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The UK Government’s controversial Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill has now passed into law. The legislation offers a conditional amnesty to those accused of committing atrocities during the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, which resulted in 3,720 people being killed and 47,541 being injured.
Under the new legislation, an independent commission will be set up to deal with more than 1,000 unsolved killings. If alleged perpetrators agree to co-operate with the new commission, they will not face criminal prosecution or civil proceedings. As a result, many victims have said they will not have anything to do with the commission. Michael O’Hare, brother of Majella O’Hare who was shot dead by a British soldier in County Armagh when she was just 12 years old, said: “The Government has abandoned victims in favour of protecting those who took the lives of our loved ones. There are no words to express how deep that betrayal cuts.”
The new law was pushed through despite overwhelming opposition from all political parties in Northern Ireland, the Irish Government, victims of the Troubles and their families, Amnesty International and other human rights organisations. It also attracted criticism from UN senior representatives, the Council of Europe, and the US Congress.
Human Rights Challenges
Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he is seeking legal advice on a potential inter-state complaint to the European Court of Human Rights, and plans to announce his decision in the coming weeks. Groups representing victims of the Troubles and human rights NGOs firmly support an ECHR case. Grainne Teggart, Amnesty’s Northern Ireland deputy director, said: “It will now be over to the courts to right this historic wrong. Victims must not shoulder the burden of legal challenge alone. The Irish Government must now follow through with their opposition to this bill and make a firm and unequivocal commitment to take an interstate case.”
Victims campaigner Raymond McCord has also launched a legal challenge at the High Court in Belfast. He is seeking a judicial review, arguing the new legislation breaches Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the right to life. McCord told the Evening Standard: “This challenge would not be necessary if the Conservatives had listened to those most affected by the Bill, the victims and their families, and if the Government had not ignored our human rights.”
The legacy bill has put considerable strain on Anglo-Irish relations, which were already fractured by the Brexit process. In 2016, 56% of voters in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union. The subsequent Brexit negotiations led to fears of a hard border returning to the island of Ireland, potentially destabilising the relative peace established by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Official reports found that a hard border would inevitably lead to a resurgence of violence in Northern Ireland.
Earlier this year the Windsor Agreement managed to quell fears of a hard border, but did not entirely resolve Brexit trade issues in Northern Ireland. The Windsor Agreement was broadly welcomed by Sinn Fein, the SDLP and Alliance, albeit with concerns about some aspects of its practical application. However the DUP, Northern Ireland’s largest unionist party, voted against it.
In February 2022 DUP leader Paul Given, then-Northern Ireland First Minister, resigned in protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol, leading to the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Three months later, Sinn Fein came first place in the Northern Ireland Assembly election, winning 27 of 90 seats, and the DUP came second with 25 seats. However, Sinn Fein leader Michelle O’Neil is prevented from taking up her role as First Minister, as the DUP refuses to participate in power-sharing unless the Windsor Framework is reformed.
Under the Good Friday Agreement, the executive can only function if both the First Minister and Deputy Minister are in post, to ensure both nationalist and loyalist interests are represented. A quarter century on from the Good Friday Agreement, two-thirds of people in Northern Ireland believe big changes are needed to make power-sharing work, and 70% feel the Good Friday Agreement has failed to deliver stable governance, with the Stormont assembly not sitting for nine of the 25 years that have passed since power-sharing in Northern Ireland began.
The Rise of Sinn Fein
The 2022 election was significant in being the first time any Irish nationalist party has led the polls in region-wide elections in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein are also gaining significant ground in the Republic of Ireland opinion polls. Last month they were at 34%, up from 29% in March 2023. Sinn Fein also won the popular vote in the 2020 general election in the Republic of Ireland, campaigning on grassroots issues such as housing, homelessness and strengthening public services. A coalition government was ultimately formed by centrist parties Fine Gael and Fianna Fail; however, it seems likely they will be defeated by Sinn Fein in the 2025 general election.
With Sinn Fein being the most popular party in both the Republic and Northern Ireland, the question of a referendum on a united Ireland is coming to the fore. Last summer Michelle O’Neil told the Financial Times: “Brexit has been a catalyst for constitutional change, because of the actions of this Tory government … There’s a conversation afoot that hasn’t been witnessed before.” On the prospects of a referendum on Irish unity, she said: “We definitely think we’ll be having this vote in the next ten years”.
More recently Leo Varadkar clashed with Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, with Heaton-Harris claiming Varadkar’s remarks on Irish unity were “unhelpful”, and Varadkar retorting, “Articles two and three of our Constitution aspire to unity. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that a Taoiseach of the country would also aspire to unity”.
Pathway to a Border Poll
Under the Northern Ireland Act (1998), which gave effect to the Good Friday Agreement, a poll will be called by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland “if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the UK and form part of a united Ireland.” Furthermore, consent for a united Ireland must be “freely and concurrently given” in both the North and the South of the island of Ireland.
2022 opinion polls revealed that voters in the North and the Republic of Ireland would welcome a referendum on a United Ireland. While 66% of those polled in the Republic would vote for a unified Ireland, only 27% in Northern Ireland would choose unity, with 50% of those polled in the North voting to remain in the UK.
The 2021 census shows that Catholics now outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland for the first time in history, albeit by a very small margin. However, in contrast to the Protestant community, who would opt overwhelmingly to remain in the UK, Catholics in the North are more divided on the issue of Irish unity. The 2022 polls found that 55% of Catholics would choose unity, 21% would vote to remain in the UK and 21% responded ‘I don’t know’.
It seems the undecided voters in Northern Ireland will play a critical role in any future border poll. Clearly, Brexit has fuelled nationalist sentiment in both the North and the South, with 63% in Northern Ireland believing Brexit has made unification more likely in any time frame. Discontent over the legacy bill, Brexit and chronic political stalemate at Stormont all point to a restless dissatisfaction with the status quo. Leo Varadkar’s prediction of a united Ireland in his lifetime is looking increasingly possible.