The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Wednesday 14 July.
“I would like to make a Statement now about the way forward in addressing the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past.
The Troubles saw a terrible, extensive period of violence that claimed the lives of some 3,500 people, left up to 40,000 people injured, and caused untold damage to all aspects of society in Northern Ireland. The Belfast/Good Friday agreement in 1998 sought to move Northern Ireland forward, setting a bold and visionary path that would guide all the people of Northern Ireland towards a shared, stable, peaceful and prosperous future.
It is wonderful to mark, in this centenary year, just how far Northern Ireland has come. While Northern Ireland is undoubtedly today a fantastic place in which to live, work and visit, the unresolved legacy of the Troubles remains. It continues to impact and permeate society in Northern Ireland. The past is a constant shadow over those who directly experienced the horrors of those times, and also over those who did not but who now live with the trauma of previous generations.
It is clear that the current system for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles is not working. It is now a difficult and painful truth that the focus on criminal investigations is increasingly unlikely to deliver successful criminal justice outcomes, but all the while it continues to divide communities and it fails to obtain answers for a majority of victims and families. That is borne out in the figures. The Police Service of Northern Ireland is currently considering almost 1,200 cases, which represents just a fraction of the 3,500 deaths and wider cases. These would take over 20 years to investigate. More than two-thirds of Troubles-related deaths occurred over 40 years ago, and it is increasingly difficult for the courts to provide families with the answers they are seeking. If we fail to act now to address, acknowledge and account for the legacy of the Troubles properly, we will be condemning current and future generations to yet further division, preventing reconciliation at both the individual and societal level.
That is why I am today laying before the House, and publishing, a paper that proposes a series of measures to address the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland. These proposals are being considered as part of an ongoing and an important engagement process, which I announced alongside the Irish Government at the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference last month. As set out in the framework, which we published at the same time, that engagement process is committed to involving not just the UK and Irish Governments and the Northern Ireland parties, but those directly affected by the Troubles, and experts and Members and committees of this House and the other place. The objective of this engagement is to deal with legacy issues in a way that supports information recovery and reconciliation, complies fully with international human rights obligations and responds to the needs of individual victims and survivors, as well as society as a whole.
This is a hugely difficult and complex issue, and many have strongly held and divergent views on how to move forward, but I hope we can all agree that this is an issue that is of the utmost importance to the people of Northern Ireland and beyond. It is critical that all involved continue to engage in a spirit of collaboration in order to deliver practical solutions on this most sensitive of issues. This Government reaffirm their commitment to intensive engagement in that spirit, and we are committed to introducing legislation by the end of the autumn.
The measures set out in the paper will include three key proposals: first, a new independent body that will focus on the recovery and provision of information about Troubles-related deaths and most serious injuries. That body will be focused on helping families to find out the truth of what has happened to their loved ones. When families do not want the past raked over again, they would be able to make that clear. For those families that want to get answers, the body will have the full powers to seek access to information and find out what happened.
Secondly, a package of measures will also include a major oral history initiative, consistent with what was included in the Stormont House agreement. That initiative would create opportunities for people from all backgrounds to share their experiences and perspectives related to the Troubles and, crucially, to learn about those of others. Balance and sensitivity would be of central importance and a concerted effort would be made to engage with those whose voices may not have been heard previously.
Thirdly, there will be a statute of limitations, to apply equally to all Troubles-related incidents. We know that the prospect of the end of criminal prosecutions will be difficult for some to accept, and this is not a position that we take lightly, but we have come to the view that it is the best and only way to facilitate an effective information retrieval and provision process, and the best way to help Northern Ireland move further along the road to reconciliation. It is a painful recognition of the very reality of where we are.
As I say, these issues are complex and they are sensitive. That is why they remain unresolved, 23 years after the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We also understand the importance of the Stormont House agreement, and remain committed to its key principles, which this paper will outline and cover. In particular, we acknowledge that any proposal that moves away from criminal justice outcomes would be a very significant step that will be extremely difficult for some families to accept.
The Belfast/Good Friday agreement was a bold step —one to address the past—and there have been other bold steps, such as the decommissioning of weapons and the limiting of sentences, all those years ago, to two years. However, it is increasingly clear to us that the ongoing retributive criminal justice processes are far from helping, and are in fact impeding the successful delivery of information recovery, mediation and reconciliation that could provide a sense of restorative justice for many more families than is currently the case.
The Government are committed to doing all in their power to ensure that families from across the United Kingdom do not continue to be let down by a process that leads only to pain, suffering and disappointment for the vast majority. As part of that, we will deliver on our commitment to veterans who served in Northern Ireland. We will provide certainty for former members of the security forces, many of whom remained fearful of the prospect of being the subject of ongoing investigations that will hang over them for years to come, even though the vast majority acted in accordance with the law, and often at great personal risk.
We are also unequivocal in our commitment to delivering for victims and survivors. Time is crucial, and as it moves on we risk the very real possibility that we will lose any chance to get the vital information that families want and need. They have waited long enough and a focus on information would offer the best chance of giving more families some sense of justice through acknowledgment, accountability and restorative means. We need to progress our understanding of the complexity of the Troubles and in doing so seek to reconcile society with the past as we go on to look forward together.
This Government are determined to address all aspects of Northern Ireland’s troubled past. We know from our recent history, particularly with the implementation of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, that we can achieve more when we are bold and move forward together. I want us all to continue to engage on the shape and the detail of the proposals as we work to address this issue, which is of the utmost importance to the people of Northern Ireland and beyond.
Finally, I draw the attention of the House to a quote from Margaret Fairless Barber. I came across it when reading the report by Lord Eames and Denis Bradley into Northern Ireland’s past and I think it is worth repeating today in the House:
‘To look backwards for a while is to refresh the eye, to restore it, and to render it more fit for its prime function of looking forward.’
I commend this Statement to the House.”
My Lords, it is a shame that Statements are not read out in your Lordships’ House now. I know that it saves time and it can feel a bit odd when all a Minister does is read out another Minister’s Statement word for word, but it helps to understand why certain questions are being raised in the debate that follows. If it is the intention to continue in this way, perhaps we could consider having just a precis of the main points prior to the comments and questions.
The issue before us today is a Statement on the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past—but this past is closely bound to the present and the future, which has always made the process of moving forward to a peaceful future more challenging. The euphemistically called Troubles saw over 3,500 people killed and tens of thousands injured. As a former Northern Ireland Office Minister with responsibility for victims and survivors, I met so many, including veterans, from across communities, who still carry the physical and psychological scars of that time. Beyond that, the pain of so many and the impact on local communities reached into more areas of life than I had previously anticipated. I listened and heard what they had to say, and it has to be said that, at times, those conversations about the way ahead and the future were difficult and challenging for all of us—but no progress is ever made without understanding the other side.
“draw a line under the troubles”.—[
We cannot live in the past, but the phrase “draw a line under”, referring to something so vast as that period in Northern Ireland’s history—and that of Great Britain —implies a lack of understanding.
Alongside the Statement, the Government’s Command Paper wisely states:
“The best outcomes for Northern Ireland have been achieved when we have collectively taken bold steps.”
However, the difficult truth for the Government is that there is no collective support for these proposals. The Government have failed to undertake the meaningful and genuine engagement and discussions in order to build collective support. There is no strength or wisdom to be found in the Government unilaterally announcing a policy or process that seems to have no support beyond 10 Downing Street.
These plans have been resolutely rejected by victims and survivors in Northern Ireland and Great Britain and across the political spectrum by all five parties in Northern Ireland. Today Stormont was recalled urgently to debate the proposals. The Motion before the Assembly stated that
“victims and survivors should have a full, material and central role and input into the content and design of structures to address the legacy of the past” and called on the Assembly to reject the Government’s proposals
“for a statute of limitations”.
I do not need to tell the Minister—I am sure he is very much aware of it—that the Motion was unanimously supported and passed without a vote. It is quite an achievement for the Government to unite every Northern Ireland political party. In addition, the Irish Government are also opposed to this approach.
As well as those in Northern Ireland, there is great concern here in Great Britain. Even today, as the families of the victims and survivors of the Birmingham bombing petitioned Downing Street, they have still not had any communication from the Government about what this means for them. What we need today from the Government is some clarity, honesty and humility—clarity and honesty that this is not the way forward that victims were promised. Only last year, the Government promised to legislate on the Stormont House agreement through the New Decade, New Approach deal. Instead of progress on Stormont House, the proposal rides roughshod over it.
Can the Minister say something about how Operation Kenova fits into the Government’s plans? I give the example of Tom Oliver, who was abducted and murdered by the IRA in 1991 at the age of 43. As part of Operation Kenova, his family reported yesterday that new DNA evidence gave them “fresh hope” for the investigation. They have illustrated this as “a prime example” of why cases should not be closed. Does the Statement mean that the Government intend to shut down all live cases regardless of their status? Have they sought legal advice to ensure that this is compliant with the duty to provide effective investigations under Article 2 of the ECHR?
I think everybody in your Lordships’ House today knows how difficult this is. But we also know it is possible to make progress when some dismiss it as impossible. That is where the humility comes in. We do not want the Government to squander an opportunity to seriously address very real, genuine concerns about the legacy of the past, through a failure of effective engagement. I put it to the Minister, with a genuine commitment to co-operation, would it not be better to pause, listen and work with others to consider all options—including other options—for moving forward?
My Lords, I echo the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, about not hearing the original Statement; it does make for a slightly peculiar debate, even remotely, as I am this evening. It is also regrettable that such an important issue is being discussed so late in the day.
It is now 18 months since renewed hope was given to the people of Northern Ireland through New Decade, New Approach in January last year. That was an approach agreed by the previous Conservative Government, the Irish Government and had broad support across the communities and parties of Northern Ireland. Last week’s Statement represents a dramatic and deeply unwelcome move away from the Stormont House agreement, with its approach of peace and reconciliation, towards a blanket amnesty that does not distinguish between those who broke the law and those who upheld it. As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, has said, almost uniquely, last week’s Statement in the House of Commons by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland succeeded in uniting all five of Northern Ireland’s parties against these proposals.
These proposals are insulting to the victims and their families, across all communities and backgrounds, who have already waited so long to see justice and to be able to have closure. It would be interesting to know whether the Government can give a single example of when such an approach has ever succeeded in promoting a move towards genuine reconciliation. It is hard not to conclude that these proposals owe more to pressures from within the Conservative Party and certain elements of the media than to a genuine desire to deal with the legacy of the past and seek lasting peace and reconciliation.
The approach now adopted by the Government has introduced equivalence between all veterans, the vast majority of whom served the community with honour and respect for the rule of law, and terrorists, who deliberately sought to cause death. Justice and equality before the law are essential elements of trust in the law, which is a vital element of a path to reconciliation and moving on from the legacy of the troubled past.
Given the strength of opposition to these proposals in Northern Ireland, can the Minister say whether it remains the Government’s intention to impose this approach over the heads of Northern Ireland political parties and victims’ groups? Does he not fear that these proposals risk being seen as having no legitimacy and no credibility? Can he clarify their impact on inquests and ongoing investigations and prosecutions? Can he say whether the Government’s proposals apply only to Troubles-related deaths or to any other crime committed by members of proscribed terrorist organisations between 1968 and 1998? If an investigation concludes that an individual’s death was caused by a member of a proscribed organisation or a member of the security services, will the option to pursue the individual responsible via a civil claim also be closed off?
As Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP put it so powerfully in the House of Commons last week:
“I want to take the path to reconciliation, but I cannot believe that the path to reconciliation is made easier when we sacrifice justice. The victims have to be at the centre of this, and I would urge the Secretary of State, in taking forward his proposals, to listen to their voices. This must be a victim-centred process; it cannot be at their expense.”—[
I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Smith and Lady Suttie, for their comments and questions. I also particularly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, for her sensitive words about the victims, because of course they remain very much in our minds.
I echo the thoughts of both noble Baronesses about the way the House has to be at the moment and my inability to read out the Statement. I have echoed similar words before—I think it was on the Ballymurphy Statement—when I agreed with the comments made that it is often better to have the Statement read out, because it provides a sensitive and suitable base from which to discuss challenging issues.
As the Secretary of State set out last week in the other place, while Northern Ireland today is undoubtedly a fantastic place to live in, work in and visit, the unresolved legacy of the Troubles remains and casts a long shadow. We bear in mind that Northern Ireland is celebrating its centenary year; noble Lords may see that I am wearing the badge. However, the legacy continues to impact and permeate society in Northern Ireland, both for those who were directly involved and affected and those who were not but live with the trauma of previous generations.
It is now a painful reality that the focus on criminal investigations is increasingly unlikely to deliver successful criminal justice outcomes. More than two-thirds of Troubles-related deaths occurred more than 40 years ago, and it is increasingly difficult for the courts to provide families with the answers that they seek. Time is not on our side. If we do not act now, we will condemn current and, importantly, future generations to ongoing division and prevent the reconciliation needed for Northern Ireland to move forward.
That is why—to give a little bit of background—the Secretary of State published the Command Paper, which sets out, very briefly, the three key measures: the new independent body that would focus on the recovery and provision of information; a package of measures that includes a major oral history initiative, consistent with what was included in the Stormont House agreement; and, as has been mentioned, a statute of limitations to apply equally to all Troubles-related instances.
I want to try and address some of the questions raised. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, stated that there had been no engagement and particularly that there was no collective support. Okay, I note what she says. However, I point out to her that there was 18 months of preparation for this Statement, and we have indulged in a lot of engagement, particularly in recent months, with a range of groups. Part of the point of this Statement is that these proposals are leading to an intense and short period of engagement with all groups within Northern Ireland, including victims’ groups, to see how we can find a way forward. That is the honesty and the clarity for which the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, was looking. We should be open about that.
Operation Kenova has proved to be valuable in terms of drawing out information about the Troubles, which we are looking to build on by drawing out reconciliation and bringing out historical information that we hope will provide some comfort to victims, should they wish this. However, part of the reason we have brought forward these proposals is that Operation Kenova has led to no prosecutions, and that is a sad fact.
The noble Baroness raised the issue about Tom Oliver. It would be inappropriate for me to comment on a matter under criminal investigation, but the Government are clear that a continued focus on criminal justice outcomes will deliver neither justice nor information to the vast majority of families. That is why obtaining information, as I said earlier, which we know is so important to many victims and survivors, is the cornerstone of the proposals that the UK Government have put forward. We want to deliver tangible outcomes for as many families as we possibly can.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, made great play—and I understand why—about why we are bringing forward these proposals and cannot find an agreement. We are determined to drive progress and deliver legislation on this issue, but we are consulting first. This paper sets out our proposals and, as I said earlier, it will be an intensive and time-limited period of engagement. There are many different perspectives on this difficult issue, which we recognise, but we must all work together to find a way forward that works for Northern Ireland, which comes back to a point the noble Baroness made. These issues are sensitive; they will require courage and, importantly, they will include collaboration.
We come to the 20 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions. I ask that questions and answers be kept short.
My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, I have spent many, many hours in meetings with victims and survivors of the Troubles and was also heavily involved in the Stormont House negotiations in 2014. My noble friend will be aware that all previous attempts by successive Governments to deal with legacy have foundered because of lack of consensus in Northern Ireland. None the less, is it not the case that for any proposals to succeed, they will require significant support from across the community? Can he therefore assure the House that legitimate points and concerns raised during this short and intensive consultation will be fully and properly considered?
Secondly, does my noble friend agree with me that without the contribution and sacrifice of the Royal Ulster Constabulary George Cross and the Armed Forces, there would have been no peace process in Northern Ireland and no 1998 agreement? Will he, therefore, picking up on the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, assure me and the House that this Conservative and Unionist Government will never accept any equivalence between those who upheld the rule of law in Northern Ireland and those terrorists who sought to destroy it?
On the last point, my noble friend is right that there is no moral equivalence between veterans and service personnel who defended the rule of law and those who sought to destroy it, particularly from terrorist organisations. On the way forward, and slightly repeating what I said earlier, we will enter an intensive but brief period to engage with all parts of the community, including victims’ groups, to allow them to discuss and consider their proposals. On my noble friend’s point about the RUC and the Armed Forces, they have served with bravery, professionalism and distinction but, it must be said, with some exceptions.
My Lords, people talk about moving on, but it feels that many families of victims of terrorism in Northern Ireland are being asked to move aside, which is unacceptable and intolerable. Their rightful desire for justice, already tempered by concessions to terrorists such as release from prison after two years, on-the-runs’ letters and royal pardons secretly delivered, has been sacrificed. The latest step from the Government has been greeted with a mixture of anger and disbelief. The Government talk about not making an equivalence between terrorists and members of the Armed Forces and the police, but these proposals are in grave danger of breaching that principle. I have great respect for the Minister and know that he cares deeply for Northern Ireland. Why are the Government setting aside the unanimous political consensus in Northern Ireland and, more perplexingly, the unanimous views of victims of the terrorists?
I, in return, very much respect the huge amount of experience and knowledge that the noble Lord has from his continuing time in Northern Ireland. The UK Government understand, fully appreciate and are very sympathetic to the immense difficulty for some families of accepting any prospect of a shift from criminal justice outcomes. However, this approach offers the best chance of giving more families some sense of justice through acknowledgement, accountability and restorative means, rather than a focus on retributive justice, by looking at reconciliation and how we can deliver for victims in order to end the cycle of investigations.
My Lords, it must be right in principle that every family bereaved in the conflict should have access to an effective investigation and meaningful process of justice, regardless of the perpetrator. This, rightly, has guided every Government since the Good Friday agreement. However, in practice, we must be honest with ourselves that effective, conclusive investigations in the numbers demanded is simply not possible. The likelihood of prosecution is remote and therefore the original perpetrators, for all practical purposes, are being shielded by the rule of law, not living in fear of it. Therefore, it is reasonable to weigh alternative approaches. We should consider the Government’s proposals on their merits, however painful it is—and I acknowledge that it is painful—for victims’ families to accept a statute of limitations.
However, there is a suspicion that the Government might be half-hearted about a system of information retrieval if it is introduced, and that the Prime Minister let the cat out of the bag when he talked of drawing a line under the so-called Troubles the other day. Does the Minister accept that if any new body is created to retrieve information and confront people with the truth, it must be genuinely independent and powerful—fearless and fearlessly led? If not, it would be much worse than useless; it would be an insult to, and a betrayal of, every bereaved family in Northern Ireland. Do the Government accept this?
Indeed, and again, I appreciate the knowledge and huge experience that the noble Lord has from his time in Northern Ireland and when he was in government throughout all those years. I reassure him that we indeed wish to set up a fully independent body to look at this. It is very important that it is fully independent, and the issues relating to that independence will be laid out, as we will see over the coming weeks. Again, we are consulting and we would like to hear from all parties on this. However, the noble Lord will also know—I appreciate his helpful remarks—that Northern Ireland has already seen difficult but necessary measures put in place that have in the past put aside normal criminal justice processes for the cause of peace and reconciliation. He will know that this includes the early release of prisoners, restricting prison sentences to just two years, even for the most heinous Troubles offences, and concluding the process of secretly decommissioning paramilitary weapons. Therefore I believe he is right that we are in a position where we need once again to explore alternative proposals.
My Lords, may I begin by endorsing the powerful response to the Statement from my noble friend Lady Suttie? If you look in the body of the Statement, you see that these issues are described as being “complex and sensitive”. Given that all political parties in Northern Ireland have united in their opposition, how can the Government possibly expect that they can implement these proposals? What price devolution of power if they attempt to do so?
I am afraid I do not accept the rather negative views from the noble Lord. That may be the case, and I am not complacent about the views that have been expressed so far. However, I say again that these are genuine proposals that we have put on the table which we wish to talk about to all parts of the community. Our hope is that in discussions and in listening to what they think, we will be able to find a way forward. I say to the noble Lord, who has not put forward any alternative proposals himself, that there is nothing else on the table and we need to look at alternative means, as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson.
The noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, and the noble Lord, Lord Hannan of Kingsclere, have withdrawn, so I call the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt.
My Lords, it is now some three years since I led a debate in your Lordships’ House to call for legislation to end the unfair and unreasonable pursuit of veteran soldiers arising from their actions during the Troubles, the vast majority of which were firmly within the law. I therefore welcome the statement of intent that puts forward a statute of limitations to end all investigations that might lead to prosecutions in a continued but sadly vain attempt to seek the truth through the criminal justice system, as the collapse of recent trials has shown. However, I am sure that the Minister agrees that no one is above the law, so I press the question of whether, in the event of new and compelling evidence becoming available, the Government intend to insert a clause in the proposed legislation to cover that eventuality. If not, why not?
I am sure that the noble Lord will be part of the proposals that we have put forward and that we will engage with him. I am not able to give an answer to him at the moment. He is right that nobody is above the law. I appreciate his general welcome for these proposals and I recognise, as he also will, that these measures are intended to bring greater certainty for all communities, including veterans and the families of victims. Our proposals—again, they are proposals—will move the focus away from this endless cycle of investigations into the past and on to a future based around reconciliation and delivering answers for all victims.
My Lords, does the Minister understand the dangers of an amnesty—let us call it what it really is—playing into the hands of Sinn Féin/IRA’s long-term war strategy of rewriting history to establish moral equivalence between legitimate soldiers and police, who donned the uniform and in the vast majority of cases served with restraint and honour, and the terrorist, whose sole aim was to murder, bomb and destroy lives? Does he accept that this moral equivalence is exactly what these proposals are bringing about?
I would like to correct the noble Baroness: this is not an amnesty, and we never said that it was or would be an amnesty; it is a statute of limitation. There is a difference, which is that there will be no pardons. However, we must be clear that, with the passage of time, the number of convictions flowing from any investigative process is likely to be extremely low, as I said earlier. If our focus is criminal justice, we will fail almost every family.
My Lords, there is an equivalence in the pain that all victims feel. I do not see how the Government are going to move forward unless there is a drastic change in their proposals. Do the Government have any further plans to consult the community and to amend their proposals so that there is some element of acceptance for what is, at the moment, a unanimous view against the Government’s idea?
I find the noble Lord’s comments quite helpful, because they allow me to say again that this is a consultative process and that we will be listening to views expressed. As I said earlier, for some, what we are proposing may—and will—be very difficult to accept. We recognise that these issues are highly complex, sensitive and steeped in—how shall I put it?—a dark history, and therefore will be, as they have been for decades, hard to address. I acknowledge the noble Lord’s point about the pain of all victims.
My Lords, a previous Conservative Government negotiated the Stormont House agreement, upon which many parties in Northern Ireland agree. They also, jointly with the Irish Government, commissioned New Decade, New Approach in January last year, which saw the restoration of institutions, and which contained a commitment to implement the Stormont House agreement. However, both of those elements have now been ditched and binned by this Conservative Government. So I ask the Minister: do the Government, having signed up to previous agreements and ditched them, now have any credibility, when all five political parties in Northern Ireland, along with the Irish Government, the Northern Ireland Assembly and victims, have opposed this latest Statement containing proposals because it violates and undermines the position of victims and survivors? We must always remember that reconciliation—a truly reconciled society—requires justice and accountability.
I note the comments made by the noble Baroness about the Stormont House agreement. As I think I said earlier, we continue to adhere to the principles of the agreement. I think we should be positive rather than negative in looking at these proposals and at the details within the Command Paper. I am sure that the noble Baroness, with her experience of Northern Ireland, has already gone through it with a fine-tooth comb, but I encourage her and all others involved in this process to look carefully at what we are proposing, to engage with our process intensively and to help us find an alternative way forward in this very difficult matter.
My Lords, in the other place, the Minister was content to use the quote from the excellent report by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, and Denis Bradley published back in 2009. But what have the Government done to consider, even in part, that report, which went to enormous lengths to address precisely what the Government are still talking about today, 12 years later?
The noble Baroness brings to light the problems that we have all been facing over decades in Northern Ireland; and here we are, with the Government looking at, and working extremely hard to find, a way forward. I took note of the Secretary of State’s comments at the end of the Statement. We are at a point where we must find a way forward, having the victims in mind. We must also look at a process of reconciliation and not look to find routes that are simply not going to lead to any prosecutions.
House adjourned at 8.49 pm.