This is a copy of a letter addressed to the Secretary of State Rt Hon Karen Bradley MP from eight members of the House of Lords, including four former secretaries of state for Northern Ireland, sent to her at Stormont House:
Having each had significant direct ministerial or parliamentary experience in Northern Ireland, we are writing in response to the invitation to comment on the government’s consultation paper, Addressing the Legacy of Northern Ireland’s Past.
Four of us have served as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland; two as ministers for Northern Ireland; three also as Secretary of State for Defence; Lord Cormack was chair of the Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee; Lord Patten also led the review to establish the new Police Service of Northern Ireland; and Lord Eames was Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland.
In different ways and at different times we have been keenly aware of the impact of the Troubles on victims, both survivors and bereaved relatives. It cannot be easily forgotten.
The victims’ reaction to the proposals in the Consultation Paper is obviously of first importance. That is closely followed by the views of the Northern Ireland political parties, particularly those who were party to the Stormont House Agreement in 2014.
We understand why many victims and others attach great importance to the prosecution, conviction and sentencing of those responsible for the appalling loss they have suffered.
Their views clearly deserve the utmost respect.
But experience suggests that it would be a mistake to expect that judicial outcome in any but a tiny percentage of the crimes that have not already been dealt with.
Most of the cases were not easy to investigate immediately after they were committed and the passage of time – up to 50 years – has only made the chances of a successful outcome much less likely.
The Historical Enquiries Team (HET) completed work on 1,615 cases involving more than 2,000 deaths.
We have been authoritatively informed that, of all those cases, only 17 were referred to the Public Prosecution Service and only three resulted in prosecutions and convictions for murder.
It is estimated that the new Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) will have a caseload of around 1,700 deaths.
No-one can be certain how many prosecutions and convictions will follow from the work of the unit which is planned to take five years. But, given the outcome of the work completed in 2006-14, and the further passage of time including the death from natural causes of people who were in one way or another involved, the number is likely to be very small.
It must be worth at least pausing to consider whether this is the best possible use of £150m.
The Stormont House Agreement included several proposals to provide further help for victims of the Troubles.
In the light of what is so likely to be a largely frustrating outcome from further police investigations, we believe it may be a much more effective way of helping victims to use that money on those and perhaps other proposals for meeting the needs of victims.
We completely accept that what the victims themselves think, after reflecting on the options, is of primary importance.
We note also that currently prosecutions are being considered for former (often now retired) members of the armed forces – perhaps because records and information are more readily available – but none so far as we can establish for paramilitaries.
That cannot be right. We believe that it is essential to treat past cases in an absolutely even-handed manner.
That also means former military personnel cannot be exempt (as some are suggesting) while other former combatants, either loyalist or republican, are pursued.
All in all, we are reinforced in our judgement that the priority is surely now to resource victims not investigations that have little or no likelihood of either prosecution or alternative closure satisfactory to victims.
We would be grateful if you could seriously consider the case we have set out here, including the prioritisation of victim compensation over investigation in the £150 million the government is offering.
On behalf of: Lord Browne of Ladyton, Lord Cormack, Lord Eames, Lord Hain, Lord King of Bridgwater, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, Lord Patten of Barnes, Lord Reid of Cardowan