British troops and police, investigate a couple on the street near Europa Hotel, 1974, during The Troubles. British troops and police, investigate a couple on the street near Europa Hotel, 1974, during The Troubles. Source: George Garrigues - Wikicommons / cropped from original / shared under license GFDL version 1.2

The Tories have rammed through this bill to protect the security services from accountability argues Chris Bambery

On Wednesday, the Sunak government voted through legislation concerning Northern Ireland, despite the fact that it is opposed by all of its major parties, by the Irish government and the United States, while it has raised considerable concern in the United Nations. Given the mess that Boris Johnson got into over Northern Ireland’s Brexit Protocol when he alienated the Biden administration, the European Union, and the government in Dublin, you might have thought Sunak would not want to go there. But he has, in order to appease his own backbenchers and Britain’s military and security services.

The British government’s controversial Legacy Bill, which supposedly ‘draws a line’ under the North’s Troubles, passed its final vote in the House of Commons on Wednesday. Its full title is the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill, and it marks a complete change in the way with which cases involving killings and human-rights abuses during the Troubles will be dealt.

The British government faces significant cases relating to the involvement of security services with Loyalist murder gangs who targeted Catholics. It also faces a legal minefield over its use of internment without trial from August 1971 to December 1975.

The Sinn Féin MP for North Belfast, John Finucane, has pointed out:

‘The British Supreme Court has ruled that the British government broke the law in illegally and unlawfully detaining hundreds of people during the early 1970s.

When the state has broken the law, there is an onus on that state both morally and legally to provide redress to those people who were unlawfully detained. Instead of righting this wrong, facing up to its legal responsibilities and accepting the judgment of its highest court, this British government is effectively tearing up the law, closing access to the courts while relentlessly pursuing amnesty for the actions of its forces in Ireland.’

Evading responsibility

Currently, such cases are dealt with through the judicial system: criminal and civil investigations and inquests. This resulted from an agreement between the UK and Irish governments reached in 2015. However, once this Bill becomes law, these will cease and they will be dealt with by a new body, the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR). The cases will then cease to be criminal proceedings. Rather, the commission’s task will be on information recovery; it will carry out reviews of deaths and other ‘harmful conduct’ caused by the Troubles and produce reports on its findings.

It will also have the power to offer conditional amnesties for perpetrators. Opponents feel that this hands the power to such perpetrators rather than the victims, and is designed to protect former British soldiers.

Not surprisingly, the relatives of those killed in the Troubles, and victims and survivors’ groups and human-rights organisations oppose it. They believe they will not receive truth and justice, and that the Legacy Bill is in breach of the UK government’s international human rights obligations. In contrast, it has received the full support of groups representing veterans of the British army.

After the Bill was passed, John Finucane stated:

‘The British Government’s flawed and irredeemable Legacy Bill has always only been about one thing – closing the door on families ever getting truth and justice.

It is absolutely cynical and cruel that the British Government is forcing this bill through despite clear opposition from victims, all the political parties in this island, human rights experts, churches, the US, UN, EU and the Irish Government.

Sinn Féin will continue to stand with the families in their campaigns for truth and justice, many of them who have been campaigning with dignity and determination for five decades.

The British government has reneged on an international agreement to implement the legacy mechanisms agreed at Stormont House by the two governments and political parties in 2014 in a human rights’ compliant manner.’

Following Wednesday’s vote, the Irish Government came under renewed calls to take an inter-state case against the UK government. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said he will make a decision within weeks.

In the UK, Labour has reiterated its pledge to scrap the legislation if elected. In both instances, we shall see. Groups representing victims of the Troubles will continue to fight for truth and justice. They must be supported. Above all, we must force Starmer to stand by his pledge to scrap it.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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