MPs welcome government commitment to consult Troubles victims on legacy laws

A government commitment to consult victims on Troubles legacy proposals has been welcomed by an influential Westminster committee.

Monday, 18th January 2021, 12:39 pm
Updated Monday, 18th January 2021, 8:16 pm
The Palace of Westminster. Photo: Victoria Jones/PA Wire

Proposals put forward by the government in March last year – including limiting the number of cases eligible for reinvestigation – highlighted a “lack of engagement with stakeholders,” the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee (NIAC) said.

Responding to the NIAC Troubles Legacy Interim Report, published in October 2020, the government has assured the committee it remains committed to finding a “way forward which can command the broad consensus necessary for the effective delivery and implementation” of legacy legislation.

NIAC chairman Simon Hoare MP said the committee is pleased to see that the government response has not “pushed back on our recommendations” that any new legislation “is consistent with the six principles of the Stormont House Agreement”.

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Kenny Donaldson of Innocent Victims United. Picture: Colm O'Reilly/PressEye

On Monday, Mr Hoare said: “We are encouraged by the change in tone from the government in its response to the committee’s interim report, in comparison with the March statement laying new proposals to tackle Troubles legacy issues.

“The tone is now more collegiate, and we welcome the government’s commitment to consulting stakeholders, including victims’ groups.

“The seemingly unilateral nature of the new proposals in March caused a great deal of consternation, but stakeholder buy-in is essential to supporting reconciliation in Northern Ireland.

“A step change in approach by the government will undoubtedly improve trust in the process.

Paul Young of Justice for Northern Ireland Veterans Original

“We’re pleased to see that the government has not pushed back on our other recommendations, including on ensuring any legislation tackling the Legacy of the Troubles is consistent with the six principles of the Stormont House Agreement.”

Mr Hoare added: “The government’s reaffirmed recognition of the need to separate Northern Ireland legacy issues from the Overseas Operations Bill is also welcome. However, the government response argues that the sensitive and highly complex nature of the issues is why they are unresolved.

“The issues are, of course, complex and sensitive, and they become more so with the passage of time. That state of affairs should be a driver to reach a resolution at the earliest possible opportunity, before memories have faded to the extent that there is no prospect of closure for those affected.

“We need to see a clear timetable for consultation and a timeframe in which we can expect the government to bring forward legislation. Victims have already been waiting too long.

“We look forward to discussing this matter with the Secretary of State when we take evidence from him later this week.”

However, Kenny Donaldson of Innocent Victims United (IVU) has expressed concern that some members of the NIAC and other MPs are “ideologically wedded” to what he calls the “Stormont House dis-Agreement”.

Mr Donaldson said the SHA proposals do not have the confidence of large swathes of the victims and survivors community.

“The Stormont House proposals are past tense and we need to move the conversation swiftly forward,” he said.

“The UK Government needs to become much more proactive in its deliberations with the Irish Government on these issues, we have consistently made this point to Secretary of States (present and past) that they need to represent their own citizens and the abuses for which they received as a consequence of actions or inactions taken by the Irish State.”

Mr Donaldson added: “Our organisation is the largest constituency of victims and survivors with 23 member groups across NI, RoI and GB and with a membership in excess of 12,000 individuals plus their families.

“Any potential legacy proposals and consequent legislation must have the support of our constituency, otherwise such proposals would have no legitimacy.”

A leading military veterans’ group has also said that any future legacy proposals will lack legitimacy without the support of the tens of thousands of former troops who served during the Troubles.

Paul Young, senior advisor for the Justice for NI Veterans Original group, said the combined veterans’ campaign groups, and their families, represent the largest body of legacy stakeholders across the UK.

However, he said: “We have consistently been ignored and our voices have gone unheeded and disgracefully we have not been invited to take part in any official consultations with the exception of the NIAC.

“We appeal to the Secretary of State Brandon Lewis, the NIO and other law makers to start a meaningful engagement with our veteran groups in the same way as engagements are conducted with other victims groups.”

Mr Young was one of three military veterans who gave evidence to an NIAC hearing last year, during which all three were adamant that veterans viewed the SHA as “dead in the water” and beyond hope.

“To paraphrase a well-known Monty Python sketch, it’s a dead parrot,” he said on Monday.

“We as veteran campaign groups welcomed the Secretary of States March 2020 promise to roll back the SHA and implement a fairer system for dealing with the past which we gave a guarded approval.

“It is clear to us that the NIAC is wedded to full implementation of the Stormont House Agreement and have discarded the views of the majority of victims of terrorists that reject the SHA.”

Mr Young added: “We believe the NIAC is pursuing an agenda which is now outdated and not reflective of the main victims groups and the conversation need to move swiftly forward to reflect the views of victims of terrorism.

“Any future legacy proposals and following legislation must have the support of the veterans constituency or they will be without legitimacy.”

Meanwhile, Ulster Human Rights Watch (UHRW) has called on the Irish government to develop mechanisms for dealing with the past that mirror those already in place in Northern Ireland.

Following publication of the [UK] government’s response to the Interim Report by the NIAC on dealing with the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past, UHRW advocacy manager Axel Schmidt, said: “We welcome the willingness of the [UK] government to engage with civic society including with organisations such as Ulster Human Rights Watch which represents victims of terrorism.

“The government notes that the Irish government needs to maintain a collaborative approach, which has not always been the case in the past.

“What is also required is for the Irish government to create and develop mechanisms for dealing with the past that mirror those already implemented in Northern Ireland. Right now, they are out of step and some considerable way off the pace.”

Mr Schmidt said it is a positive step for the UK government to express a desire to address the needs of veterans alongside those of victims of terrorism, and added: “The government believes it is right to focus on information recovery but this cannot be dissociated from the pursuit of justice for victims of terrorism.

“The government says it wants to move on towards reconciliation but what is meant by reconciliation has yet to be defined.

“UHRW has already requested a meeting with the Secretary of State and looks forward to discussing arrangements for dealing with all aspects of legacy.”

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