measured way when we deal with these very sensitive issues.
I pay tribute to the victims who have been with us in the Chamber today and to the countless others who are not with us today, or not with us any more at all. I also pay tribute to those who served with such courage and bravery in Her Majesty’s armed forces throughout the years of the troubles, during the sectarian violence that came from both sides of the community in Northern Ireland. Above all, let me pay tribute to the people of Northern Ireland—to all the people of Northern Ireland, who always demonstrate such stoicism, generosity, hospitality and warmth, even in the most trying circumstances.
There is no doubt that the proposals that the Government are bringing forward today are controversial. I accept—as I accepted within my first week of returning to the Government when I was asked to go to the Northern Ireland Office—that there is widespread opposition to the proposals in the Bill. I noted at the time, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has acknowledged, that while there was considerable opposition to these proposals, there was not, conversely, a consensus on what the parties in Northern Ireland would like us to do instead. I say to my friends in all parties—and to members of the parties that are not represented physically in this place, either because those people do not take their seats or because they did not gain election—that it would be within the ability of the devolved Government, the Assembly in Northern Ireland, to take these matters forward if that consensus emerged on the ground and if they wished to do it.
I am encouraged by the consensual tone that my right hon. Friend is striking, and by his search for ways in which to widen the debate. In that spirit—given that he has heard from Tonia Antoniazzi and from the Democratic Unionist party of their strong desire for an extension of the Committee stage on the Floor of the House to allow that wider debate to be had and a wider range of amendments to be tabled—may I advise him to undertake to talk to the business managers about whether we can secure some extra time?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee, and I shall be saying something about his speech in a moment. We have heard concern expressed on both sides of the House about the amount of time that will be available in Committee. Both the Secretary of State and I are very open to the idea of expanding that, and conversations have already begun with business managers. Subject to their agreement, we would look to provide a little more time—
Will the hon. Gentleman bear with me while I give this commitment?
We would look to try and find more parliamentary time for consideration in Committee, in a spirit of being open to input from Members on both sides of the House. Now I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.
I am grateful to the Minister.
Given that the period between First Reading and Second Reading was so short, and given that consultation was virtually non-existent, would Ministers be prepared to refer the Bill to the Select Committee, or some other forum, for prelegislative scrutiny? I think that that would move us on a little bit.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but the timetabling of today’s Second Reading debate was agreed through the usual channels. I must say to him candidly that I do not agree with his points about a lack of engagement. There has been considerable engagement, much of which has been undertaken directly by the Secretary of State and me, often with groups who did not welcome that engagement being publicised. Much of it, of necessity, took place in private, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that in some of the meetings that I attended, the emotion was heard, and heard very clearly, by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and me.
We are tackling this, and I think that my right hon. Friend deserves a measure of credit, because it is an intensely difficult and controversial area for any Government to get involved in. That is why successive Governments have left it alone. The fact that my right hon. Friend worked so diligently on these proposals—and, indeed, the flak that has been taken when we have missed deadlines in order to take the time to try to refine and improve the Bill that we were going to bring to the House today—show, I think, that we were listening. I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister: the Government he leads will deliver shortly on the language and cultural commitments that they have undertaken.
I noted the Minister’s claim that the Government had engaged with various victims groups on a private basis. Indeed, there have been media reports that some, allegedly, said something privately that was different from what they have said in public. We all know the main victims groups in Northern Ireland, as do the Government. All of them have made their opposition to these proposals clear in public. Furthermore, they have made it very clear that what they say in public is exactly the same as what they say in private. How does the Minister explain this clear disjoint?
I would describe the “clear disjoint” as not being a clear disjoint, because that was a journalist’s quote which does not reflect what was actually said. Let me also correct a little nuance. I did not say that we were engaging privately; I said that we were engaging in private. We were meeting people who had been victims of terrorism. I myself met victims from republican families in West Belfast—I do not think many Ministers have done this over the years—hosted by the Sinn Féin Member, Paul Maskey, so it is not true to say that the Secretary of State and I and the member of our ministerial team in the other place—and, indeed, our officials, who have worked so hard on developing these proposals and to whom I pay tribute—have not been listening.
I just want to correct a few points of fact as we begin the closure of this debate. I say gently to the shadow Secretary of State, Peter Kyle, on his point about sexual offences that we are very clear that any offences from
This is a very serious issue and it would be great to clarify this. The model bill team on Queen’s University Belfast’s committee on the administration of justice, who are experts in this area, have said:
“Unusually for such an immunity scheme, there is no specific prohibition on certain kinds of crime, such as crimes of sexual violence. It would therefore appear that applicants who had been involved in rape and other crimes of sexual violence related to the Troubles, or indeed the covering up of such crimes within paramilitary or state organisations, would be entitled to apply for immunity under this bill.”
So this is not just about serious violence. If people who had committed serious violence and rape applied for immunity, would it apply in these circumstances? Let’s just clear this up.
The direct answer to that is no. The proper place for us to test some of these questions will be in Committee, rather than on Second Reading, but I am absolutely clear, as is the Secretary of State, that that is not the intention of the Bill and it will not be a consequence of the Bill.
My right hon. Friend Julian Smith made a powerful speech. I can tell him that the commissioner for investigations and designated officers will have the full sweep of police powers in pursuing their investigations and reviews. These are much greater than we have perhaps so far successfully explained. On the independence of the body, which my right hon. Friend also mentioned, the Secretary of State was clear in his opening speech that Her Majesty’s Government will have no role in the operational work of the body. I would welcome working with my right hon. Friend to find ways to make that clearer as we proceed to the Committee stage.
My hon. Friend Gavin Robinson raised a point about consideration of other information when considering whether to grant immunity. The judge-led immunity panel is under a duty to take into account other information in possession, and will therefore have to carefully assess conflicting evidence before deciding whether to apply immunity and whether the person applying for that immunity was in fact telling the truth.
Stephen Farry referred to engagement. What is clear is that there is no widespread consensus on this. Even within families there are differences in how people want this to be treated. That is why the role of the families in engaging with this body will be incredibly important to the body exercising its discretion after its formation. The hon. Member was right to say that honest and effective information recovery would be better with the full co-operation of the Governments of the United Kingdom and of the Irish Republic. I have to say without being misunderstood that I do not think we will be requiring information from the Government of the Irish Republic for veterans.
My hon. Friend Simon Hoare, the Chairman of the Select Committee, talked about the appointment of commissioners. Other than the chief commissioner, the Government have been deliberately opaque in setting out who else should serve on that, and we are very open to ideas and would welcome them.
Will my right hon. Friend assure me and the House that there is nothing in the Bill that precludes somebody with international status, but who is not a UK citizen, from serving as a commissioner? That would add extra independence, rigour and experience, which would add value to the whole process.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and he is absolutely right. There is nothing in the Bill that precludes an international person from serving on the body. In fact, it could well be warmly welcomed and add rigour to the body’s credibility, impartiality and independence.
Over the decades, a number of politicians in this House have taken courageous steps to build the peace and stability we enjoy in Northern Ireland today. It was started by Margaret Thatcher with the Anglo-Irish agreement, and John Major built it up. Tony Blair signed the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and David Cameron gave an incredible speech on the publication of the Saville report, which I was privileged to hear in the Chamber. That peace has been hard-fought and hard-won.
Since I rejoined Government in this role, I have visited multiple schools in Northern Ireland in Castlederg, Hillsborough, Armagh, Belfast, Bangor, Craigavon, Saintfield and Newtownards. People questioned why, when education is devolved, I was bothering with schools as a UK Government Minister. I pointed out that kids are not devolved, parents are not devolved and teachers are not devolved. The future of Northern Ireland is in those schools.
Two schools, in particular, stand out in my memory: St Brigid’s College in Derry, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Foyle, and Antrim Grammar School. I visited Antrim Grammar having met a young man at a charity play for the centenary “Our Story in the Making: NI Beyond 100,” which the Northern Ireland Office had the privilege to fund partially. This young man, Chris Campbell, was going into his A-levels, and he was playing Mr Northern Ireland almost 25 years on from the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement—this young man was not even born when Northern Ireland knew the troubles. One line from the play stuck in my mind: “Being divided keeps us united.” When I returned to my primary school in north Belfast, Park Lodge, I was asked—
I hesitate to distract the Minister from his theatrical memories—he is doing very well—but I would like to take him back to the Bill for a split second. I mean no offence, of course.
If people do not choose to be in the reconciliation process, whatever one feels about tightening up how it works, is it feasible to adjust it so that, if they choose the courts or if the courts choose them, they go back to a full-life tariff for committing murder most foul, whoever they are?
It is always a delight to be silenced by the quiet man. We will have to come back to those matters in Committee, but I hope hon. Members on both sides of the House and the Labour Front Bench are hearing, not least in our determination potentially to find more time to consider these matters in Committee, our openness to good ideas from both sides of the House that could improve the Bill.
That is certainly something that we will happily take a look at. There is no proposal even in the Bill to bring down the curtain immediately on inquests that are under way. For the sake of finding consensus, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I would be more than happy to look at reasonable suggestions.
I of course welcome the Minister saying from the Dispatch Box that he will look at x, y and z. Does he understand and does the Northern Ireland Office understand that we have to go further and over-compensate for a past that has failed victims? Families do not have confidence and we must commit to a level of transparency and openness. I know that my right hon. Friends the Minister of State and Secretary of State want to do that, but we need to make that commitment from the Dispatch Box, because we have to bring these families with us.
I agree with my hon. Friend that we have to build on the bits of the current framework that are working, but I accept as I know my hon. Friend will concede, that much of it is not working or delivering for victims.
A moment ago the Minister mentioned the word “consensus”. If in the Committee stage there is cross-party support from Northern Ireland on key changes to the Bill, will the Government commit to taking heed of the voices of those of us who represent the people of Northern Ireland?
Given that we are not at this moment negotiating another confidence and supply arrangement, I do not intend to write the right hon. Gentleman a blank cheque from this Dispatch Box, but I will say in the spirit of co-operation and consensus that, if agreement can be reached on ways in which the proposals can be improved, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I and the Government more widely will absolutely look at them.
No, I am going to conclude.
The Northern Ireland that I was born into 50 years ago this year was a place with an atmosphere of violence and conflict that was powerful and overwhelming. Such was that society that when I moved to England to a little village in Hertfordshire called Wheathampstead I told my mother as an eight-year-old boy that I did not feel safe. When she asked me why, I said that the police did not have guns and the Army were not on the streets. That was the normalised Northern Ireland of those days. Thank God those days are behind us.
On the formation of the Northern Ireland Office, Willie Whitelaw was appointed Secretary of State. He went on his first evening in post to speak to a Conservative gathering in Harrow. It is recorded in his memoirs that he said to them:
“I am undertaking the most terrifying, difficult and awesome task. The solution…will only be found in the hearts and minds of men and women.”
Northern Ireland remains a society where facts are contested and divisions are entrenched. We cannot draw a line and we cannot move on. You cannot heal the hurt of human hearts, or the grief of bereaved parents and siblings, but we have a duty to try to find a way not to bequeath this entrenched division to future generations.
In a spirit of partnership, co-operation and compromise, let us head to the Bill Committee and use our collective judgment, knowledge and wisdom to improve the proposition that is before the House today. In that spirit, I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time.