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In the 2022 Queen’s Speech, the Government committed to bring forward legislation on Northern Ireland legacy issues that would provide “better outcomes for victims, survivors and their families, giving veterans the protections they deserve and focusing on information recovery and reconciliation”.

On 17 May 2022 the Government introduced the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill.

The Bill proposes to end legal proceedings concerning Troubles-related conduct and provide conditional immunity from prosecution for those who cooperate with investigations conducted by a newly established Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery.

Second reading is scheduled for 24 May 2022.

Background: The Troubles

The part of the United Kingdom known as Northern Ireland was created in 1921 when executive and legislative powers were devolved to a bicameral Parliament of Northern Ireland in May of that year. Northern Ireland and its border with the rest of Ireland was contested from the beginning. This occasionally gave rise to violence, which became more sustained during the period known as The Troubles (c1968-98), when the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland became securitised.

The Belfast Agreement, also known as the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), was reached following multi-party negotiations and signed on 10 April 1998. Principally concerned with British-Irish relations and the restoration of devolved institutions to Northern Ireland, the GFA also made allowance for “the reduction of the numbers and role of the Armed Forces deployed in Northern Ireland to levels compatible with a normal peaceful society”.

In total more than 3,500 people were killed during the Troubles (PDF).

Achieving a consensus on how to deal with the legacy of the Troubles has proven difficult.

The issue has been dominated by the process for investigating the deaths of people killed during the Troubles, which began in 2006 with the creation of the Police Service for Northern Ireland’s (PSNI) Historical Enquiries Team. The majority of cases remain unsolved and as of May 2022, the PSNI had a legacy caseload of over 900 cases, involving nearly 1,200 deaths (PDF).

What would the Bill do?

The Bill would establish a new Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR), which would be responsible for reviewing deaths and other harmful conduct forming part of the Troubles and for publishing its findings.

It would create a conditional immunity scheme, providing immunity from prosecution for Troubles-related offences for individuals that cooperate by providing information to the ICRIR. Future prosecutions would only be possible where immunity was not granted, following a referral from the ICRIR. However, it will not be possible to grant immunity to an individual who has already been convicted, or if a prosecution has already begun against them.

The Bill would also:

  • Prevent investigations into Troubles-related conduct, other than those conducted by the ICRIR;
  • Prevent prosecutions for Troubles-related offences which do not involve, or are not connected to offences involving, death or serious injury;
  • Prevent future civil claims being brought in relation to Troubles-related conduct, and bring to an end those initiated after the Bill’s introduction;
  • Bring to an end inquests which have not reached an advanced stage, and prevent future inquests into Troubles-related deaths; and
  • Initiate a programme of memorialisation of the Troubles.

 

Reaction

The Bill has generally been welcomed by veterans’ representatives, who see it as a step toward providing veterans with the protection from prosecution for which they have campaigned.

Some victims’ groups have expressed concern that the conditional immunity scheme would prevent them seeking justice for relatives killed during the Troubles.

There is some uncertainty as to whether the proposals are capable of being compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has previously found that granting amnesties is incompatible with State obligations to provide mechanisms for the effective investigation of unnatural deaths under Article 2 and mistreatment which may amount to torture under Article 3.

The Government believes the measures are compatible with the ECHR.


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