WATCH: My closing speech in full on the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill, Tuesday 24th May 2022
It is an honour to be able to close this debate on behalf of the Opposition. I want to make clear that we are not opposing the Bill for opposition’s sake. This is a flawed and damaging piece of legislation that does not serve victims and survivors. It does not heal the wounds of communities. It does not allow Northern Ireland to move on.
We know and understand how challenging this is for so many. To hear the emotion in the voice of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) really hits home. It is important that his voice as a victim and the voices of all victims are heard. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) said, the Bill does not deliver justice for victims or veterans—many veterans are also victims. The Bill as it is, as we have heard throughout the debate, demonstrates a woeful lack of understanding of the situation faced by families and communities affected by the troubles, and an off-handedness towards groups in Northern Ireland, including the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which has not even been consulted on the proposals.
Victims and survivors often do not speak with one voice on these issues, but in this situation the Government have miscalculated. All the victims and survivor groups we have heard from are singing from the same songsheet: the Government have misjudged the mood. Indeed, as the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) said, he cannot find anyone, apart from those on the Conservative Benches, who wants the Bill to pass. The hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) spoke about those elected in Northern Ireland. They do not represent one single view on legacy. So when the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Stuart Anderson) attacked the Labour party for not standing up for veterans, it was hurtful and, frankly, deplorable.
The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), who spoke from the Government Benches, displayed the integrity and understanding of the people of Northern Ireland, which is precisely why the Government need to reframe the Bill. The Government say that they have learned lessons from South Africa, but there are significant differences between the two processes that will, in our opinion, not solve problems, but cause them in future.
First, on the independence of the entire process, the Bill gives the Secretary of State sweeping powers, including to appoint people to the commission and over the process of the commission. Let us consider the following paragraph from clause 20, which is titled “Determining a request for immunity”. Subsection (8) states:
“The immunity requests panel must take account of any guidance given by the Secretary of State—e
(a) when deciding in accordance with section 18(7) whether P should be granted--
(i) specific immunity from prosecution,
(ii) general immunity from prosecution, or
(iii) specific and general immunity from prosecution;”
The word “must” is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence. It is saying that the Secretary of State can make a judgment on whether a person can be granted immunity in specific cases or even in general. That comes on top of the guidance that the Secretary of State can give about whether conduct is “possible criminal conduct”. Those are not judgments that any Secretary of State should be making. The Government are leaving themselves wide open to legal challenges.
The Government will probably also be subject to legal challenges on the second difference between this model and the South African model—namely, the lack of conditionality on the amnesty. Whereas in South Africa the process was public and transparent, the system that the Government are trying to bring in is, as one commentator put it, “impunity repackaged”. Conditions on an amnesty are so low that they may as well not even exist.
The last difference between the South African system and what the Government are proposing is the running of the inquest system. Clause 33, which is called “No criminal investigations except through ICRIR reviews”, states:
“On and after the day on which this section comes into force, no criminal investigation of any Troubles-related offence may be continued or begun.”
As my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale and the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) pointed out, any future investigations will not be allowed to take place. That is a significant difference and, frankly, it is not a solution that builds trust or delivers for victims or survivors.
We have also heard from the Government and Government Members about the process being the punishment, but they failed to mention that the Bill removes any reference to investigation of crimes and that that has now been replaced with the word “review”. For victims and survivors, that is not good enough. We cannot keep retraumatising victims and survivors of the troubles.
In Belfast less than two weeks ago, I heard at first hand from numerous organisations, when discussing legacy, how frustrated they were that they had better working relationships with the former Secretary of State and architect of the New Decade, New Approach agreement, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon, and the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for North Dorset, than they do with the incumbent Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. That is not good enough. The manner in which the Government have behaved at every stage of the process in bringing the Bill before the House has been the antithesis of the values that underpin our system of governance.
The Bill will give the Secretary of State enormous powers, but there has been no prelegislative work and no scrutiny by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. The hon. Member for North Dorset has eloquently made the point that the Bill addresses such a contentious and emotive subject that it deserves more time for debate and consideration. The Opposition would support an extension of time to discuss the Bill.
We would also welcome a full consultation with the people of Northern Ireland. A consultation on the Northern Ireland (Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan) Bill received 17,000 responses, with a clear message that there should be no amnesty for troubles-related abuses. Why are those voices now being ignored? Despite the clear support of the people of Northern Ireland for the Stormont House agreement, the UK Government released a written ministerial statement in March 2020 that signified a unilateral move away from it. That ran contrary to the Government’s commitments in the agreement and the expressed will of the Northern Irish people.
The Secretary of State says that he has consulted. Will he tell the House exactly whom he has consulted and what they have told him? There is such a lack of support for the Bill from organisations such as Amnesty International, which he refuses to meet, and from the Government of the Republic of Ireland and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, so we need to know. Demands for meetings with, in some cases, less than 24 hours’ notice is not the way to show organisations respect.
The Secretary of State and the Minister of State will know from seeing the visitors in the Gallery that victims of the troubles have made the journey to London today because they are so upset and angry that their voices have not been heard. Is it not one of the Secretary of State’s principal roles to listen to victims and their families, sit down and take note, consult fully, undertake due diligence and, above all, pay them the respect that they deserve?
No matter how the Bill is dressed up, it equates to a blanket amnesty. It undermines fundamental human rights enshrined in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and undermines the institutions established to uphold that monumental and historic agreement, which underpins peace in Northern Ireland. The Bill is solely a product of the UK Government. It does not arise from an agreement with the political parties of Northern Ireland or with the Government of Ireland; it does not have the democratic legitimacy that previous legislative change has had. Even though it purports to be about reconciliation in Northern Ireland, it does not have the support of the people of Northern Ireland.
The Labour party is an honest broker. Having listened to the victims’ groups, the organisations and the political parties that want justice and truth, we cannot support the Bill today. It delivers for no one and does not address the issues in Northern Ireland that need to be resolved.