Legacy Issues: Legislation

Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 17th February 2020.

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Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin 2:45 pm, 17th February 2020

2. Mr Boylan asked the Minister of Justice whether departmental officials are in contact with their counterparts in the NIO regarding the commitment to publish and introduce legislation in the UK Parliament to address legacy issues. (AQO 125/17-22)

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

Since the New Decade, New Approach deal, my officials have spoken to their Northern Ireland Office counterparts on several occasions, and we await formal meetings to discuss the next steps towards the publication and introduction of the promised legislation. In the period following the completion of the Northern Ireland Office's public consultation on its draft Stormont House Agreement Bill, departmental officials and relevant justice bodies participated in a series of meetings with Northern Ireland Office officials. These were intended to inform the Northern Ireland Office's thinking on how it might respond to the consultation responses and the implications of any proposed changes to the Bill. I assure Members that my officials and I remain ready and committed to working with the UK Government and the Northern Ireland Office to progress the necessary legislation.

Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for her answer and wish her well in her new post. What preparations are being made by the Department to plan for the establishment of the Historical Investigations Unit (HIU)?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

It is clear from the earlier draft legislation published by the Northern Ireland Office that many of the areas to be included in that legislation do not fall within my responsibilities. However, the recent commitment included recognition that the legislation should have the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly, so work will have to be done to achieve that before we go any further. It is unclear whether that will be via a legislative consent motion. As the Member rightly indicates, it is a matter of some urgency. Accepting that, there are issues that we can address in preparation. A specialist team has been put in place to scope out the work needed for the HIU. Whilst we are working on this as a Department, unless the UK Government provide funding, as well as legislation, it will be incredibly difficult for us to be able to deliver a scheme that can deliver for victims of the Troubles.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

The Minister mentioned funding and the NIO. She will know that the vires regarding the decision on separated prisoners in our prison system rests with the Secretary of State. Does the Minister agree that the burden of paying for the separation of the Prison Service should be placed at the NIO, shadowy as it may be, allowing for that money to go into front-line services in the prisons?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance 3:00 pm, 17th February 2020

We have gone some way from the HIU and the Stormont House Agreement to the separated regime in prisons, but, in principle, I am always happy for somebody else to pick up the bill for issues that we have to take care of in the Department. If the NIO is willing to do so, I am more than happy to let it. We recognise the sensitivity of the separated regime, but, realistically, at this time, we are working hard with our colleagues in the Prison Service to make sure that the regime is stable; that the numbers, insofar as they are within our gift, can be reduced; and that those in the unseparated regime are not following a significantly different regime from the rest of those in the prison system. That is hugely important.

Photo of John Stewart John Stewart UUP

Does the Minister concede that any investigation body investigating the past, such as the HIU, cannot be both investigator and adjudicator?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

Such a body needs to be article 2-compliant. It is important that the body that investigates then produces reports that are forwarded to a separate body to determine whether prosecutions should take place. I am not sure whether that is the particular issue that the Member hints at. From our perspective, that would be the separation that we see there being. It is entirely appropriate, however, that those who do the investigation produce the reports.

Photo of Joanne Bunting Joanne Bunting DUP

To go back to the original question, what liaison has the Minister or her Department had with the NIO on the responses to the most recent legacy consultation? In her view, what must happen as a result of the concerns raised by innocent victims?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

As the Member will be well aware, the issue has drawn some particular political controversy over many years, and I suspect that that may not change in the near future. However, it is a matter for the NIO, which took forward the consultation, to look at and assess the responses. From our perspective, we are clear that the current regime is not fit for purpose and cannot continue to deal with historical cases indefinitely.

We recognise that the implications of continuing to police and investigate the past out of current budgets is a deflection from the work of the present, yet it is important work that needs to be done, because, if not done, that will colour people's interactions with the justice system in the present. While there may be many concerns about the Stormont House Agreement and the HIU, there is, as it stands, no alternative proposal that has received any more support than that agreement. We have a duty to try to take the issue forward in a way that allows the police, the judiciary, the Police Ombudsman and all the others involved to move forward and focus on policing the present and the future and allow the past to be dealt with through a comprehensive mechanism. The Stormont House Agreement, while imperfect, is the best opportunity that we have to do that.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the Minister to her first Question Time and wish her well. Does she agree that the establishment of the HIU is the last chance for many victims and survivors to obtain truth and justice for their loved ones and that all those responsible for their deaths should be held to account, regardless of who they are?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I do. It is hugely important, in order to transform our society from one in which there have been significant issues around lawlessness and lack of respect for the rule of law. In order to build confidence that we are going forward on a different basis, it is hugely important that we address those issues and give victims the opportunity to receive not just truth but, where possible, justice. We also have to be realistic. With the passage of time, there is an issue about how likely it is that cases will be fit to be prosecuted. There is also an ongoing issue of people who have died without having received justice and have carried that burden to their grave. We, as a society, have a duty to deal with those who are victims and who were most acutely affected by the Troubles, but that duty goes beyond those who were victims and survivors; in setting standards, it extends to wider society. We have to look at what happens in other places — for example, historical sex offences are being prosecuted, and it is right that that should be so. There is not a person in the Chamber who would argue that the age of the offender or the remoteness of the incident should excuse proper investigation and prosecution where possible. It should be no less serious when it comes to murder.