“This is our last chance to deal with the Troubles legacy”

Academics who produced a critique of the Stormont House Agreement (Legacy) Bill have mounted a powerful defence of the Bill itself and their 100 pages of “tweaks” of it before the Commons NI Committee. The essence of their strong rebuttal of Ulster Unionist attacks is that their holistic approach acknowledges where the balance of responsibility properly lies for Troubles deaths. The Bill would replace a piecemeal approach to Troubles cases carried out by a reluctant PSNI which for some has created a perception of bias against the security forces. Some rebalancing  however is necessary because up to 1977 at least, security forces actions were seldom investigated.

After months of formal consultation followed by the usual inertia and deadlock, the Bill is now awaiting action by whatever UK government we find ourselves with in the coming months.   The Bill would set up an independent  Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) to investigate all Troubles deaths whether as yet  uninvestigated or where new investigations are needed ; an  Independent Commission on Information Retrieval (ICIR)  to enable victims and survivors of the Troubles to seek and privately receive information;   an Oral History Archive; and an Implementation and Reconciliation Group (IRG) – to promote reconciliation and commission a report on patterns and themes from independent academic experts.

Team leader Prof Kieran McEvoy  confronted unionist criticisms raised by DUP MP Gregory Campbell that the Bill and his team were biased against former security forces. “  If all this falls apart and the mechanisms are not established.. the piecemeal approach focused on state actors will continue. The model Bill moves things away from a state centred approach and points out that paramilitaries were responsible for 99% of deaths.. This is the last chance to do this.”

Daniel Holder of the Committee for the Administration  of Justice explained that the investigations into the conduct of the security forces were needed because the rule of law scarcely applied to them up to 1974 and was not satisfactory until 2004. 74 were killed by the military between 1969 and 74. There were no prosecutions, and investigations by the Royal Military Police were “managerial”, with some investigations lasting just 15 minutes. On the other hand the RUC were weighed down by the sheer weight of violent incidents.

The team were critical of calls for an amnesty or a statue of limitations made by the Commons Defence Committee. An amnesty applying to only completed investigations raises the question of what would happen after fresh or reopened investigations. And amnesty for former security forces would lead inevitably to an amnesty for former paramilitaries.

“30 to 40,000 people were convicted and went to prison.. There is not going to a larger number of new prosecutions. That is legal fact. We have to be honest with victims and not oversell.. But the balance in prosecutions does not stack up”, said Prof McEvoy.

“Where’s the evidence of state wrongdoing?” asked Gregory Campbell.

Plenty in the Stevens and Police Ombudsman reports, retorted Daniel Holder. 207 of those convicted were state agents.

In   his sharpest reply to UUP criticisms McEvoy added: If this is given a fair wind and although imperfect, it will address the needs of victims. Dumping the Stormont House Agreement is morally outrageous.. This is our moment to stand up and deliver for victims.”   

The absence of nationalist MPs to put questions is glaring and unfortunate. On the other hand, DUP and Conservative MPs although challenging were far from dismissive. Judging by the model Bill teams reception before the committee, the Legacy Bill stands a chance of implementation. The main obstacle may be the ill thought out hankering of some Conservative MPs and ministers for a limited amnesty for soldiers. That battle continues to be fought  inside the deeply divided Conservative party, so expect no early results.   The whole hearing is an absorbing watch on Parliament TV.

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