The Troubles Legacy Act Must Be Repealed
It is difficult to keep track of the numerous political controversies currently occurring in British politics. Recent controversies include the scrapping of the Northern leg of HS2, the Prime Minister’s watering down of net-zero commitments, and the Rwanda plan, amongst others.
These issues have dominated media headlines in recent weeks and months. However, the passing of the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Conciliation) Act in September received minimal attention from the British media. Yet, this new law is perhaps one of the most contentious pieces of legislation to be passed in recent years.
The Act’s stated purpose is “to address the legacy of the Northern Ireland Troubles”. During the period, Northern Ireland experienced a violent sectarian conflict. This involved conflict between republicans who aimed to unite Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland, and unionists who preferred Northern Ireland to remain part of the U.K. The British Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary were also involved in the conflict against the republicans. The conflict ended in 1998 with the passing of the Good Friday Agreement.
The conflict took the lives of over 3,000 people, with over 1,000 of these deaths remaining unsolved today. Consequently, many people have never faced justice for crimes they committed, and families and friends of victims continue to suffer.
The key part of the new law states that no new criminal investigations into crimes committed as part of the conflict can occur, and all current investigations must end. A new commission will be created to make future judgments.
Cases can be opened by the new commission to investigate some crimes. However, the new commission will not conduct criminal investigations, rather it will seek information about particular cases. Moreover, the commission can grant immunity from prosecution to individuals who come forward and admit to their actions. This means that if an individual admits to killing somebody during this period, and if they fully cooperate with the commission’s investigation, they will never be prosecuted for their crimes in a criminal court.
This law applies to all those involved in the conflict, including IRA members and British Army soldiers. The British government claims this legislation is necessary to “close the book” on the conflict and consolidate peace. However, a more adequate explanation is likely that many Conservative MPs are uncomfortable with British soldiers potentially being prosecuted, such as those who participated in the Bloody Sunday killings of unarmed Catholic civilians.
The Act has faced widespread opposition. It is quite challenging to unite all the Northern Irish communities. However, opposition has occurred from across the political spectrum, including from the nationalist Sinn Fein and the unionist DUP, alongside all other Stormont parties. Moreover, most Westminster parties oppose the law. Victims groups and human rights charities (such as Amnesty International) have also criticised the Act.
It is right for these groups to oppose the new legislation since the law has several fundamental problems.
As many charities and Troubles victims groups have noted, many people will never receive justice for the murder of people they knew. Of course, most victims’ families and friends will want unsolved cases to be solved so that they can have some closure. However, by awarding murderers immunity from prosecution, rather than administering punishment, their suffering will not be alleviated. Rather, many are likely to suffer more by knowing that those who took the lives of their loved ones can live their lives without punishment.
On a different point, the Act also creates a two-tier justice system in which crimes during the Troubles are not treated to similar crimes outside of this period. This makes the law incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) on several different accounts, including a violation of Article 6 which states that citizens have a right to a fair trial. This will lead to future legal challenges in the courts. This may also explain why the Conservative government is seeking to withdraw from the ECHR.
On a final point, the Act could set a dangerous global precedent. If the British government can pass a law that makes British soldiers immune from future prosecutions, other states may choose to pass similar laws to protect their soldiers. This could encourage state-sanctioned war crimes and provide sanctuary from prosecution to criminals who committed the most serious crimes.
The Troubles Legacy Act is one of the most controversial laws the British government has passed in recent years. Media coverage of the law remains sparse, but it is essential that the British public are made aware of it and its consequences. The Act must be repealed, and new alternative ways to achieve justice for the victims of the Troubles must be sought.