My Lords, policing and justice were devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2009, years after other areas of governance. How to handle Northern Ireland’s legacy of pain has been a source of contention for decades, for reasons which are well known. Despite that, agreement was reached in principle in the Stormont House agreement of 2014, the terms of which were compliant with all international legal obligations and the rule of law, of which the UK is so proud. For a variety of reasons, the Northern Ireland Assembly has not yet legislated a way forward, although the content of the agreement is largely accepted in Northern Ireland. We do not have an Assembly at the moment, the reasons for which your Lordships are very well informed about. However, in July 2021, a Motion rejecting the proposals contained in the Government’s Command Paper on legacy, which led to the Bill now before your Lordships’ House, was passed without any dissent by the Northern Ireland Assembly; the Motion was accepted by the Assembly.
When the Government legislate on a matter which has been devolved, the Sewel convention—of course, it is only a convention—requires that the Government seek legislative consent from each devolved Administration affected by the legislation. There has been no legislative consent Motion from the Northern Ireland Assembly for the Bill we will discuss today. My amendment to the Government’s Motion is very simple: it requires that a legislative consent Motion be secured before the Bill goes to Third Reading.
The reasons for that are equally simple. The Bill has been rejected by every political party in Northern Ireland and by the churches, victims’ groups and other individuals, human rights organisations, the Northern Ireland victims’ commissioner, victims’ organisations—such as the cross-community group WAVE, which has done magnificent work to help those who have suffered so grievously during the Troubles—and veterans’ organisations. The Minister has himself admitted that he has not met anyone who actually wants it to be enacted; he has encountered constant opposition to the Bill. It has been seriously criticised by the chief commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, whose role is to advise government, because it is not compliant with the UK’s international legal obligations or with the fundamental precepts of the rule of law. There has been a total failure to consult victims and survivors properly and to respond meaningfully, even at this stage, to their very real objections and concerns.
The Government and the Bill have been seriously criticised by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers, the Irish Government, the United States State Department and UN special rapporteurs, who warned that the Bill would place the UK in flagrant breach of its international human rights obligations. Last Thursday, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights criticised it in trenchant terms, and, again, Members of the US Congress wrote to the Prime Minister about this yesterday, I believe. The Bill deprives survivors and victims of the Troubles of their fundamental legal rights. The Government’s legal obligations under these measures are being set aside in the Bill.
“As the State has a general duty under article 1 of the Convention to secure to everyone the rights and freedoms defined in the Convention, the combination of articles 1 and 2 requires by implication that there be some form of official investigation when individuals have been killed by the use of force … The essential purpose of such an investigation is two-fold. It is to secure the effective implementation of the domestic laws that protect the right to life; and, in cases involving State agents or bodies, it is to ensure their accountability for deaths occurring under their responsibility … A similar duty of investigation arises under article 3 of the Convention where there is a reasonable suspicion that a person has been subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment”.
Under the Bill, people will no longer be able to go to a coroner’s court for an inquest to determine where, when and how their loved ones died, even when inquests have already been scheduled—a cruel move. Inquests have been enormously important in unpicking the web of deception that has permeated so much of the proceedings of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland. One example is the recent inquest into the deaths in Ballymurphy in August 1971. For decades, it was said that those who were killed there had been involved in terrorism, yet, in May 2021, 50 years after the event, it was found that the 10 people who died there on those fateful August days were unarmed civilians who had posed no threat. Nine were killed by members of the Parachute Regiment, but it was not possible to prove who had shot the 10th person dead. For over 1,000 years, inquests have enabled people, through a judicial process, to seek to know when, where and how people died. That will no longer be the case in Northern Ireland for those died between 1966 and 1998 if the Bill is passed.
During the Troubles, many cases were not investigated for a variety of reasons, and perpetrators were not prosecuted. Those reasons included the need to protect informants. It is fundamental and vital to protect those who assist the forces of law and order in protecting against atrocities. But, on many occasions, those same informants were involved in murder and the most serious of crimes, and they were allowed to continue to be involved in terrorism, both republican and loyalist. I have reported on many such cases. It seems impossible now, but it happened; people died, lives were wrecked and hearts were broken.
Now, in the Bill, the Government propose to remove the obligations that exist in law, domestic and international, and to deprive victims and survivors of proper investigation in the fullest sense and of any meaningful reconciliation. The Bill will also remove the right to bring civil actions for damages for injury and death resulting from the Troubles. Such actions have been critical in uncovering the truth about deaths and serious harm to people caused by terrorists, some of whom were state informants working with paramilitary groups such as the IRA and the UVF. Many such civil actions were settled in the courts and upheld. If the Bill passes, these actions will no longer be possible.
The Bill will introduce conditional immunity, which, to quote the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, speaking last week,
“would likely be at variance with the UK’s obligations under international human rights law to investigate and, where appropriate, prosecute and punish those found responsible for serious human rights violations”.
This Bill has been rejected by virtually everyone. The Assembly has not had the opportunity to comment on its content; it comprises multiple breaches of the UK’s obligations under domestic and international law; and it does not have the consent of the people affected by its provisions—those whose loved ones died, or were seriously injured, in places such as London, Birmingham, Manchester, Hyde Park, Warrenpoint, Enniskillen and so many other places. It will deprive the UK of its reputation as a state in which the rule of law is respected and upheld. I beg to move.
My Lords, I shall speak very briefly to the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, with which I am bound to say that I have very great sympathy, although for different reasons from those advanced by the noble Baroness. I would like the Assembly to consider the propriety of the linkage between what is, in effect, an amnesty and the establishment of and participation in the commission. I happen to think that those are wholly different issues and should not be linked.
As it happens, I am an agnostic on the question of the commission, but I am not an agnostic on the question of a statute of limitations—an amnesty. I feel very strongly in favour of it. There should be a statute of limitations to preclude prosecutions in respect of any crimes alleged to have been committed and connected with terrorism prior to the Good Friday agreement. There are a number of pragmatic reasons for that, which I am not going to trouble noble Lords with, but there is an essential concern that I have: I believe that it is offensive and a serious abuse of process for servicemen to be prosecuted for alleged offences while at the same time many people who have been, or are alleged to have been, involved in the commission of terrorist offences have been admitted to high political office. I find the letters of comfort offensive if servicemen are to be prosecuted. I look at Mr Martin McGuinness, who served as Deputy First Minister; it seems that he did participate in serious offences. Given all that, can it be right to prosecute servicemen, when in all probability their level of culpability is lower?
It is in my view an abuse of process to do so, and it is for that reason that I want to see a statute of limitations that covers all offences. I do not think that it is possible, in law or practice, to make a distinction between those who are alleged to have been terrorists and servicepeople. I do not think that that distinction is possible, so it has to be a general statute of limitations. I would like the Assembly to discuss this matter, although I am bound to say that I think that the outcome is likely to be different from that which I would wish.
My Lords, in producing this amendment, the noble Baroness is representing the widespread frustration that exists in Northern Ireland in the light of this proposed legislation. Speaking from my experience and years of service to Northern Ireland, I have never come across such widespread opposition to a proposal such as this as is the case today. A lot of that frustration, I have to say to His Majesty’s Government, is caused by their failure to produce the amendments to this legislation that they had promised. They made a solemn promise to this House and the other House that they would take very seriously the expressions of frustration that many of us had brought to the Floor of this House and to the other place. We are disappointed in the result and the failure to fulfil that promise.
The failure of this legislation to have at its heart the needs of survivors and victims and their families and loved ones is a total disaster. Because of the way this new commission is proposed to operate, many people in Northern Ireland are going to be denied justice and denied the opportunity to be heard. I speak from many years’ experience of pastoral service to the people of Northern Ireland when I say that this is nothing less than a tragedy.
It is for those reasons that so many of us have a lot of sympathy with what the noble Baroness has said. No one knows better than she does, from her public service, what the feelings of opposition amount to in Northern Ireland at the present time. I appeal to those noble Lords who have serious concerns, who do not live in Northern Ireland, who have not experienced what we have come through; I appeal to them to see the opposition to this legislation as a matter of right and wrong, for it is, I believe, verging on a moral issue.
My Lords, I want to say briefly why I support this amendment. I must declare an interest in that I am a military veteran who served for a long time in Northern Ireland and members of my family were in the police.
Veterans are, inevitably, really against the Bill, but I think one ought to accept that veterans are not just people like me and not just their families: they are our societies. If you take rural areas like where I come from, a village or a locality, those societies have become veterans of the Troubles. If you do not live there, you do not know how completely the lives of everybody who wanted peace were changed. It is not restricted to the brothers, sisters and parents who waited for their family members, whether they be police, prison officers or simply, like one of my soldiers, driving a lorry that was providing cement to build security posts. This is not a funny thing where people were in the Army or the police, now they are out of it and it is all finished: this is a whole society, and it really affects people. They are 100% against this, as are other victims who may not be totally related at that stage.
Imagine a small village. In one case, one of my soldiers drove a school bus. The noble Baroness, Lady Foster, is not here today, but she was a child on that bus. One of my soldiers drove it and he kept the bus at home: it was the most secure place. He searched under the bus every morning. His son helped him do so. They watched them do it. The place that was most difficult to search was behind the engine block on the other side. They put the bomb there. He got into his bus, he drove for a distance, he picked up children and the bomb went off. Luckily, the noble Baroness was towards the back. One of my other soldiers, plus one of the children and others who were on the bus, were injured. That child nearly lost its arm. But the next year, my soldier and his son committed suicide, because he had not searched the bus. So this is not just about veterans, but this Bill is seen as leaning the other way, and that is that.
It is an opportunity for Sinn Féin and the terrorists following, or whatever, to investigate the records that were kept by the police of every incident, through records of everything. But on the return side, there is not so much as a written note on a cigarette packet; that is how they planned their business, because at road checks, they could be searched, so they wrote it on little pieces of paper. Those are all gone. I ask Members of this House to remember that this is not something far away; this is part of the United Kingdom. It is whole societies that have been wrecked, and now this is putting the cap on the whole thing.
My Lords, I too would like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, for tabling this amendment to the Motion to move into Committee. It provides us with the opportunity to once again ask the Government to consider very carefully how they wish to proceed, given the level of opposition that there is to this Bill, which has again been laid bare in the contributions that we have heard from those from Northern Ireland already this afternoon.
The Minister, about whose personal integrity I have no doubt whatever, is fronting for the Government on this issue, and he did give a commitment that the Government would take their time before proceeding, or would move very carefully and consider amendments —and some amendments have been forthcoming. But I would urge the Minister to think very carefully about what has been said already, and also what has been said over the previous months since the Bill was published.
We have been told repeatedly throughout the period of what is euphemistically called “the Troubles” that the victims should be at the centre of any process which is about legacy, truth recovery, justice and so on. It is very clear that victims have been treated abominably by this Bill and by this Government, and that is a terrible thing to have to say about a Government who are committed to the union—although their actions in recent times, both in the protocol and on this, would cause many unionists to doubt what exactly is now going on with the Conservative and Unionist Party. It is certainly not the case for all members of that party, and certainly not all parliamentarians, but at the centre there is something deeply and fundamentally wrong with how Northern Ireland is now being treated as part of this United Kingdom. This is one of the most egregious examples of where victims and their views are being set aside. There is universal opposition, yet this Government are intent on proceeding.
I appeal to the Government: listen to the victims. We heard the noble Baroness mention various organisations, institutions, foreign bodies, and all the rest of it, and I have respect for very many of them. However, I do make the point that some of these people now speaking out against this Bill supported, against the views of victims in Northern Ireland, the proposals to reduce the length of any sentence on conviction of the most heinous terrorist crimes, some of which we have heard about just now, to two years, and to allow those who have already served two years to walk free. Regardless of that, we should listen to the victims and, even now, pause, and urge the Government to withdraw and not move into Committee.
Victims have listened very carefully to the voices that have been raised in opposition to this Bill, and among the voices that have been raised are the voices of the victim-makers. We have the appalling situation where the representatives of terrorist organisations, who glorify and eulogise murder and the murderers—I am talking about Sinn Féin—have the audacity to come out and use this piece of legislation to bash the Government. Their support for victims is mock support: it is a pretence. Their agenda is completely different. They are pocketing the concession for their members, and those who carried out violence, then turning it to bash the Government.
So the Government cannot win on this. They are in the invidious position of doing something that has no support across the board. Therefore, I urge them to withdraw the Bill. They need to counter the twisted narrative of the Troubles that is out there, and to be more proactive in terms of the balance of the past. There is a widely shared view in Northern Ireland that there is an imbalanced process, where the story of the terrorists and their organisations is continually played out in the media. We have had some examples of that even this week—but where is the balance, with the countless thousands of families, their extended families and their communities and neighbours who were terrified daily by the threat of terrorists living among them, spying on them and betraying them at their work?
I do not advocate looking at Twitter too much, but I urge noble Lords to look at one that talks about “on this day” and an atrocity carried out by the IRA almost every day. It details the normal day-to-day activities of ordinary people going about their daily business—dropping their children at school, driving a bus, being in a bakery, carrying out a profession—who were murdered. They were cut down by terrorists who now claim that they have the right to talk about human rights and lecture everybody else about them. The Government are doing those people, their relatives and their kith and kin such a disservice. Therefore, I urge the Government and the Minister to think again at this stage.
My Lords, as a Member of this House coming from Northern Ireland, having represented a constituency in the other place, I—like others from Northern Ireland—have met many victims. The Troubles have imbued the lives of all of us from Northern Ireland because, in some way, we have been deeply affected, either by the deaths of loved ones or neighbours or by the destruction of property. All of that has left many victims searching for truth recovery and justice. The ordinary people I am talking about feel that the Bill robs them of their opportunity to access justice, investigations and inquests which they believe, quite rightly, is their right.
I agree that there should be a pause placed on the Bill and that the Government should go away and think again—and think in terms of the Stormont House agreement. We said this at Second Reading, but other things have happened since then. Other organisations in the human rights field have raised important considerations to be taken into account. The European Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the victims’ commissioner and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which has a statutory responsibility in all of these areas, have all highlighted the faults in the Bill and the fact that the very premise on which it is based—immunity from prosecution—goes against the very heart of what the UK democratic system should be about, and what we as Members of your Lordships’ House should be fighting for.
I can understand what the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, is talking about as a former Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, and what the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, said, as he was part of the Eames-Bradley commission which looked into this area in detail with a microscope. There is no doubt that the deaths, injuries and massacres have caused immense pain, whether to members of the security forces or to people on whatever avenue of any political perspective or whatever location they came from on the island of Ireland, as well as here in Britain. People suffered pain and anxiety and were deeply affected.
I believe that the fulfilment of rights and the rule of law must be central to the legacy process. That goes to the very heart of the Bill; immunity from prosecutions and the prevention of civil actions will not deal with what was already agreed in the Stormont House agreement and will not bring peace, justice and reconciliation. I firmly ask the Minister, who was involved with Stormont House and many other agreements to do with victims and legacy in Northern Ireland, to go back to the drawing board and the Stormont House agreement. The Bill, with the amendments, and particularly the government amendments that we will deal with later, is an exercise in denying justice. It will breach the European Convention on Human Rights and threaten the Good Friday agreement. It is bad for justice, for human rights and for the thousands of people who lost loved ones, who were injured during the Troubles, or whose property was destroyed, and who have very bad memories of what happened to them, their families, their communities and their colleagues.
My Lords, at Second Reading I made clear my own distaste for the Bill and pleaded with the Government not to proceed to Committee or Report. Of course, it is open to the Government at any stage to pull the Bill and to suspend our proceedings. My noble friend’s amendment does not do that; it says that we will proceed with Committee in the normal way. However, it says that before giving the Bill a Third Reading—which is also open to us to decide as a House—we would have a chance to pause it in the way that the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, my noble and right reverend friend Lord Eames, my noble friend Lord Brookeborough, and the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, have argued in our proceedings; it would be wise for this not to go on to the statute book. This would be a way to do that.
I was grateful to the Minister for the invitation he offered to Members of your Lordships’ House to attend one of his briefing sessions—I think everyone in this House admires the diligence which he applies to his duties. However, during that meeting I had to reiterate my view that it is unwise and unnecessary to proceed with a Bill that, as we have heard again today, has united all shades of opinion in Northern Ireland and beyond.
One of my own principal reasons for opposing further progress on the Bill at this time is that, as we have heard, it has not been laid before the Northern Ireland Assembly, which is non-functioning, and so has not been considered by it. That contributes to the emasculation of power-sharing and devolution, and places in jeopardy one of the most important building blocks of the Good Friday agreement: the very formula which allows people from divergent and different parts of the community to live alongside one other and learn to honour and value each other’s traditions and experiences. Again, I plead with all sides that the Assembly be restored as soon as is humanly possible. Anything which smacks of victors or vanquished will lead to alienation and hostility, and potentially worse, which is why no effort should ever be spared to revive and restore the Northern Ireland Assembly.
I know that some would welcome the death of power-sharing and devolution and are ready to impose Westminster-baked solutions on Northern Ireland. That flies in the face of subsidiarity, is disrespectful of diversity and risks the gains which have been made. We need changes of heart and mind, not ill-considered legislation. For those reasons alone I support the amendment to the Motion that my noble friend has laid before your Lordships’ House.
Since Second Reading there have been, as the noble Baroness just told us, further developments. I have met with and heard from some of those who also have profound misgivings about the wisdom of a Bill which masquerades under the false colours of a title that claims it to be about the legacy and reconciliation of the Troubles. I met Grainne Teggart, the deputy director of Amnesty International in Northern Ireland. She has examined the government amendments and says that they
“fail to address the fundamental flaws with the Bill and do little more than tinker around the edges, so our earlier points on the failure to comply with ECHR obligations etc remain. The UK is isolated on the international stage, it is still not too late for them to do the right thing and drop the Bill. Our call remains for Government to abandon this legislation and commit to an agreed way forward”.
She and I were in agreement that the Bill should be considered first by the Assembly. She has also drawn my attention to the interventions at the end of last week by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and a further US congressional call expressing grave concerns with the Bill.
In the meeting with the Minister, I echoed concerns raised by two of my noble and learned friends about the way in which the chief commissioner is to be appointed. I see from the Minister’s
“removing all paths to justice”.
As amendments are considered, the House will want to take note of those detailed objections, but I simply draw attention to the concluding paragraph 58 of the Amnesty International submission this week, urging the House to reject a Bill that is not redeemable and to revert to the Stormont House agreement. The amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, would enable us to do that at Third Reading. Liberty also describes the Bill as “irredeemable” and says that some of the amendments will potentially make a bad Bill even worse. It says that the Bill will breach the convention and threaten the Good Friday agreement, and all for seemingly no real benefit, and that for the sake of the victims and families affected, the Government must now consider withdrawing it entirely.
I conclude with the latest position paper from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which expresses concern at the lack of broad community support. It has analysed the amendments that seek to ameliorate some of the worst provisions and strengthen safeguards—again, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Caine, for his genuine attempts to do that. However, in its conclusion, the commission says that the amendments
“do not address the NIHRC’s grave concerns raised in our initial advice regarding the immediate cessation of criminal investigations (other than those referred by the ICRIR”— the independent commission for reconciliation and information recovery—
“to the prosecutor), police complaints, civil proceedings and inquests/inquiries linked to Troubles-related offences. Thus, the NIHRC’s previous concerns remain.”
You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. The Government should take that old proverb to heart and stop trying to defy the rules of political gravity. To proceed pell-mell by putting this contested Bill on to the statute book lacks wisdom and prudence. At the very minimum, it should be considered by the Northern Ireland Assembly whenever that is reconstituted and before this goes on to the statute book. This amendment would stop it in its tracks at Third Reading, when we would have carried out our constitutional duty of scrutinising the Bill which has been laid before us. That is why I urge noble Lords to support my noble friend’s amendment to the Motion.
My Lords, during my time as chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in another place I came to know, respect and admire a lot of people, none more than the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan—a Roman Catholic of deep faith and a police ombudsman of utter impartiality—and the man who had been Primate of All Ireland, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, who is respected and indeed loved by people throughout the island of Ireland. They have both made very powerful speeches today, and we should reflect very carefully on what they and others have said.
But we are dealing with thousands of human tragedies, and this terrible legacy, without the input of the devolved Assembly in Northern Ireland. I want to make a plea to the party politicians in Northern Ireland: for goodness’ sake, come together and discuss. It is absurd not to because of one issue over the protocol, important as it is. They have not even discussed that. There is an Assembly, it has been elected, and an Executive could be appointed within 24 hours of its meeting. In my view, it is very important indeed that, before we go very much further forward with the Bill, the Assembly comes together and recognises its constitutional responsibility to the people of Northern Ireland to make its views known on all issues of importance to them.
Of course, the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, would allow this House to proceed, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said a moment or two ago. On balance, I think she is right to do that, because we have a constitutional duty too. But for the Bill to pass on to the statute book without a proper input from Northern Ireland would be, to put it very mildly, deeply unfortunate. So I hope that our friends and colleagues who have influence over the Members of the Assembly, as many do, will urge them to come together and discuss. Of course, they will not agree on everything. Of course, there will be vigorous debates on the protocol. But that is the purpose of a democratically elected body.
My noble friend the Minister’s behaviour has been exemplary: he listened carefully to all that was said on Second Reading, indicated his own discomfort with the Bill—I do not think that anybody could be comfortable with it—and promised to come back with some amendments. He has done that. He is an honourable man. He knows and cares more about Northern Ireland than most people who do not live there. He has spent much of his life there and has given much of his professional career to serving its people.
We have a good Minister, a decent man, with a bad Bill. I do not think that anybody disputes that. But I think that what the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, said was wise and sensible. We ought to resolve that this will not go on to the statute book until the Assembly in Northern Ireland has met. It must not continue to abdicate its responsibilities. It has a duty to the people who elected it, to serve them.
So, really, the substance of my brief remarks is to appeal across the Irish Sea, to a very beautiful part of the United Kingdom which I got to know well and love deeply: please do not continue to neglect your democratic responsibilities. Let us have your views on this Bill. I suspect that they will not be very different from most of ours.
My Lords, I realise that I run the risk of striking a discordant note in this afternoon’s debate, and I very much understand the widespread criticism of this Bill from virtually every quarter that has been identified. However, I choose to identify with the remarks made earlier by the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, and take issue with just one of the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, when, in the list of those opposing the Bill, she mentioned veterans.
Veterans are not a homogenous group; veterans come in very different categories. I feel that this debate would be lacking if someone did not speak for UK-based veterans who, for 38 years, served and did their duty, in the main, to the utmost of their ability. Yes, of course, there were tragedies, and errors were committed by the British Army. We know what they were, and I am not going to go into those; but the vast majority of soldiers, as we have debated in this Chamber before—I have had debates in my name making exactly these points over the years—did their duty to the best of their ability. Their voice must be heard.
We do not want, as a veteran group, to set ourselves against all the other powerful arguments against the Bill, but the voice that I speak for is the voice that has had enough of investigations being mounted on now quite elderly soldiers on the whim of evidence, often causing them a lot of fear and upset, some of them going to their grave with the allegations not fully investigated. If the Bill is intended by the Government to stop that process, it is a very blunt instrument to achieve a particular aim. On that basis, I would ask the Government to think again about the Bill, but if the Bill is lost, for all the very good reasons that people have been talking about, what must not be lost is some way for veterans who did their duty to be protected.
I am not going to personalise it; I am one of them. My colleagues and I, on the whole, did our best, serving to the best of our ability. There must be some protection for us. We tried to raise it in the context of the overseas operations Bill, but those protections were dismissed by the Government, who said we would come back to it in the Northern Ireland Bill. We are back now. If we lose this Bill, the vast majority of UK-based veterans—not all—will feel that they have been let down by the Government and that successive promises have been broken. That is the only point that I will make.
I agree with everything that the noble Lord has said. Would he agree that, at the end of the day, we are going to have to have a statute of limitations? It has to apply to all security personnel, but because of that, I am afraid that it has also to apply to those who are alleged to have been involved in terrorist activities.
I accept the noble Viscount’s point. I say simply that, if investigations are going to continue, and the rule of law is going to continue to be applied, I would seek for protocols to be put in place to protect the manner in which investigations were carried out and the way in which people who were required to take part in questioning were handled. I would want to ensure that their dignity, their respect, their age and their previous service were taken into due consideration. That is a minimum ask. That is a reasonable ask, and I speak on behalf of veterans who served their country in Northern Ireland over a very extended period.
I accept that point entirely. I meant people such as me who live in England—I am three-quarters English and one-quarter Welsh. It is people such as me whom I had in mind, fully accepting that veterans from Northern Ireland have a very different outlook on the whole matter—quite understandably—because they were living and working within their own homeland. I am talking about soldiers who were brought up elsewhere than in Northern Ireland. I apologise for poor use of our language.
My Lords, in supporting the amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, I will not repeat the cogent and compelling case she put. While Secretary of State for Northern Ireland I tried to grapple with legacy issues, which are incredibly difficult. I was bruised by them, and I had to withdraw a Bill I introduced that had been in gestation prior to my appointment because it was opposed by everybody. That is what should happen to this Bill.
However, I would have liked to support the Bill for that very reason of having grappled with these issues. I would particularly have liked to support the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Caine, because of his commitment to Northern Ireland, his long service and the high regard in which we all hold him in this House. But the Bill is opposed by every political party in Northern Ireland, and by every victims group. They do not agree between themselves very often and they do not agree about the definition of a victim, but they agree in their total, unanimous opposition to the Bill.
Your Lordships’ House should take that into account, and, as I shall describe at some length in subsequent groupings, that there is an alternative. For the life of me, I do not know why the Government have not agreed to that alternative, which is Operation Kenova, under the leadership of former Chief Constable Jon Boutcher, who is highly regarded for the way he handled this and very popular with all the victims for the truth recovery process he has managed in a consensual way, getting information that was not readily available in some cases, for reasons I will describe later. It also does not offer an amnesty, which is the most egregious part of the Bill. There is a working model. I do not understand why it is not adopted. I will move amendments, with all-party support, to try to get your Lordships’ House to back it on Report.
I ask the Minister to reconsider the Bill, not just tweak it in the way he has with the amendments he has brought forward, as he promised. If he had been the architect of the Bill, I think it would be very different and one we could all support. There is a different model, which I will describe. I hope that it will receive the support of your Lordships’ House. Meanwhile, I support the amendment.
My Lords, I also support the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan. I am the first to acknowledge that many sensible amendments have been put forward from all sides of the House; there are also some that I would not be quite so keen on, but no matter how good some of those amendments are, they do not and indeed cannot deal with the fundamental flaws in the Bill.
Similarly—and I speak after a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—I am acutely aware of how difficult it is to find a way forward on legacy that is acceptable to everyone. Again, I am the first to acknowledge that, but I am completely convinced that the Bill before us is not that way forward.
The noble Baroness’s amendment goes to the heart of the process because it deals with the issue of democratic legitimacy and gives this House and Parliament an opportunity, if taken, to pause for thought. There are four good reasons why we need to pause.
First, as others have indicated, the Bill does not have a level of consensus within Northern Ireland among the political parties—indeed, quite the opposite. As someone who in a previous life served for 24 years in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and indeed for six of those as the Chief Whip of the largest party in the Assembly, I can say better than most that it is difficult at times to get a consensus within the Assembly. It is difficult to get a consensus in Northern Ireland. Indeed, in recent days on other issues there has been a level of debate as to what counts as sufficient consensus in Northern Ireland: is it a simple majority, or a cross-community majority? But one thing indicated by the proposer of the amendment is beyond doubt, as shown by the vote in 2021: every single party in Northern Ireland is opposed to this Bill. That is a complete consensus.
We may question in particular the bona fides of one of those parties, Sinn Féin, whose military wing inflicted violence for many years and was the biggest single contributor to deaths in Northern Ireland. But even leaving aside the fact that republicans were responsible for around 60% of the killings in Northern Ireland, nevertheless there is a complete consensus within all the parties in Northern Ireland that this is not the way forward.
Secondly, there is also a consensus among victims that this is not the way forward. As previously indicated, in the same way that veterans are not necessarily a homogeneous group with the same views on every subject, that is undoubtedly true of victims of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Indeed, not only do they often desire different outcomes and have different perspectives on the world, but even members of the same family of a victim of the Troubles sometimes have different views. So it is extremely rare that a consensus emerges, but it is difficult to find a single victim, let alone a single victim group, who is in favour of this as a way forward. If indeed victims are supposed to be at the centre of this, by proceeding pell-mell with this Bill we are not moving forward.
Thirdly, the Bill very clearly represents a denial of justice. When we look at the Troubles, two myths are sometimes perpetrated. They are quite lazy assumptions. The first is that everybody in Northern Ireland is a perpetrator. That is clearly not the case. The vast majority of people, from whatever side of the community, got on with their lives, tried to make progress in a democratic way and gave the lie to the idea that there was no alternative to violence.
The second myth is that everyone is Northern Ireland is also a victim. I was extremely fortunate: although I grew up throughout the entirety of the Troubles, I did not lose a family member or close friend to the Troubles. Indeed, I probably grew up in one of the safest parts of Northern Ireland. I was able to grow up in such safety because of the bravery of veterans throughout the United Kingdom, both soldiers and police officers, in keeping that peace in Northern Ireland. I cannot claim to be a victim, which makes me particularly reluctant as a Member of this House to impose a denial of justice on victims. I would be imposing that on other people.
There is no doubt that many victims out there do not seek a particular form of justice or a conviction. It is also the case—none of us should be naive, particularly in historical cases—that the opportunities for a trial and conviction to hold somebody directly accountable for the murder of your loved one are extremely remote. I believe the Bill is fundamentally flawed in that it provides the “solution” of simply snuffing out, and taking away from families that want justice, any opportunity to have their day in court. That is the third reason why this is fundamentally flawed.
There is a final reason why we need to look at this. Understandably, when we are dealing with legacy the focus is quite often on the past and the legacy of the past, but I do not believe the Bill provides reconciliation in the future. Indeed, I believe it provides a very dangerous pathway for the future.
Unfortunately, we have already seen a younger generation in Northern Ireland—sometimes fuelled particularly by comments from those who have been supportive of terrorism—effectively trying to rewrite history. It is not unique to Northern Ireland, but the glib mantra of some people is that there is no alternative to violence, and there is an attempt retrospectively to justify that level of violence. Let me make it absolutely clear: from whatever source, whether republican or loyalist, violence in Northern Ireland was never justified and never will be. But if we rewrite history by effectively whitewashing what happened and providing an amnesty, we are in danger of sending out a signal to the future that violence is an acceptable way forward. That is a very dangerous pathway and not one that any of us would intend to go down, but I think we are inadvertently going down it.
For all those reasons, this is an opportunity to think again and pause for thought. I therefore welcome the noble Baroness’s amendment. I believe it is a productive and balanced way forward, and I therefore urge the House to support it.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, for the amendment and for what, if I may say so, was an incredibly powerful speech today. We have heard so many powerful speeches today from all sides of the House. I noted here that we have had speeches from Northern Ireland and not Northern Ireland. We have had the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, the noble Lord, Lord Hain—a former Northern Ireland Secretary—and the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, who made an incredibly powerful speech. Then there were the noble Lords, Lord Weir and Lord Alton, who also made speeches that made a very powerful case. We even heard from the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, and the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, making a slightly different case but supporting, none the less, the aims of the amendment before us this afternoon.
As I said at Second Reading, the strength of opposition risks undermining the Bill’s stated intentions of dealing with the past and promoting reconciliation—“reconciliation” is in the very title of the Bill. But the Bill is not promoting reconciliation and is opposed by so many who have spoken today. It is for this reason that on these Benches we support the amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan. A Bill of such sensitivity and consequence cannot and should not proceed without the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly. To quote the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, who I thought also made a very powerful speech this afternoon, we need to listen to the victims and pause this Bill before Third Reading.
My Lords, it is rare that I speak in this House and say how disappointed I am to be here. But I think there was some optimism that, when we had the Second Reading, the Government would go away and, in thinking again, perhaps have that pause for discussions that we had hoped. I pay tribute to the Minister, because he did. This has taken longer to come back to us; the Bill has had quite a long gestation period to get to this point. But it is worth noting that the reason the noble Baroness has brought her amendment before us today is that, for all the engagement the Minister has undertaken and all the discussions that have been had, there has been no movement in the opposition to this Bill. It is not a lack of engagement that is causing the problem. It is not a lack of talking to people. It is perhaps a lack of listening and changing.
The noble Baroness’s amendment before us today is a very unusual one, so I hope the noble Lord recognises that it indicates the strength of feeling across this House and outside in Northern Ireland. I think it is a rare and dubious honour to have united every Northern Ireland voice in your Lordships’ House.
The noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, have tried to deal with some of these issues themselves in the past, and no one is pretending that it is easy or that there is an easy solution. But what is essential is that victims, survivors and indeed veterans and others—anyone who has been associated with this time—have confidence in the process. This is what we are lacking today. I suppose the point—it is not necessarily a disagreement —is that we all know the views of the Northern Ireland Assembly. If the Northern Ireland Assembly were up and running and debated this tomorrow, it would not make any difference. It would still oppose the Bill, such is the strength of feeling. I was there for just a few days, the week before last, and in every single meeting we had with every single political party, and at every meeting afterwards, this was raised as an issue and there was no support.
It is appropriate that in Committee we should be clear about our approach to the Bill. The Minister has been generous with his time and we have had numerous discussions, but our position remains the same: we do not support the Bill. Indeed, at Third Reading in the other place we voted against it. That remains our position. The leader of our party has said he will repeal the Bill, such is his opposition to it. He does not say that to wipe the issue to one side; he says it in order to find a better and different way of trying to deal with some of these issues, recognising that most people want to find a process that works and that this difficult, complex and painful for so many.
We also recognise, as does the noble Baroness in her amendment, that we are a revising and scrutinising Chamber. We have an obligation to look at amendments, reflect on the issues and have those discussions.
I want to put on record our thanks and appreciation to the numerous individuals and organisations who have engaged across your Lordships’ House with briefings and information, shared their views and experiences with us and suggested amendments that might improve the Bill. I have to say that, in same way that the Minister has said he has been challenged by this, those who have engaged with us have also said how challenged they are. More than once it has been said to us that, even by suggesting amendments or improvements to the Bill, they feel that they are compromised in trying to seek amendments to legislation that they consider fundamentally flawed. I think that is a difficulty for everybody.
So we share the desire that there should be a process and that we should move forward and deal with the issues, but I have to say, as I have said numerous times, that we do not believe that the Bill is the right way forward, and it is disappointing. The Minister has brought forward some amendments, which we will debate over the course of Committee. I do not particularly object to them as they are, but they do not deal with the fundamental problems or go far enough.
Among the discussions we have had was on the question, “What would you do, then?” To be honest, I do not know. I have grappled with this issue, as did my noble friend Lord Browne of Ladyton, who was the first Victims and Survivors Minister in Northern Ireland; I succeeded him in that role. You do not get to the endgame early on in the process. It is a difficult and complex issue, and it is only by continuing having difficult discussions that you can find a way forward. It is not just the political parties; it is the victims’ groups and individual victims and survivors who need to have their voices heard.
I think we need to proceed with the Bill. I would like to see us looking at amendments and sending them to the other place, but I have to say that there is a universal lack of confidence in the Bill. I do not criticise the Government for trying to find a way forward but, as the Minister has heard from around the House, there is little confidence that this is a way that will be helpful. There may be aspects of it that people can sign up to, but it needs much more discussion. As we move forward in Committee, we need far more thought. The Minister has always been willing to engage. Before the Bill even proceeds to Report, there should be engagement that leads to significant change, not just something that ticks a box. That is not what I am accusing him of, but it is how it is perceived by many.
So I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, for the opportunity for this debate. There is always a tendency to feel that we might rehearse Second Reading arguments, but it is important that we restate at the beginning of the Bill how very sad we are that we are debating the Bill at this stage today. It needs more work and there is a willingness across the House to engage to find something better, and I hope that, as we proceed with the Bill, the Minister will understand that. If there are not significant amendments, there will be disappointment, and the issue will continue to be a difficulty that, until there is not necessarily a resolution but some way forward that commands confidence across Northern Ireland, will not work.
Well, my Lords, I said at Second Reading that I was well aware that this legislation had been met with far from universal acclamation, and, if I may say so, the last hour and seven minutes has reminded me of that in spades.
A number of noble Lords were kind enough to reference my role in this legislation. I am particularly grateful to my noble friend Lord Cormack and a former Secretary of State, the noble Lord, Lord Hain. I think one suggested that had it been my Bill it might have been slightly different. That may or may not be the case, but I tried to assure the House at Second Reading that I was committed to working with noble Lords on all sides and to continue engaging with groups outside Northern Ireland to see what could be done to improve the legislation in line with the proper constitutional functions of your Lordships’ House that the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, reminded us of. That is what I have sought to do.
The noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, in moving her amendment—I hope it was inadvertent—cast some doubt on the level of engagement, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, referred to it. I can only say that, since the end of July, I have done over 30 meetings—frankly, I have lost count—on legacy with political parties in Northern Ireland, Members of your Lordships’ House, victims’ groups and others. Those meetings have always been frank and candid, and I have sought to listen and take on board as many points as I can. I will continue that engagement and, indeed, I will be doing more such meetings in Northern Ireland next week. That has been a genuine attempt to fulfil the promises I made at Second Reading. Again in response to the noble and right reverend Lord, whom I hold in the highest regard—he is a man of great principle and has made a huge contribution in Northern Ireland over many decades—I say that I believe that the amendments I have brought forward are a reflection of the promises I gave at Second Reading. I am very happy to sit down, at any time, with the noble and right reverend Lord to go through those amendments, but we will be debating them anyway, I hope, at a later stage.
I understand the motive behind the noble Baroness’s amendment. I have long had sympathy with the notion that the Northern Ireland Assembly should have greater involvement in these matters. It was always the position, for many years, that addressing the legacy of the past should be owned and tackled primarily by Northern Ireland’s elected representatives. Some of us remember—it was not that long ago—10 years ago, when the Northern Ireland Executive invited Richard Haass, along with Meghan O’Sullivan, in the aftermath of the flags protest and difficulties over disputed parades, to address the issue of flags, parading and the past. That initiative was driven by the Northern Ireland Executive, supported by the parties in the Assembly. Unfortunately, as with other attempts to deal with these very difficult issues, that process did not find a consensus, and 12 months later, we found ourselves at Stormont House trying to deal with the same issues.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick and Lady O’Loan, referred to the Stormont House agreement. At the risk of repeating what I said at Second Reading, I was in the room, as it were, for all but a few hours—time off for good behaviour—for about 11 weeks of that entire process. The level of consensus reached there has always been exaggerated. I can well remember the spokesman for the noble Baroness’s former party, the SDLP, opposing just about every line on legacy—she is smiling because she knows to whom I refer—in that agreement as “a dilution” of Haass-O’Sullivan, which was itself a dilution of Eames-Bradley. So the SDLP was not exactly oversold on it. I do not see my noble friend, Lord Empey, in his place, but my noble friend, Lord Rogan, is there, and he will attest to the fact that the Ulster Unionist Party did not support the provisions in the Stormont House agreement. So, that is two out of five that opposed it, pretty well right from the outset. Over the years, the level of consensus fell away even further.
As one who was in the room on
I also recall vividly that, after the Stormont House agreement was reached in late 2014, in early 2015 the then First Minister and Deputy First Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive came to the then Secretary of State and asked her whether the UK Government would take the legislation through this Parliament in Westminster to implement it, citing the enormous difficulties that would be encountered by trying to get it through the Assembly. That in part is why we are here; it went from something that it was envisaged would be dealt with in the Assembly to something that it was then requested we do here. It has, if I can put it like this, been a Westminster responsibility ever since. That is in part why the Government are bringing the Bill forward and why I stand here today.
Given that context, as the noble Lord, Lord Hain, and others reminded us, we have been grappling with this—it was never dealt with in the 1998 agreement because it was too difficult then. Successive Governments have sought to deal with it; they have failed to achieve consensus and resolution has proved elusive, frankly, to Governments of both parties. But we are, in a sense, running out of time in that people are getting older—some are passing away—and the chance of getting information to victims and survivors becomes more difficult the longer time passes.
Perhaps I may briefly try to pick up one or two further comments from the debate. My noble friend Lord Hailsham referred to a statute of limitations, as did the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt. This provides me with an opportunity to remind the House that the Bill has changed considerably from the original Command Paper proposals. People have referred to the vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2021—I think the noble Lord, Lord Weir of Ballyholme raised it—but that was on the proposals in the Command Paper rather than the Bill that we are dealing with. It has changed, and I am on record in this House as opposing a statute of limitations on this issue. My noble friend and I have discussed it before; he and I have different views, as I am opposed to it. If there were a statute of limitations in the Bill, I would not be here doing it. The Bill has changed so that the immunity provisions within it are conditional and must at least be earned. Where there is no co-operation with the new commission, the prosecution route remains open.
My friend, as I think I can call him, the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, referred to veterans being opposed. The exchange that he had with the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, probably drew out one of the points that I was going to make: that veterans are not a homogeneous group. I met the Northern Ireland Veterans Movement last week and it is very supportive of the Bill. Where I definitely agree with the noble Viscount and the noble Lord is that we should be proud of the record and service of members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and our Armed Forces. As I have said in this House on many occasions, my view is that without their contribution, sacrifice and service there would have been no peace process in Northern Ireland. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude and we should never forget that.
One or two noble Lords referred to the timetable of the Bill, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, said, rightly, that I have not exactly rushed this. I introduced the Bill in your Lordships’ House in July last year; it then took until to November for Second Reading. I have taken it slowly into Committee, and of course I hope—although it is slightly above my pay grade, looking at my noble friend the Deputy Chief Whip next to me—that we will not necessarily rush headlong into Report. As I said at Second Reading, I have never anticipated that the amendments that I bring forward for this amending stage of the Bill would necessarily be the end of the story.
To respond to comments from my noble friend Lord Dodds of Duncairn, I am looking at what more can be done at a later stage of the Bill’s passage that will explicitly meet more of the concerns of victims and survivors. Again, I am very happy to sit down with noble Lords at the appropriate time to discuss those proposals before we reach Report.
For the reasons I hope I have set out—and, again, I am grateful for the words of the noble Baroness—the Government cannot support the amendment to the Motion. I will make one final point. I said at Second Reading that I found this challenging; I make no attempt to conceal that, and neither will other people. But if, as some people are proposing, we simply withdraw, delay or start again, which I think is the position of the party opposite, we really risk spending at least another five years on the issue.
Forgive me, my Lords, but I wanted to clarify that our position has always been that this Bill should never have been brought forward in this form until it had commanded some support. That has not changed, so it is not a pause or delay if nothing has changed. If there is a fundamental problem with the Bill, we would rather it be pulled back. My noble friend Lord Murphy and I met the Secretary of State and the Minister himself to say, “Don’t proceed with this Bill; we will work with you to find a better way.”
I appreciate the noble Baroness’s tone and comments. The only point I was trying to make is that pausing or stopping the Bill, as some have suggested—or if it gets to the statute book and it were to be repealed by a Government of a different colour in 18 months’ time or so; although I do not predict that for one second—we risk, in those circumstances, prolonging this for at least another five years while there is consultation, attempts to reach consensus, which will probably never happen, and the need to draw up legislation, et cetera. During that period, as I have referenced before, more people will have passed away and more people’s memories will be defective, so the chances of getting information to people will be even more remote and the chances of prosecutions more so.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I actually agree with the last point he made. I think that we would all like to take this opportunity to resolve the issue, but it cannot be resolved in a way which antagonises everybody—that is the problem. I urge him again, as I have done in private, to look again at the Operation Kenova amendments; they provide a working model to deliver the Bill and they have universal support. I am open to technical tweaks and any discussions with the Minister to make those amendments more acceptable technically, but the substance is there to get a consensus on this for the first time in generations, if not ever.
I am grateful to the noble Lord. Without prolonging this, I hope that we might get to those amendments this evening and have a proper discussion and debate on them. But I am grateful for the spirit of what he said.
In conclusion, the Government clearly cannot support the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan. I understand completely the motivations behind it, but, in the Government’s view, the Bill provides an opportunity to give more information to victims and survivors in a timely manner, and it is the Government’s view that it should proceed.
My Lords, I express my deep gratitude to everyone who spoke on the Bill today: noble Lords spoke with such eloquence and gravitas on these most sensitive issues. I thank the Minister for his response, and I hope he will understand that, despite all the nice things he said, I cannot accept much of what he said, particularly his comments on the Stormont House agreement. Things have moved on in the eight years since then, and we are now in a different place. All of us who were in Northern Ireland at the time of the Good Friday agreement had grave difficulty with things such as the release of prisoners. It was a difficult time, and people are trying to find ways that will enable everyone to engage in one process for dealing with the past.
The Government’s actions in bringing the Bill and continuing to push it are doing very serious damage to our reputation as a country. They are also doing huge damage and causing a lot of pain, grief and loss of trust in the United Kingdom Government among the people affected by the Bill. That is profoundly important, as noble Lords said.
I will say a word of reassurance on veterans to the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, and the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt. As I have said previously in this House, members of my family served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, so I know exactly that I do not intend, and that it is not the intention of any of us, to cause grief to veterans. Those who served honourably really have nothing to fear, and the statistics show that, but I will not delay your Lordships on that.
Finally, the people of Northern Ireland are united against the Bill. Your Lordships will have seen the extent of unity among those of us from Northern Ireland about the Bill. I do not intend to press my amendment to a Division today, but I ask the Government again to pause and even to dispense with the Bill and start again. There is no necessity or urgency to deal with this situation; there is a need to get it right. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment to the Motion withdrawn.
Clause 1: Meaning of “the Troubles” and other key expressions