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‘The Northern Ireland Troubles Legacy Act is the Most Callous Form of Politicking by the UK Government’

The Government has looked for political gain at the expense of victims and survivors of Northern Ireland’s 30-year conflict who have spent decades in pursuit of truth and justice, argues Emma DeSouza

British Army soldiers patrolling the streets of west Belfast in Northern Ireland in May 1973. Photo: Alain Le Garsmeur “The Troubles” Archive/Alamy

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The UK Government’s controversial Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act has been dealt its first legal blow, with Belfast’s High Court ruling that legislation breaches a litany of legal obligations and international human rights standards.

The court found that sections of the Act breach Articles 2, 3 and 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 4 of the 1998 Human Rights Act, and section 2 of the Windsor Framework/Withdrawal Agreement.

Not for the first time, the Government has discarded its international obligations for temporary political gain – this time at the expense of victims and survivors of Northern Ireland’s 30-year conflict who have spent decades in pursuit of truth and justice.

To continue subjecting victims and survivors to further suffering through prolonged and arduous legal challenges amounts to the most callous forms of politicking.

The Legacy Bill received royal assent in September 2023, despite fierce opposition from all of Northern Ireland’s political parties, the Irish Government, victims groups and human rights bodies.

That the only support the UK Government managed to receive was from veterans’ groups is an unambiguous indication of the unfeigned purpose of this legislation: to protect the perpetrators, and more specifically, British armed forces, who have faced inquests and investigations into the murder of civilians during The Troubles.

The 2023 Act brings an end to investigations into Troubles-related incidents, blocking new civil claims, closing inquests, and preventing further police investigations.

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More than 3,500 people were killed during the 30-year conflict, and 3,000 of those killings remain unsolved.

The main plank of the Act is a conditional amnesty for British security forces and paramilitaries for crimes they committed during the conflict.

Through the Independent Commission for Reconciliation, established under the Legacy Act, immunity must be granted if the commission believes the applicant for immunity has provided a truthful account to the best of their recollection – a process so inherently flawed, as highlighted by Judge Colton, that it is a wonder the Government and those who have subsequently attached their names to the commission ever thought it could stand.

Justice Colton concluded: “Immunity from prosecution provisions under section 19 of the (Northern Ireland Troubles) Act are in breach of the lead applicant’s rights pursuant to Article 2 of the ECHR. I am also satisfied that they are in breach of Article 3 of the ECHR”.

The judge also declared that the immunity provisions were incompatible with the Windsor Framework agreement and added that “there is no evidence that the granting of immunity under the Act will in any way contribute to reconciliation in Northern Ireland. Indeed, the evidence is to the contrary”.

Judge Colton spent more than two hours reading the 200-page judgment which shredded the foundations of the flawed legislation. Despite this evidential ruling, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton Harris said that the Government “remains committed” to the implementation of the Legacy Act.

In bringing an end to inquests and investigations, the Government has sought to block access to justice for victims and survivors. Despite legal challenges, implementation of the Legacy Act is already having an effect.

The daughter of Patrick ‘Patsy’ Duffy – an IRA man who was shot 14 times by undercover soldiers in Derry in 1978 in what is believed to be the first shoot to kill killing – has been informed that the 2019 inquest into her father’s death will not continue.

Despite the severity and the scale of the killing across the region, the Ministry of Defence has just one person working on all Northern Ireland inquests, regardless of the deadline of 1 May this year set by the new legacy laws.

There are 28 legacy inquests currently in the judicial system assigned to either a judge or coroner. The majority of these inquests are unlikely to be concluded before 1 May.

It is widely expected that the UK Government will lodge an appeal to the High Court ruling, forcing the families who mounted this group legal challenge to face more lengthy legal proceedings.

Many consider this to be a political tactic – the longer this can be dragged through the courts, the more victims and campaigners will die before they have a chance to uncover the truth of what happened to their loved one.


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Paddy Cassidy, Brid Kane, Jackie Nicholl, and Thomas McConville spent their lives seeking truth and justice, but ultimately passed away without ever having seen either.

Labour’s Shadow Northern Ireland Hilary Benn has said his party would repeal the Act and return to the principles of the Stormont House Agreement if they get the keys to Number 10 after the next election.

Stormont House was a multi-party agreement between the UK and Irish Government in 2014 which sought to address the legacy of the conflict. It was never fully implemented, and the UK’s subsequent Legacy Act is a unilateral departure from Stormont House.

As a result, the Irish Government has launched an interstate case against the UK at the European Court of Human Rights – only the second time that Dublin has taken the UK to court and the first such instance in more than 50 years.

Given the High Court judgement last week, the outcome of the interstate case appears fairly obvious. What is less obvious is why the Conservatives would continue on this legally-damned and morally repugnant path.

The Legacy Act is likely to be ripped up, whether through a future Labour government or the multitude of court cases – so why put victims and survivors through this ordeal? That’s a question that should haunt the Government.

If the Conservatives possessed any semblance of empathy, they would repeal the Act.

Emma DeSouza is an Irish writer, commentator and campaigner

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