“It seeks to terminate or seriously restrict access to inquests, civil actions in the courts and police investigations and complaints for those seeking redress for deaths and serious injuries that occurred in Northern Ireland.”
By Nadine Finch, Labour for Irish Unity
The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy & Reconciliation) Bill has its second reading on 24 May 2022 and goes into its committee stage in the whole of the House of Commons on 29 June and 4 July 2022.
It seeks to terminate or seriously restrict access to inquests, civil actions in the courts and police investigations and complaints for those seeking redress for deaths and serious injuries that occurred in Northern Ireland between the 1st January 1966 and 10th April 1998.
The initial part of this period covered the civil rights protests in Northern Ireland against discrimination against the nationalist population in relation to housing, employment and services and the continuation of electoral boundaries designed to ensure a Unionist majority across the six counties. It continued after the arrival on the British Army on 14 July 1969 and, in the following years, there were a substantial number of deaths at the hands of members of the British army or paramilitaries. The security forces also appeared to operate a shoot to kill policy in relation to those thought to be opposing them, killed a number of people now accepted to be non-combatants and relied on paid perjurers and agents.
Following the Good Friday Agreement and the Stormont House Agreement many families had the confidence to seek redress through inquests and further police investigations, which had not been possible earlier or were clearly flawed. Lawyers and members of the judiciary ensured that, despite the passage of time, inquests and civil actions were heard. Those that have been completed to date confirmed what had long been said by communities and activists. Members of the security forces and paramilitary agents had killed civilian bystanders and/or targeted communities, on the basis of their political opinions or religious beliefs.
For example, at the conclusion of the 2021 inquest into the 1971 deaths of ten members of the community in the nationalist Ballymurphy area of Belfast shot by members of the British army, Mrs Justice Keegan, the Presiding Coroner, found that they were all entirely innocent. This was not the random decision of a “rogue” coroner. On the 2nd of September 2021, The Right Honourable Dame Siobhan Keegan was sworn in as Lady Chief Justice of Northern Ireland.
Mrs Justice Keegan, in her role as presiding coroner, had previously listed and grouped together some 52 legacy inquests involving 93 deaths between the 1970s and 2000. This process was continued by her successor, Mr. Justice Humphreys. But the Bill will not permit any inquest not opened in court before 17 May 2022 to proceed and coroners will be obliged to dismiss them. There are also a number of other cases in which requests for an inquest may be appropriate to comply with the respect for life contained in Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, as confirmed by the European Court of Human Rights. Coroners will not be permitted to open any such inquest and, in any event, any civil actions which may lead to such requests are also prohibited from 17 May 2022.
Instead, the roles played by the independent judiciary will be replaced by a Government appointed Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery, that will employ police officers, to carry out any investigations. This is despite the fact that it is widely accepted that an inquest is a route to information recovery, which has been tried and tested, and has enabled numerous families and the public to understand how individuals met their death and start the recovery and reconciliation process.
The Government has also erroneously compared its new system to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission without mentioning that it was held in public and that those who wished for an amnesty had to make a formal application and be questioned in public. A large number of those who did so were also refused an amnesty.
The Government has also ignored the fact that civil actions and the work of the Police Ombudsman in Northern Ireland have uncovered the role of illegal gun running and police officers, who colluded with Loyalist paramilitaries, in cases such as the killings at the Sean Graham bookmakers in Belfast and the Miami Showband Massacre, which is now a subject of a documentary on Netflix.
A Government that wished to uphold the role of law and protect an individual’s right to life should be enhancing the powers of coroners and judges not preventing them doing the jobs they were appointed to do and can do in any other part of the United Kingdom.
- Nadine Finch is the Chair of Labour for Irish Unity, you can join the group on Facebook and follow them on twitter here.
- Say NO to Britain’s “Bill of Shame” – Parliament Square, Westminster – 1pm, Tuesday 28th June: No Tory Amnesty for State Forces! Legacy families deserve an Investigation! Legacy families deserve an Inquiry! Time for truth & time for Justice!
- You can join Labour for Irish Unity’s session at Arise Festival 2022 on July 13th: Real Change in Ireland – Lessons for the Left – with Sinn Fein’s Emma Sheerin MLA, John McDonnell MP & more.