Proposed changes to a controversial Government Bill on the legacy of the Northern Ireland Troubles are not about covering up state wrongdoing, a minister has insisted.
Lord Caine, the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) minister who tabled the amendments, acknowledged the draft legislation was “very challenging” for victims of the conflict but he urged them to give the proposals “fair wind”.
The Bill has proved highly contentious, with victims’ groups, all of the main Stormont parties and the Irish government all opposed to it.
Lord Caine came to the defence of the Bill as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar reiterated his criticism as he said the amendments “don’t go far enough”.
One of the most controversial aspects of the new legal framework is the offer of immunity from prosecution for perpetrators who co-operate with the commission.
The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill would also halt future civil cases and inquests linked to killings during the conflict.
An earlier draft of the legislation would have allowed any inquest that had commenced with a substantive hearing prior to May this year to proceed to conclusion.
One of the amendments brought forward by Lord Caine changes this provision, with all ongoing inquests, other than those at the point of verdict, to cease on May 1 2024.
The NIO minister said the uncompleted inquests would be transferred to the new Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR), which will be led by former Northern Ireland Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan.
“Families ought to have every confidence that there’ll be a seamless transition from the current inquest process to these cases being dealt with by the new body,” the peer told the PA news agency.
“And I think it’s important to know that the purpose of the body is essentially to do the same, produce the same results, in a slightly different way, not in an identical way, but to produce the same result as an inquest would, which is to establish the facts of what happened in a particular case.”
“We are in the business of trying to get more answers, more information to those families that want them.
“And I’m perfectly sure that in the course of doing this there’ll be things that come out from the commission’s investigations which will be embarrassing to the British state, just as there will be things that come out that will be embarrassing to others. So, I’m totally prepared for that.”
The Bill is currently at its report stage in the House of Lords before its return to the House of Commons. The Government is hoping the final legislation will be passed by the end of the summer.
Other amendments tabled by Lord Caine include clarification that the commission will have the powers to carry out full criminal investigations, in instances where perpetrators do not gain immunity for co-operation.
Anyone who is convicted in such circumstances would also not benefit from the early release provisions included in the Good Friday Agreement.
A fine for non-compliance with the commission has been increased from £1,000 to £5,000 and anyone found guilty of misleading the truth recovery body can been prosecuted and face a potential two-year jail sentence.
Another amendment places the commission under a new duty to rigorously test the veracity of the accounts of anyone applying for immunity. Immunity would also be revoked if the recipient is subsequently convicted of a terrorism offence.
Further amendments would place the ICRIR under a duty to offer victims and their families the opportunity to submit personal impact statements and put an obligation upon the ICRIR to ensure its examinations of historical cases are compliant with human rights laws.
Lord Caine defended the Bill’s contentious immunity provision, insisting it was only offered in limited and specific circumstances.
“I completely understand the difficulties around this concept,” he said.
“It really comes back to what can we realistically deliver, which is greater information about what happened in Troubles-related cases to families, victims and survivors. How do you encourage people to co-operate – it is by offering some kind of an incentive and therefore conditional immunity.”
“It is one of the few things that all five major parties in Northern Ireland are united on, that they don’t think this is the right approach to have a de facto amnesty, not just for former Army personnel but also for former terrorists,” he said.
“I don’t agree with that approach and while there have been some amendments put forward, they don’t go far enough, they don’t fundamentally change the fact that any response to legacy has to be victim centred and victim orientated.
“To take away the possibility of justice from those families, even if it is remote, is wrong in my view.”
Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International UK’s Northern Ireland deputy director, said the Bill could not be fixed.
“The UK Government needs to drop the pretence that these amendments are about addressing victims’ concerns,” she said.
“In fact, amendments such as those on inquests significantly worsen the situation for victims.
“To end inquests already under way that have not reached their stage of verdict by the beginning of May 2024 is another devastating blow for victims.
“Let’s be clear, this remains a Bill that will deny truth and justice.”