Legislation aimed at addressing the legacy of Northern Ireland’s Troubles offers “no guarantees” of securing new information for victims, the UK Government has said. Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said he hopes “lots of information” will be recovered in “quick time” for families thanks to the Bill, which is on the verge of becoming law.
He was speaking in the Commons as MPs voted to pass the controversial legislation.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the legislation will “not do anything to give people the truth and justice that they desire”.
Mr Heaton-Harris replied: “There are no guarantees that this will bring information forward at all. “But, as I tried to outline, very, very little new information has come to light that has led to new cases – very, very few people have actually been able to receive justice.” Mr Heaton-Harris went on to say anyone who misleads the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR) would be subject to criminal proceedings. The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill includes a form of limited immunity for some perpetrators of crimes committed during the conflict and would also prevent future civil cases and inquests into Troubles offences. All of the main political parties in Northern Ireland and victims’ groups are opposed to the Bill. On Tuesday, the House of Lords supported an amendment setting out conditions for legal immunity as part of reconciliation efforts, including consent from the families of victims. But MPs voted 288 to 205, majority 83, to reject this amendment, with Mr Heaton-Harris suggesting such an approach would not have provided an incentive for people to come forward. DUP MP Jim Shannon told the Commons: “There are a great many people out there who have lost loved ones over the years, we all know who they are. “On every occasion they seek justice … even if there is only a candle of light of that possibility that someday someone who murdered their loved ones would be (held) accountable then they need it. “Today Government, with respect, is extinguishing that light for all of those people who have lost loved ones.” Mr Heaton-Harris, in his reply, said: “I will never and can never put myself in the shoes of the people who have lost someone, I just cannot, however, what I can see is a process that has only worked for very, very few people considering the quantum of people who are affected by the Troubles. “The chances of getting justice for them are dwindling all the time. “The Government has come to the conclusion that this is the right way forward because we hope we can in good time at least get some information recovered for those families that ask for it.” Mr Eastwood, intervening, also said: “He has said he can’t put himself in the shoes of the victims but he could listen to them.” He later said: “Immunity? It is impunity. “You have given people a licence to murder people in the streets of Derry and Belfast and Newry and right across Northern Ireland, and also on the streets of London. “I do not understand how any politician can stand and look at the faces of crying victims and tell them this is the right thing to do. I am ashamed that this is happening today.” Sammy Wilson, the DUP MP for East Antrim, meanwhile urged the Irish government not to challenge the Bill through the European Court of Human Rights, describing efforts to address the Troubles’ legacy as an “internal UK matter”. He said: “The Government of the Irish Republic again interfering in the affairs of Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom has threatened to go to the European Court on this issue.” Intervening on Mr Shannon, Mr Wilson added: “Would he agree with me that first of all given how tarnished they are in regard to legacy, and secondly given the fact that whether we agree or disagree with the legislation which is being brought forward, this is an internal UK matter and should be dealt with internally in the processes of the UK, and not by an interfering Irish government?” Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Hilary Benn said a future Labour government would repeal the Bill.
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