The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act (2023) officially became law after receiving royal assent on September 19. The legislation has been deemed controversial by victims, human rights organisations, and parties from across the political spectrum. Arguably, Britain’s desire to conceal its own wrongdoing and that of its soldiers is being prioritised over the needs of victims. 

No Evidence for ‘Vexatious Prosecutions’

The Legacy Bill grants amnesty to suspects of murder committed during the Troubles on the condition of exchanging information and supporting the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery with their investigations. Last week, Mr Justice Colton stated that the number of judicial review proceedings lodged against the law grew to twenty. The Belfast High Court judge announced a date in November as the beginning of the five-day legal challenge. 

Crucially, the legislation protects perpetrators. The Act seeks to give immunity to those who were involved in killings during the conflict. This predominantly includes British Army veterans and paramilitary groups. When then Prime Minister Boris Johnson first proposed his legacy plans, he argued that they would ‘enable the people of Northern Ireland to move forward’ from the Troubles. Johnson further justified his proposal by arguing that there are many British Army veterans who ‘continue to face the threat of vexatious prosecutions well into their 70s and 80s.’ Speaking to the Conservative Party conference, Minister of State for Veterans’ Affairs, Johnny Mercer, said the Act will end the ‘totemic scourge’ of prosecutions against ‘special people who stood against terror and violence.’

A ‘vexatious prosecution‘ is one which is false and has no real legal basis. Its primary aim is to harass the defendant or respondent, possibly through financial claims, and in a way that abuses the process of the court. Research by Rights & Security International reveals that between 2016 and 2021, ‘vexatious’ prosecutions or claims have been mentioned more than 250 times in parliamentary debates. Additionally, seven parliamentary discussions have taken place devoted to the topic in relation to Northern Ireland. And yet, no government has ever released evidence to show that vexatious prosecutions are an issue in cases related to the Troubles. Furthermore, a definition has not even been offered for which claims can be considered vexatious. It appears then, that the government is unable to validate its desire to halt all inquiries into crimes committed during the Troubles. With over 1,000 unsolved killings, many people will never be held responsible and many more will never receive justice or peace of mind.

It Takes Two to Reconcile

According to Rishi Sunak, the legacy legislation will ‘promote reconciliation.’ Of course, veterans’ groups support the recognition of their service and welcome the prevention of victims or their families from being able to launch fresh legal challenges. However, it has become apparent that reconciliation is impossible unless both sides accept the Act. Since the introduction of legacy proposals in 2021, victims have voiced their opposition to the impunity granted to believed perpetrators. Before the legacy legislation had even received royal assent, Madden & Finucane Solicitors had already lodged judicial review proceedings with the High Court in Northern Ireland on behalf of six families whose relatives were murdered during the Troubles. A number of other firms have since announced that they are taking legal action over the legislation on behalf of those affected. 

For victims, the Act reverses the process of reconciliation. While there were flaws in the previous system, the option to launch an inquiry into atrocities committed allowed those affected to seek justice and accountability. It also held important consequences for the families of those who had been killed, such as ‘the vindication of a murdered loved one’s innocence’ as Micheál Martin, Ireland’s Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Defence, pointed out. 

The Rewriting of History  

It is not just victim groups who have campaigned to scrap the bill. Unusually, all of Northern Ireland’s political parties are united in their objection to the legislation. In June, DUP East Belfast MP, Gavin Robinson, asked the government to prioritise the justice of victims rather than the protection of their perpetrators. That same month, DUP Leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson wrote a letter to Rishi Sunak outlining why the bill should be scrapped and calling it a ‘retrograde step.’ Vice President of Sinn Féin, Michelle O’Neill, commented that the chief aim of the legislation was to ‘protect British state forces.’

By all indications, the Legacy Bill is not in the interests of Northern Ireland. Those who have dealt with decades’ worth of daily trauma and pain following the Troubles will no longer have access to inquests or investigations. Some, such as Johnny Mercer, have expressed their approval of the bill stating  hopes that it: ‘brings comfort to those who have had their lives destroyed simply because they served this nation in Northern Ireland.’ Notably, nothing has been said of the fact that this legislation effectively negates the role played by the British Army during the conflict. Indeed, paramilitary groups will also be protected by the conditional amnesty. The big difference is that tens of thousands of loyalists and republicans were incarcerated during the Troubles — whereas only four British soldiers have ever been convicted of murder. 

UN experts warn that the bill was passed following ‘insufficient consultation with victims’ and that it places the UK ‘in flagrant contravention of its international human rights obligations.’ The Irish Government is presently deciding whether to take an interstate case against the UK over the legislation.

Despite widespread disapproval, the Tories passed a bill solely in the interests of British Army veterans, and more importantly, to arguably rewrite their role in the Troubles’ bloodshed. The result is that now more than ever the road to reconciliation has become even harder.

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